Selling bicycles or women?

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

Companies have long used images of scantily clad, naked or simply strangely posed women to sell products, and the bicycling industry is no exception. Recently, the bicycle company Colnago has been criticized for images featuring women posed next to high-end bicycles posed in strange positions wearing impractical clothing. Colnago has since apologized, although it is yet to be seen whether the apology will lead to any meaningful change in their advertising.The advertisement has gotten enough attention that Bicycling Magazine and Cycling Weekly have both posted articles criticizing Colnago.

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

In the 1890s, bicycling companies– particularly French bicycling companies according to one source— sometimes uses illustrations of nude women to sell bikes, although “sexy” images of women on bicycles dates back much earlier. Earlier this year, Aaron Cripps briefly addressed the history of objectifying women in cycling advertisements starting in the 1890s on his blog Cycling History.

Bicycle poster, circa 1895. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Bicycle poster, circa 1895. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Advertisements in the 1890s often included illustrations of naked or nearly-naked who accompanied bicycles in impossible positions. For example, the figure in the Cycles Gladiator poster is flying along with the bicycle rather than actually riding it. The wings on the bicycle reference Hermes, the messenger god, who wore winged sandals, as does the nude figure who is meant to be an idealized archetype of a Woman, rather than any particular individual.

Advertisement for Bicyclettes Terrot shows a different ideal. Lucien Baylac, via Wikimedia Commons
Advertisement for Bicyclettes Terrot shows a different ideal. Lucien Baylac, via Wikimedia Commons

Although there were many advertisements during this period that were aimed at women, these certainly were not. The nude figures tend to be seen with men’s diamond frame bicycles, rather than the type of bicycle most women actually rode at this time. As the art historian T. J. Clark wrote in The Painting of Modern Life: “A nude, to repeat, is a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else’s desire.” Her main purpose is to be desirable.

Jean de Paleologu via Wikimedia Commons
Jean de Paleologu via Wikimedia Commons

In the case of some of the posters one could make the argument that they are art– or at least that there is artistry and imagination in their creation. Granted, if the artists were alive today I might be tempted to comment on the unlikelihood of flying next to a bicycle naked or standing on the saddle while dressed in gossamer fabric, but I don’t think they were trying to be all that literal. The French posters may have been referencing Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic who is a form of Lady Liberty. The images imply that riding a bicycle is liberating, while also providing an excuse to display a nude figure.

So what exactly is the problem with companies using sexualized images of women now? The women are actually wearing more clothes than their 19th century counterparts and it can hardly be argued that models are generally a realistic representation of how people look everyday. It’s also safe to say that women in the nineteenth century often weren’t taken seriously as human beings– if they even were considered human beings– and that replicating nineteenth century ideas is probably not the most forward thinking thing to do.

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

For me, and apparently for other cyclists as well, the advertisements are so infuriating because they suggest that women aren’t serious cyclists and shouldn’t be taken seriously as potential bike customers. Instead, they imply that the company believes they will sell more bikes if they put them next to attractive women, as if the purchase of a bike includes (at no extra cost!) an attractive woman. As if it were common to ride a road bike while high-heels or socks. It’s fairly clear that these are not some kind of innovative clip-less compatible socks, as we can see that there are no cleats on the bottom of her feet.

The issue isn’t what individual women choose to ride in. The images feature models who are posing, not candid shots of women with their own bikes. If a woman wants to attempt to ride in heels, well, that seems like an uncomfortable choice, but I am sure it has been done (although most likely not too often on a bike like that). Other bike companies manage to have advertisements that show women actually riding bikes, or fixing their own bikes. I regularly see women riding in everything from mini-skirts to commuter pants to cycling kits. But you know what I have never seen once in real life? A woman standing next to a bike with her butt in the air while she glances over her shoulder while dressed in socks.

Advertisements

The forgotten cycle: Tricycling in the 1880s

Starley Royal Salvo similar to those purchased by Queen Victoria. Science Museum via Wikimedia Commons.
Starley Royal Salvo similar to those purchased by Queen Victoria. Science Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

Before the modern bicycle was developed, bicycling manufacturers in the late 1870s went in another direction in an attempt to make a safer cycle: the tricycle. Although, inventors had developed tricycles and quadricycles in the past, they had not been especially successful. The high-wheel tricycle was different.

Unlike the high-wheel,  the tricycle could be enjoyed by both men and women wearing conventional clothing. The tricycle appealed to men who were interested in cycling but were unwilling or unable to ride a high-wheel, and it appealed to women because it was possible for them to ride at all.

By the end of the 1870s, the high-wheel was considered technically perfect and manufacturers became interested in developing tricycles, presumably because they hoped to expand their market. By 1883, there were more tricycles than bicycles on view at London’s Stanley Cycle Show, and there was a period when it seemed like the tricycle would become more popular than the bicycle. The Stanley Show was an annual exhibition where new cycle models could be seen. American magazines like Outing reported on the Stanley Show, so its impact certainly was not limited to Britain.

Plectocycle tricycle, 1884. Courtesy of oldbike.eu.
Plectocycle tricycle, 1884. Courtesy of oldbike.eu.

Depending on one’s perspective there was a downside to tricycles, which is that they were prohibitively expensive. Thus, the tricycle had a great deal of snob appeal to the upper-classes. Queen Victoria purchased a pair of tricycles in 1881, which were to be ridden at her residence on the Isle of Wight. While she most likely to did not ride herself, her support of the tricycle made an important statement. If the Queen supported tricycling, then it must be an acceptable activity for ladies. Initially, at least, it was most acceptable for women to ride on private grounds, which was another thing only the upper-classes were likely to have access to.

Queen Victoria’s daughter Beatrice was known to ride a tricycle. In 1885, the American writer Minna Caroline Smith wrote in Outing: “When we first read that the Princess Beatrice had mounted the three-wheel, our lively interest began.” Beatrice served as a fashionable and appropriate model for women who were interested in tricycling. Reportedly, there were hundreds of British women who had taken to tricycling, and Smith certainly hoped that the sport would become as popular in the United States.

Illustration of two women on a sociable, circa 1886. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration of two women on a sociable, circa 1886. Via Wikimedia Commons.

There were concerns about the propriety of women riding alone, which is where sociables and tandems came in. Sociables, where two riders rode side-by-side were developed first, followed by tandems. Many British and American writers were enthusiastic about the possibility of two-person bicycles, as it allowed a woman to be chaperoned by a man, or, less commonly, for two women to ride together. Some riders thought it was safer for women to ride a machine that a man controlled, as they believed that women did not have the mental capacity to steer. Some women (and some men, as well) scoffed at this idea, of course.

Riding a sociable or a tandem was seen as a positive way for men to share cycling with women, but many people felt that it was an activity that should be kept separate from “masculine” high-wheel rides. It was not simply a matter of speed, either, although high-wheels were somewhat faster, but also an attempt to keep bicycling free from any feminine influence. Writers romanticized the idea of two-person machines and they became associated with courting. However, one writer, Miss F. J. Erskine, commented that most women preferred the independence of steering their own machine.

Women and men were expected to cycle in different ways. It was considered improper, for example, for women to race. Women were supposed to sit upright on their machines and dress in appropriate clothing. Still, women toured on tricycles. However, one woman who attempted to organize a women’s only tour, did not succeed, as women insisted on bringing along their husbands or brothers.

Tricycling provided an opportunity for men and women to engage in a social activity together, often in the form of clubs. Some clubs were exclusive to tricycling and some bicycle clubs welcomed both men and women who rode tricycles into their membership. Tricycling also provided some women with the freedom to move about on their own, as women on horseback (while side-saddle) were able to do. Minna Carolina Smith thought it was just as as acceptable for a woman to cycle alone on a country road as it was for her to ride a horse. Attitudes toward women tricycling show that however much we may imagine absolute gender roles during the 19th century, the meanings of these roles were always up for negotiation.

The high-wheel in the 1870s

Ariel high-wheel, photo by Mike deMille
Ariel high-wheel, photo by Mike deMille

High-wheels were developed when it became apparent that the bigger the front wheel on a velocipede relative to the back wheel, the faster one could ride. Some high-wheels had a front wheel of 60 inches, and a back wheel of only 16. To modern eyes, high-wheel bicycles look like a strange and dangerous invention, which is an accurate but also overly simplified interpretation.

The high-wheel lasted much longer than the velocipede. According to Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History, the first generation of high-wheels was developed in 1869, before the velocipede craze had ended. James Moore, a British racer, started to use French high-wheels in both Britain and France, prompting his competitors to adopt them as well.

However, it was in Britain that the high-wheel, or the bicycle as it was now known, first became popular. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) halted bicycle production in France, making Britain the center of bicycle production. Bicycle racing was central to the high-wheel’s development, as watching races remained popular. Bicycle manufacturers continued to improve the high-wheels design, cutting down its weight, which increased its speed.

The high-wheel was certainly dangerous, but it was also more effective machine than the velocipede. Glen Norcliffe pointed out in The Ride to Modernity, many young men were drawn to the high-wheel at least partially because riding one was a risky endeavor. One of the biggest challenges with the high-wheel was mounting and dismounting. In order to get on, riders often ran along the bicycle to get it moving and then leaped into the saddle. Another option was putting one foot on the step located over the back wheel and pushing against the ground with the other foot before hauling oneself up. Some high-wheels were equipped with spoon breaks or roller breaks, but many preferred to ride without them and simply backpedaled to slow down.

The high-wheel became popular among well-to-do young men in Britain starting around the mid-1870s. Young men formed clubs at Cambridge and Oxford, and bicycle clubs became increasingly common. Clubs, however, were quite exclusive and tended to be open only to relatively wealthy men of a certain class. In 1878, the first high-wheels arrived in the United States in Boston and soon spread to Harvard and then to other Ivy League schools.

During the 1870s, cycling was a highly classed and gendered activity. Men who rode high-wheels often wanted their sport to remain exclusive. Being able to afford a high-wheel, along with club dues, and a uniform indicated that the cyclist belonged to the leisure class, as who else could afford a machine with no real practical purpose? It was also impossible for a woman to ride a high-wheel without cross-dressing or at least adopting dramatically altered garb. Later on, many cycling clubs welcomed women, but at this stage bicycling was in no way democratic.

The importance of having pedals

Pedals are, of course, fundamental to bicycles. There was a bicycle-like invention known as a draisine or a hobby horse invented in 1817. However, bicycle scholars like David V. Herlihy argue that it is not technically a bicycle, as it lacked pedals and cranks. Regardless, with the exception of striders for toddlers, bicycles produced today have pedals. Before I got into bicycling, pedals were not something I had ever thought about. My pedals were always plastic with yellow reflectors. Then I bought a bike that didn’t come with pedals and decided to learn to ride with clipless pedals. The name seems contradictory, as your feet are attached to the pedals, but more on that later. Sheldon Brown and John Allen provide a detailed account of different types of pedals and how they work.

Velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu
Note the pedals on this velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing describe the development of pedals in Bicycle Design. Since the 1860s, there have been many different types of pedals invented. Velocipedists’ pedals were quite different from modern pedals, as riders rested their instep, rather than the ball of their foot, on the pedal.  Flat pedals were first used with the high-wheel bicycle (today it tends to be called a penny farthing). In 1876, rat trap pedals were invented, which look very similar to many modern pedals.

Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s
Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s

By the late 1880s, pedals with toe-clips started to become more common, even on high-wheels. Toe clips kept feet from flying off, which can be dangerous when traveling quickly.  More serious cyclists began to wear special shoes that locked into their pedal along with toe clips. However, it can be difficult to get out of toe clips, particularly if a cyclist uses additional straps. From there, so-called clipless pedals were invented around 1894. Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing write: “Confusingly, at the heart of each and every so-called clipless pedal is a clip. Such pedals are called clipless because they don’t have an external toe clip.” Instead, they have a cleat on the sole of the shoe that locks into a fastener on the pedal. After the 1890s, the clipless pedal mostly disappeared, and until the 1970s serious cyclists used toe clips and straps to keep their feet secure. Bike-advisor.com includes a visual of different types of pedals.

Today, there are a range of different clipless pedals available, but many riders still use toe clips as well. I’ve never ridden with toe clips, but I do usually ride clipless. There are two main categories of clipless pedals: Those designed for mountain biking and those designed for road biking. What is the difference between the two? Mountain bike pedals are typically designed so that they are easier to clip in and out of, as mountain bikers are more likely to have to put a foot down unexpectedly than road cyclists. Mountain bike shoes generally have some some tread on the bottom, which makes it easier to walk, as mountain biking sometimes involves having to walk your bike. Road shoes tend to be very difficult to walk in, as they have a smooth surface with a cleat protruding under the instep. Road pedals have a wider, more stable platform and help improve performance.

Left: Sidi road shoes Right: Bontrager mountain bike pedals at right.
Left: Sidi road shoes                     Right: Bontrager mountain bike shoes at right.

Sheldon Brown explains that clipless pedals work similarly to ski binding. Indeed, the first functional clipless pedals were made by the company Look, which first made skis (my road bike is equipped with Look pedals). Clipless pedals engage with the cleats on the bottom of the cyclist’s shoes, locking the shoes onto the pedals. You clip out of clipless pedals by twisting your heel outward.

John Allen recommends mountain bike pedals for urban cycling, recreational riding, and touring, and you can read his post for information on different types of mountain bike pedals. On my primary bike I use Shimano SPD pedals  which are virtually indestructible. Learning to ride clipless was certainly unnerving, and as a less experienced cyclist, the idea of making it more difficult to put a foot down seemed absurd. The first time I went out for a ride around my neighborhood I forgot to clip out and promptly tipped over. A bit embarrassing, but I was fine. I also had some trouble on steep hills at first, but failure to clip out has never caused me to be more than very slightly injured.

My first clipless pedals were flat on one side and were Shimano SPDs on the other. This type of pedal worked well when I was a beginner who was relying primarily on one bike, as I could wear regular shoes if I wanted to. While one could feasibly ride a short distance with regular shoes and clipless pedals, most clipless pedals have a much smaller surface area, so it is hard to keep your foot from sliding off. The downside of this type of pedal, is that the pedals always seem to end up on the opposite side of where you want them to be.

Eventually I switched to double-sided Shimano SPDs for my touring bike, which meant I always had to wear specialized shoes. Sometimes this is inconvenient because I always have to bring a change of shoes, but I prefer not having to worry about my feet flying off my pedals. Additionally, clipless pedals or toe clips make for more efficient riding. I ended up deciding to write about pedals after getting my fifth (I know) bike recently, which is a bare bones single speed that I ride with platform pedals. As it turns out, as much as I love riding clipless, sometimes it is just simpler to throw on a pair of street shoes, grab my bike, and head out the door.