The safety bicycle

The safety bicycle, or what most people think of simply as a bicycle, is one of the most thoroughly discussed aspects of bicycle history. I have over half a dozen books that discuss its development in great detail. More books continue to be written, and it appears that there is still more to be said on the subject. Given the sheer amount of information available, I am barely going to scratch the surface here.

 

The high-wheel clearly was not safe, although its danger was part of its appeal. Still, some bicycle designers were interested in making a safer bicycle and came up with a number of different designs. Unlike modern bicycles, the earliest safety bicycle still did not have equally sized wheels, although they were much closer in size than a high-wheels two wheels. None of these early designs were as elegant as the high-wheel, but they demonstrate the experimentation that occurred on the way to modern bicycles.

In 1885, British cycling manufacturers debuted the first “diamond frame” bicycles. Of course, as Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing showed in Bicycle Deisgn: An Illustrated History, they are not truly diamond shaped, but it’s fairly clear why we call them that. These bicycles still did not have equally sized wheels, but it did not take long for manufacturers to make this change. Unlike the high-wheel and the velocipede, these bicycles are rear-driven. Rear-driven bicycles typically are chain driven.

 

1894-Silver-KIng-05
“King of Scorchers,” c. 1894. Via oldbike.eu

 

Proponents of the high-wheel did not immediately adopt the safety bicycle, which some men thought unmasculine. As David V. Herlihy described in Bicycle, when safety bicycle technology improved it became apparent that the high-wheel’s heyday was coming to a close. One of the most important improvements was the pneumatic tire, which increased both comfort and speed. As racers found that they could ride faster on the safety bicycle than on the high-wheel, they quickly switched over. By the early 1890s, the safety bicycle had become the norm. The height of the bicycle boom occurred between 1895 and 1897, but bicycling culture was important throughout the 1890s.

 

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Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu

 

The safety bicycle was also better adapted for use by women, although riding a diamond frame in long skirts was not exactly feasible. Drop-frame (or step through) bicycles made it possible for women to give up their tricycles in favor of less cumbersome bicycles. The first drop-frame bicycles designed particularly for women were introduced in both Britain and the United States in 1887. Interestingly, many American women adopted the bicycle before their British counterparts, some of whom continued to ride tricycles into the 1890s.

In 1889, the first mass-produced women’s bicycle, known as the Pscyho ladies’ bicycle (yes, that’s its real name), was introduced in Britain and soon imported to the United States. The drop-frame bicycle, like the tricycle, made it possible for women to ride in conventional clothing. However, it was not without flaws. For one thing, drop-frame bicycles were heavier and had less structural integrity. In addition, women’s skirts were still a hazard, so the bicycles tended to be equipped with a chain guard, a skirt guard, and fenders. All of these accouterments made them even heavier.

Some people probably thought women’s heavier bicycles were for the best, it was frowned upon for women to ride too quickly (known as scorching). Even a heavy bicycle was less cumbersome than a tricycle– and less expensive, and women took to it in scores. There are no precise numbers, but Ross Petty estimated that by 1896 there were between 1.3 and 3.25 million women riding bicycles in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. David V. Herlihy wrote that women purchased about one third of bicycles in the United States. So, women were a significant percentage of the market in the 1890s.

 

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Marshall “Major” Taylor, c. 1900.

 

Women faced obstacles to becoming bicyclists, but it was easier for Anglo women of means to be accepted than it was for black cyclists such as the bicycle champion Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor. Major Taylor was not allowed to race against white cyclists in the Southern United states. In 1892,  The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) stated that men of all races could join, but in 1894 black individuals were banned from joining, partially due to pressure from southern members. This topic, like the topic of gender in bicycling, is too important to be addressed in one paragraph (or one post). Jesse Gant’s post “Whites on Bikes” addresses racial exclusivity during the nineteenth century, although of course racism continues to be an issue in modern bicycling.

 

 

How “lady cyclists” dressed for tricycling

 

Bicycling, c. 1887
Bicycling / Hy Sandham; aquarelle print by L. Prang & Co., 1887. Library of Congress.

 

When women took up tricycling in the 1880s, the first question asked tended to be, “What should I wear?” Both men’s and women’s clothing during the 19th century was much more structured than most of the clothing we wear today. But at least men were able to wear pants. Women had to find a way to dress that looked appropriate (i.e. modest and fashionable), but was not hazardous.

 

walking dress c 1882 DT247641
Walking dress, circa 1882. Women rode in dresses similar to this one. Metropolitan Museum of Art, DT247641.

 

Women who could afford to own tricycles were women of means, so they were able to afford specialized clothing for cycling.  For women who had different dresses for walking, taking tea, and dinner, it would have made sense to have a different dress for tricycling as well. Granted, specialized cycling clothing in the 1880s did not look terribly different from other types of women’s dress. Unfortunately, I have not found any existing tricycling dresses, although it is possible some exist but no one knows they were used for tricycling.

 

 

Starting in seventeenth century, wealthy British women dressed in tailored woolen riding habits for riding horses.  Riding habits were designed for women to ride side-saddle, and were designed with asymmetrical skirts that looked better on the horse than off the horse. Women were expected to change clothes before and after riding.

 

 

Fashionable women’s dress in the 1880s was cumbersome and in no way designed for athletic endeavors. Earlier in the decade, women’s dresses typically had a long, tight bodice with the volume gathered at the back of the skirt in a low bustle. Later on, the bustle, which is a device that thrusts the back of the skirt out, increased in volume. Women did not necessarily wear bustles with all of their clothing, and very large bustles were worn only for formal affairs.Tricycling costumes appear to have had either no bustle or a very small bustle that did not interfere with a seat or saddle.

For tricycling, women tended to wear tailored wool garments that shared some similarities with riding habits. While we we would probably look at tailored garments and find them quite “feminine,” they adapted traits from men’s garments. Their silhouettes tended to be simplified and they made it possible, if not exactly comfortable, for women to be more active.

Women’s clothing choices were considered to be very important to convince the public that it was acceptable for women to ride tricycles at all. Overall, neutral colors were recommended for tricycling costumes, as they were less likely to show dirt. Even more importantly, neutral colors drew less attention to a woman on a tricycle, or at least made her look more serious.

 

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Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model quadracycle for two. The South Portico of the White House, Washington, D.C., in the background. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Writers recommended a range of styles women could choose from, but in general women wore a wool jacket with a matching wool skirt, which could be pleated (a common feature in fashionable every dress) or plain (more like a riding habit). Skirts, of course, were problematic because skirts that were too wide or long could get caught in the machine. Skirts that were too narrow or short were also a problem because they could show too much of a rider’s legs. Even the motion of a woman’s knees showing through her skirts was frowned upon.

One of the most discussed issues of women’s tricycling dress related to undergarments, which could not even be seen. Starting in the 1870s, women had begun wearing narrow trousers under riding habits. These trousers could not be seen underneath skirts and allowed women to ride without petticoats.

Some writers thought that women should also adopt knickerbockers (narrow knee-length trousers) or ordinary trousers for tricycling. Trousers were in danger of showing, but knickerbockers would have been difficult to see unless they showed through the skirt.

Others, however, were vehemently opposed to women wearing any form of pants under their skirts, arguing that it was masculine. Additionally, they meant that women would have to change clothes before and after riding if one were riding to a destination where appearance mattered. Perhaps the biggest issue was that advocates of tricycling were afraid that women would be less likely to cycle if they had to put on pants to do so.

Tricycling was a sport practiced by wealthy women who mostly likely were well-known in upper-class social circles. As cycling was still a questionable activity for women, they needed to convince others that one could ride a tricycle– even for long distances– and still be feminine. So writing about what to wear became a central way that early advocates tried to draw other women in (and convince their fathers or husbands that they should be allowed to cycle). Tricycling dress was used to demonstrate that cycling had become a socially acceptable sport for women.

 

 

 

 

Ladies don’t “scorch”

From the Norman Batho Collection, thewheelman.org
From the Norman Batho Collection, thewheelman.org

Even disregarding my appalling spandex and the mysterious plastic and foam object on my head,  I bike in a way that would have horrified most late-nineteenth century lady cyclists. They would have looked askance at how I tend to hunch over my handlebars and called me a “scorcher” as they shook their heads. Many people disapproved of men scorching, but it was generally considered completely unacceptable for women to hunch over their handlebars.

During the 1880s and 1890s, men’s bicycles tended to have lower handlebars than women’s.  Racing bikes, which were generally men’s bicycles, had particularly low bars, known as drop bars, which are still used today. Some women, even those who did not race, no doubt preferred to lean over their handlebars for increased speed and wind resistance, but they were roundly criticized. Fast riding was for men who rode seriously, while a woman was meant to ride in a stately manner at all times. Of course, some women did race bicycles and preferred drop bars, but racing for women was largely discouraged.

Women riding bicycles, circa late 1880s to to circa early 1890s, Courtesy of freewebs.com
Women riding bicycles, circa late 1880s to to circa early 1890s, Note their posture, Courtesy of freewebs.com

Women who rode tricycles and bicycles were encouraged to sit up straight. For women, good posture was associated with appearing feminine and elegant while cycling.  In 1898, one writer wrote in the British magazine The Wheelwoman:

We are sorry. . . to notice an increase in the number of wheelwomen who ride with a pronounced bicycle stoop. This is a matter for regret, not merely because it is fatal to dignity and good looks, but because it indicates a desire of the part of a few woman to use the bicycle for speed, which is likely to turn it from an instrument of health to a means of peril.

That is, it was not only unappealing, it was bad for women’s health to exert themselves too much!

At least today, women are not as likely to be criticized for riding fast and even racing, although women’s racing does not receive nearly as much attention as men’s. Still, it is generally understood that the most “feminine” way to ride is in a dress while sitting up very straight. I am a bit conflicted about this as I sometimes ride in dresses because sometimes I am riding dressed up for my destination.

My nine speed Chelsea District, which allows me to get a better view of the city
My nine speed Chelsea District, which allows me to get a better view of the city

Up until quite recently, I didn’t have a bike that was really meant to be ridden while wearing a skirt, and my only women specific bike was a hardtail mountain bike, which I use for riding trails almost exclusively. Then suddenly, I acquired a Trek Chelsea District*, which has a mixte frame. Public Bikes offers a handy guide on different frame types. Both men and women can and do ride mixte frames, but mine is sold as a women’s specific design, so it is designed to better fit women’s proportions (more on women’s specific design in a future post).

Both of my other commuter bikes (a Salsa Casseroll and Trek Earl) have a more aggressive geometry, which means the bike has lower handlebars. Neither bikes are in any way meant for racing, but they are a bit more aerodynamic than the Chelsea. I never had much interest in a women specific city bike. Really, it is my husband’s fault for getting a similar bike for his very short commute and then deciding that I should have one too.

As it turns out, though, the Chelsea is an excellent city bike. It has a basket with a place to hang a U-lock! I sit up straight so it is easier on my back. Also, I can sit up and look around much more easily, making cityscapes quite enjoyable. Now, I have no intention of giving up on other types of bikes, but there is something pleasant about riding upright on occasion, as it turns out. However, I prefer to think of myself as stately– a gender neutral term– rather than lady-like.

*Full disclosure: My brother-in-law works for Trek, but I have no affiliation to Trek and this bike was purchased at a local bike shop.

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.

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.

Bicycles and bustles

While there are still not many sources for functional, relatively fashionable clothing for women who bike, I’m generally quite relieved that I am not trying to bike in the nineteenth century. While things did get a bit better by the 1890s, the first women to ride bicycles in 1868 had to find something new to wear.

Morning Dress, circa 1870, Met Museum
Morning dress, circa 1870,  Met Museum

Even though the vast majority of velocipedists were men, there was very little written about what men should wear– short of suggestions that men might want to clip their trousers. When it came to the idea of women riding velocipedes, one obstacle was their dress. Women’s clothing in the late 1860s was in no way functional for bicycling– or for anything, really. Women’s skirts were the biggest hindrance. At this time, skirts were beginning to move away from the “hoop skirt” (think: Gone with the Wind), but they weren’t exactly shrinking in all dimensions. The above example is quite moderate for the time period, as it was a costume meant to be worn early in the day. The volume was becoming concentrated at the back in the form of a bustle and would eventually begin to resemble a shelf, which made sitting quite challenging. Additionally,  even if women rode tricycle velocipedes, long skirts were impossible. So, what exactly could a velocipedienne wear if she were daring enough to ride in public?

What to wear depended largely on where a woman would be cycling and who would be there to observe. A woman riding in single-sex gymnasium or in a private garden had more leeway than a “respectable” woman who wanted to ride in public. Some women rode for exercise, while many others rode as a form of titillating performance. Performers were not subject to the same rules of propriety.

Amelia Bloomer, proponent of a new style, Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
Amelia Bloomer, proponent of a new style, Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

Women riding in private could don a type of reform dress known as bloomers, which were very full, usually ankle-length pants inspired by Turkish clothing. They were first worn in public around 1850 in order to promote healthier women’s clothing, but the women who did so often were ridiculed. So, there was some precedence for women to wear adapted clothing. Nearly twenty years later, bloomers had not been forgotten and writers discussing what women could wear for the velocipede often suggested bloomers of some kind. On January 9, 1869 in Scientific American, one writer recommended “a shorter dress, with flowing pants,” for women to wear while riding in the park.

Image from Illustrated Western World, March 13, 1869, Courtesy of Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
Image from Illustrated Western World, March 13, 1869, Courtesy of Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

The “Velocipede Belle” from Illustrated Western World shows the kind of costume that women could wear, although the costume illustrated would have been quite risqué given how much of her lower body is visible. I’m not sure that her bloomers quite qualify as “flowing,” but that is a rather subjective term.  The velocipede belle’s costume certainly appears to be inspired by both the 1850s bloomer, although they are shorter, and late-1860s fashions. The style of her skirt follows the general silhouette of the period, including more volume at the back than at the front, with the bow bringing additional volume to the almost-bustle. The ruffled details are similar to the costume from the Met Museum. Photographic evidence suggests that the illustration is a fairly accurate representation of what women would have worn. The significance of a woman riding in public while being pursued by two men is a separate issue entirely.

Black (first name unknown), a trick-rider on her velocipede, circa 1869. Carte de Visite Courtesy of the Collection of Lorne Shields
Black (first name unknown), a trick-rider on her velocipede, circa 1869. Carte de Visite Courtesy of the Collection of Lorne Shields

The above carte de visite is a rare example of a woman photographed on a velocipede. The subject– a trick rider– is clad in a fashionable jacket and a shortened skirt over bloomers. It is difficult to tell, but it appears that the bloomers are cuffed in a material that matches the skirt. Neither of the figures are wearing true bustles, but both costumes have more volume at the back than at the front of sides. Note that in both examples the figures show very little skin. They wear gloves and hats and have high collars. Still, their appearance would have not been acceptable everyday dress, even if their costumes appear very modest by twenty-first century standards.

A brief history of the velocipede

Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 By tetedelacourse (Velocipede Michaux-1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 
Early bicycles– often known as velocipedes– first became popular in Paris in 1867. Who exactly invented the bicycle remains contested territory, but a carriage maker named Pierre Michaux worked with three brothers named Marius, Aimé, and René Olivier to sell velocipedes. They were the first to have commercial success. Velocipedes are recognizable as bicycles, and were sometimes called such as early as 1868. However, they are quite cumbersome compared to modern bicycles. Today, most bicycles are rear-driven, with the pedals and cranks driven by a chain. Like modern bicycles, the velocipede had two equally sized wheels, but the pedals were attached to the axis of the front wheel, which meant that the cyclist’s legs stretched out in front, which was an awkward riding position at best.1

The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper's Weekly
The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly

The velocipede was heavy, difficult to ride, and prohibitively expensive. In March 1869 in The Velocipedist Earnest Travers de Vere wrote that, while getting on a velocipede was not difficult: “To stay on is a labor of genius.”2  Velocipedes were made of iron and had wooden wheels like a wagon wheel, plus iron tires. Because they were so uncomfortable to ride, the British referred to them as “Boneshakers.” The cost of purchasing a velocipede meant that very few people could afford to own them. In the United States, for example, a velocipede cost between $75 to $100 ($1300 to $1700 in 2014), when a weekly income of $10 was more than adequate pay. Many of the first velocipedists were wealthy young Frenchmen with noble titles.

Velocipedes became a fad Western Europe and the United States, starting in France. In Paris, newly paved streets helped make way for the velocipede, with young men riding together at the popular park the Bois de Boulogne. Velocipedists formed clubs and public races became a popular diversion. Similar races also took place in Britain.

The first velocipedes arrived in the United States in late 1868.  Indoor rinks and schools opened up, with the teachers often having barely more experience riding than the students. There were schools everywhere from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, and even small towns opened up velocipede rinks. Students could rent velocipedes, which made learning to ride less exclusive. The rinks were often in small spaces on the upper floor of a building, which could be hazardous as novice cyclists crashed through windows. In the United States, most people rode indoors, as road conditions were quite poor. Those who rode outside often used sidewalks, which did nothing to help their popularity with non-cyclists.

Women's velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.
Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

Bicycling was considered to be a masculine sport from the very beginning. For one thing, it was dangerous, for another women did not have as much social latitude as men and were not encouraged to be independent. Yet, a few brave women wanted to ride velocipedes anyway. Many women rode velocipedes with three wheels and/or a drop frame that they could mount more easily. One woman from Georgia who wrote into Scientific American was concerned with the propriety of riding astride and suggested a side-saddle machine.3

Velocipediennes, or female velocipedists, first rode in France. Who were these women? It is unlikely that the first women were themselves aristocrats, as such an activity would have been considered utterly inappropriate. Instead, given the cost of velocipedes, I believe that the the first women to ride were courtesans or mistresses to wealthy male patrons. For example, two courtesans Cora Pearl and Blanche d’Antigny both were known to ride velocipedes.

Many women who rode did so as a kind of performance, which meant they were outside of the rules that applied to middle and upper-class women. Women began to take part in races in France in 1868. Women raced in Bordeaux, France and in the Hippodrome (a wooden stadium that seated 15,000) in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. These races became quite popular. After all, riding a velocipede required much scantier clothing than women ordinarily wore. The women who performed on velocipedes were quite risque’. Some women who attempted to race were not skilled riders, but others were accomplished athletes.

In the United States, some women, such as Edith Shuler of Chicago and Carrie Moore (The “Velocipede Queen”) became skilled cyclists and performed for audiences,  sometimes even giving lessons to other women. Although velocipediennes were strongly associated with performance, some American women wanted to ride for exercise– and perhaps also to gain some freedom.  Private schools gave women the opportunity to learn away from the prying eyes of men. The velocipede did not have any long term effects on women’s independence, but it provided at least a few women with some personal freedom.

Footnotes

1 See: Bicycle by David Herlihy and Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. Herlihy’s book and primary sources I found in my research informed the majority of this post..
2 The Velocipedist may have been the first American bicycling magazine. I was able to study the first issue at the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum.
3 Her letter was published January 30, 1869.