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The History Of Bicycle Touring

By Darren Alff on - Download my FREE bike tour starter guide!

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Even before the bicycle came to be, there were vehicles of two-wheel design that allowed creative and adventurous individuals to travel long distances under their own human power.

The dandy-horse (also known as the “hobby-horse”) was one such vehicle. It was a simple two-wheeled device that, while invented in the 19th century and shaped very much like today’s modern bicycle, was a creation that was propelled by the rider who pushed his or her feet along the ground, as you would with regular walking or running, in order to move the vehicle forward. As you can imagine, the device worked well on flat land, coasted on the downhills, and required a whole lot of work on uphill stretches of road. But it was this simple design that gave a few brave individuals in the 1820’s the idea of traveling throughout Europe with the help of a lightweight vehicle.

Around the 1870’s a drastic improvement was made in the design of the dandy-horse. Instead of being a vehicle that was pushed by the rider with his or her feet, a set of pedals was added to the front wheel of the vehicle, which allowed the rider to cover longer distances in a shorter period of time. The penny-farthing (or “ordinary”), as it came to be called, was the first popularized bicycle design. It was this strange-looking vehicle, with a large wheel in the front and a small wheel in the back, that prompted the beginning of recreational cycling in Europe and beyond.

By 1878, riding a bicycle for pure enjoyment was well enough established in Britain to lead to the formation of the Bicycle Touring Club, later renamed the Cyclists’ Touring Club, which is still in existence to this day and remains the oldest national tourism organisation in the world.

In the 1880’s, the penny-farthing was replaced by the safety bicycle, which, unlike its predecessor, was designed with two equally-sized wheels and was propelled through a gear attached to the rear hub. Due to the new design of this bicycle, which was considered to be much safer than the penny-farthing, the first incarnation of the modern bicycle was born.

With the birth of the safety also came the start of long-distance bicycle touring. In July of 1896, a man by the name of John Foster Fraser and two close friends set off from their homes in Britain and traveled around the world on their bicycles. They covered approximately 19,237 miles in a period of two years and two months, traveling through seventeen countries and three different continents.

After John Foster Fraser came more adventurous bicycle travelers and it was around this time that bicycle travel (or bicycle touring) truly hit its stride.

While cycling was popular in Britain, it didn’t take long for the trend to follow to America. In May of 1880, The League of American Wheelmen was founded in Newport, Rhode Island. The organization shared an interest in both recreational cycling and the administration of bicycle racing, which was also becoming popular at the time. By 1898, the organization’s membership peaked with more than 100,000 members.

In other parts of Europe, the cycling craze began to spread as well. It was the formation of the British Cyclists’ Touring Club that inspired the Frenchman Paul de Vivie to coin the French word “cyclo-tourisme” and found what later became the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme.

Since the early 1900’s the cycling world has continued to grow, while at the same time it has slowly been dividing itself into numerous sub-sects. Over the past hundred years, for example, bicycles have been used to fight wars, win races, transport goods, commute bodies to and from work, tackle steep mountain terrains, fly into the air, bomb down hills, and yes, even travel around the world.

Today, modern bicycle touring looks a bit different than it did in the 19th century. Modern bicycle travelers are carrying high-tech mapping and communication devices, traveling along established bicycle touring paths, and touring about on high-tech touring-specific bicycles.

At its core, however, bicycle touring has remained pretty much the same from its inception. A bicycle, a rider, and a distant point on the horizon is all it takes to get started. Just mount your trusty steed and start pedaling. After more than 150 years of cycling history, that’s still all it really takes to get yourself started in the wonderful world of bicycle travel!

Photo by Flowizm

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About Darren Alff

My goal as the Bicycle Touring Pro is to give you the confidence and inspiration you need to travel by bicycle anywhere in the world. I do all of the work on this website by myself. Since 2007, all of the articles, books, emails, interviews, photos, podcasts and videos have been created by me in my spare time. Thanks to the generous donations I receive from readers like you, I'm able to focus on creating regular, high-quality content; invest further in developing the website; and cover the costs related to my bicycle touring activities.

0 Comments

  1. Tony

    January 8, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    This is a good brief history of the bicycle, but it misses out the nmost important period of cycle touring evolution.

    Cycle touring really took off and fostered the environment for touring bicycle evolution in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. In the beginning of the ’20’s, Britain (followed by France and others) introduced the 40 hour working week and two weeks paid annual holidays. The automobile was still only affordable by the rich, so everyone now had a chance to ‘get away’ for two weeks every year, and they did so by bike.

    The classic touring/randonneur bicycle evolved to meet the needs of the working man: they coiuld only afford one bike and that had to perform commuting, shopping and light transport duties as well as club competition rides. So the touring bike evolved with drop handlebars and bigger wheels for fast runs, whilst having a sturdier frame and wider tyres to cope with carrying shopping and heavy loads over rough roads.

    In England and France most towns had a framebuilder who would measure you up and build you a tourer. Hence touring bikes evolved over many years in the early 20th century and haven’t changed much today.

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