Bicycles have come a long way since the first wooden bikes were created in the 1800s. Bikes went from being a novelty for the rich to a common form of transportation. They also went from being crash-prone and uncomfortable to easy to ride and stop. Along the way, the major worldwide sport of cycling emerged.
The first rudimentary bikes were designed in Europe during the 19th century. Called swiftwalkers, these bicycles were made of wood. The first pedal cycle was created in 1839 in Scotland. Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan designed a bicycle that he could ride 140 miles with an average speed of 8 mph. Another version of the pedal bicycle called the velocipede was introduced in Paris in 1861. These were popular -- by 1865, inventors Pierre and Ernest Michaux were producing 400 annually. Though popular, the bike was uncomfortable and commonly called the boneshaker. England’s Coventry Sewing Machine Company created a metal-frame bicycle with a large front wheel and a small rear wheel featuring solid rubber tires in 1870. It was referred to as the high-wheeler or penny-farthing. Despite the fact that it was prone to accidents, it also was popular. The first chain-driven bike was introduced in 1874 by H.J. Lawson. It was easier to stop and more stable than the high-wheeler. However, it was criticized because riders ended up with muddy feet because the pedals were so low to the ground. Further adaptations to the bike frame in 1885 by John K. Starley addressed this problem. In 1888, J.B. Dunlop added air-filled tires to bicycles, making them faster and more comfortable. By 1893, bikes had become an efficient and easy-to-use mode of transportation, says “Cycling Britian” author Etain O'Carroll.
The first cycling race recorded in history was held in June 1868 in England at Hendon, Middlesex. By 1893, there was a world championship race, and in 1896, cycling was added to the Olympic Games. The Tour de France was introduced in 1903. Some 60 riders rode about 1,553 miles, or 2,500 km, over a 19-day time frame. The idea behind the race was not to promote the sport of cycling but to increase sales of L'Auto newspaper. It worked, with the paper destroying its rival, Le Velo. The race was marred by poor behavior and cheating. The Tour, considered the pinnacle of road racing, has continued to have its share of controversies over the years, such as the 1998 doping scandal. The route also has evolved. In 2010, the race was 2,263 miles, or 3,642 km, and made up of one prologue, or time trial, and 20 stages. Other races followed the Tour de France. For example, the Tour of Britain was introduced in 1951.
Road cycling is a professional sport with competitors who represent national teams at annual world championship races and the Olympics as well as sponsored trade teams, whose members often are on national teams. At the international level, Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, is the governing body for the sport. National, collegiate and state organizations also oversee and organize races. The shortest races are prologues, or time trials for individuals, which usually are held as tour or stage races commence. The prologues for the Olympics and world championship races, for example, are 40 km, or about 25 miles. Prominent single-day races include the Paris-Roubaix World Championship and the Olympic Games road race. Stage races include the 1,307-km, or about 812-mile, Paris-Nice race, which consists of eight stages. Stage races typically take four to 10 days to complete. The other category of road races is major tours, such as the Tour de France, which take 21 to 22 days to complete.
Road bike innovations have been vast since the sport’s early days. Suspension forks, suspension frames, multiple gearing, better aerodynamic design for bikes, gear-like helmets and lightweight materials like carbon fiber make the modern road bike easier to power. Throughout the history of cycling, and especially since the 1980s, there’s been a conflict between new innovation and the rules of road racing. This led the UCI to draft the Lugano Charter in 1996, which sets forth technical regulations for the sport of cycling. The idea was to place riders on equal footing so racers compete against each other, not technology, according to the UCI.