For the next month the eyes of the sporting world will be on the Tour de France, yet few people know what a significant year this is for the bicycle.
Much to the chagrin of amateur historian Claude Reynaud, the 200th anniversary of the invention of the bicycle is likely to pass by with little pomp or fanfare as millions of pairs of eyes gaze at television screens or from the roadside to watch Chris Froome and his rivals battle for yellow jersey glory.
And yet, the 104th edition of the world’s most prestigious cycle race starts in Dusseldorf on Saturday, in the country where 200 years ago Baron Karl Drais invented the bicycle.
Billions of people use bicycles, many on a daily basis, and yet few are aware of this important milestone.
“No-one is celebrating it because the information is unknown,” complained Reynaud, a viticulturist from the south east of France.
“While the Tour de France starts in Dusseldorf this year, when the Grand Boucle presented its route, no-one evoked the bicentenary — it’s unknown outside of a small circle of initiates.”
Reynaud has fought a 50-year battle to defend the memory of the invention of the bicycle.
He even houses a museum in its honour at his chateau in Domazan, in the Occitanie region of France.
“I could talk about it for hours,” Reynaud said of the history of the bicycle, his gravelly voice almost drowned out by the sound of crickets.
He has written several self-published books on the subject that are sold only at his chateau.
“It’s from passion,” he said of his tireless labours.
Reynaud said it was on June 12, 1817 that “for the first time, a man took a two-wheeler and went on a road” in the Mannheim region of what was then the Grand Duchy of Baden, now part of southwest Germany.
Baron Drais’s “velocipede” (nicknamed the ‘dandy horse’) had no pedals or a chain and required the rider to propel his “Laufmaschine” (running machine) by pushing off the ground with his feet.
But the Baron’s genius was that “he discovered balance on two wheels”, said Reynaud.
“Like all ingenious inventions, it seems obvious, but someone had to think it. He invented the two-wheeler!”
– ‘Ridiculous’ –
However, the running machine was far from a resounding success and had its faults, notably proving difficult to control on bumpy surfaces.
When Drais organised a demonstration of the velocipede at the Jardin de Luxembourg park in Paris in 1818, “it was a disaster”.
“People thought it was ridiculous and made cartoons about it,” said Reynaud, who has included some of those caricatures in his museum.
“At first, it didn’t work, he couldn’t sell it, people made fun of it.”
But the idea had taken root and was soon being copied, particularly in France, although many draisines (as it was known there) were adorned with horses heads.
In 1866, Pierre Lallement attached pedals to the draisine and invented a pedal-powered velocipede.
The next stage in the development of the bicycle saw a huge front wheel attached with a small rear wheel, but it was a machine that was far from stable and resulted in some spectacular crashes.
It wasn’t until 1885 that two similar-sized wheels were attached to the velocipede.
“After that it was just a case of technical improvements, but all the ideas already existed — brake cables, pedals, chains,” said Reynaud.
“The bicycle enjoyed an exponential success, especially from 1890 with the invention of the tyre.”
Reynaud’s Chateau de Bosc welcomes 6,000 visitors a year to its museum but the amateur historian’s greatest regret is that he doesn’t own an original Laufmaschine to put on display.
“There are only four left and they belong to national museums. They’re out of reach, I’ll never have one.”