Bicycling Beginnings- The Initial Design

Bikes haven’t been around for all that long when considering how long humans have occupied the Earth. In the grand scheme of things, most people spent their entire lives walking or riding something that pooped. So, in the interest of appreciating our modern machinery—with its clipped pedals and carbon fiber frames—let’s see where the modern bike began.

Appropriately, it started with bickering. Perhaps not between people back in the day, but today the beginnings of the bicycle design are disputed with surprising passion for such a benign topic. The problem is, time makes stories difficult to verify. If figuring out whose turn it is to clean the toilet is nearly impossible, imagine the tribulation of deciding who thought up the first bicycle design. There are two schools of thought. One camp maintains that the first drawing resembling a bike was crafted by a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, Gian Giacomo Caprotti, also known as Salai, in 1534. A gentleman named Hans-Erhard Lessing is unimpressed by this claim, however. In a 1998 publication of Cycle History 8, Lessing wrote an article titled “The Evidence Against Leonardo’s bicycle.”

Replica made between 1965-72 based on the alleged 1493 Caprotti sketch.

Replica made between 1965-72 based on the alleged 1493 Caprotti sketch.

In his article, Lessing called the Caprotti design story a “purposeful fraud”—not the glowing recommendation most would want on their resume. But Professor Augusto Marinoni, an expert of Da Vinci and the man responsible for the transcription of da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus—a twelve volume set of writings and drawings by da Vinci—vigorously maintains that Da Vinci’s disciple did indeed come up with the initial bike design, as do his followers. Philologists(practitioners of literary criticism, history, and linguistics) have followers, apparently.  

The alternative to the Caprotti drawing is equally unverified. The story is that Comte the Sivrac developed something called a célérifère in 1792. With no steering available other than the leanings of the rider, and the movement relying on two wheels set on a “rigid wooden frame,” it doesn’t sound like the most comfortable—or safe—ride. Pedals did not play into the experience at all. Instead, the rider pushed himself or herself forward by running their feet along the ground, much like the running bikes you see today ridden by toddlers with snotty noses.

But forget all that, because it turns out most experts on the subject don’t think the two-wheeled célérifère ever existed; there were four-wheelers but the two-wheel concept was instead a misinterpretation by a French journalist in 1891. So really, nobody knows where the bicycle started for sure. Which makes it clear humans aren’t very good at accurately recording history. We’ve figured out how old the Earth is, but can’t decide who came up with the concept for one of our main means of transportation. Life is fickle, I suppose.

Becca Heaton

Becca Heaton is the program coordinator and editor for BikeLife Cities' city magazines and website. An avid cyclist, Becca is "embarrassed" to share that she has 5 different bikes... and she rides them all!

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