Bicycling Beginnings- United States vs. Europe

At the beginning of the 20th century, people’s affinity for biking had more to do with location than anything else.

In Europe, popularity and safety of bicycles continued to increase. “The Roadster,” a bicycle design very similar to the Safety Bicycle, made a style specifically for women. Instead of a diamond frame with a bar straight from the handlebars to the seat that impeded skirts worn while riding, the frame swooped down to provide women with the option of riding in active skirts and dresses. This furthered bicycle culture for women, as it allowed riding to those who couldn’t bear being seen in bloomers.

An example of a Roadster designed for women riders.

An example of a Roadster designed for women riders.

European cities were built before modern forms of transportation. With feet as the most used form of transportation, a majority of the population clustered in close quarters so all daily necessities were within walking distance. Walkable distances are even easier to bike, so when the bicycle began its rise in popularity in Europe, it didn’t stop.

Cities in the United States, however, are much younger than their European counterparts. Those on the West Coast make those on the East Coast look quite elderly, but still, in comparison with Europe they’re all babies. This isn’t a slight at the lack of history of the United States, but rather an explanation for why bicycling fell flat in the early 20th century on the western side of the Atlantic.

A classic Roadster in the early 20th century.

A classic Roadster in the early 20th century.

The main difference lies in the automobile. Where it was absent for the construction of every European city, many American cities were built to their modern dimensions with the car already an important part of life. Take the difference between New York City and Los Angeles for example. New York was built long before cars became the norm, so it is still a city with a compact core. Los Angeles, however, sprawls with the implementation of cars and the ability to travel greater distances over a shorter period of time.

It only takes a few hours on a bike to realize that traveling by car is much more efficient when in a city of sprawling freeways. No doubt this was the conclusion that many cycling enthusiasts arrived at when attempting to ride in many American cities in the early 20th century. Why ride a bike when it is faster, safer, and less exhausting to drive in a spiffy new automobile? Sure, seatbelts weren’t a thing yet so cars weren’t nearly as safe as they are now. But only 39 states issued driver’s licenses by 1935, meaning it was still safer to be in the cars than biking next to them. If being a cyclist today is dangerous, imagine biking before drivers needed to take an exam, or have even basic operating knowledge, to drive.

All this lead to a plummet in cycling in the United States while it continued to boom across the ocean to the east. It’s no surprise then, when looking at the results of the Tour de France over the years, to see that European countries best the United States much more often than not.

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