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Iron Frames and Wooden Wheels - The Bicycle Collection at Amgueddfa Cymru

Over the past few years, increasing emphasis on fitness and green issues have helped give the bicycle a new lease of life. Today bikes are available in a wide range of styles and prices, but the first bicycles to be produced were extremely expensive and very difficult to ride.

The first bicycle designs

A Cardiff couple on a lady-front tandem. The man, a piano tuner, was blind.
A Cardiff couple on a lady-front tandem. The man, a piano tuner, was blind.

Bikes called High Ordinaries, later known as Penny farthings were particularly uncomfortable and required the rider to have very long legs, in order to reach the pedals.

In the 1870s the new cycle owners formed exclusive clubs, had caps emblazoned with their badges and wore military-style cycling suits. Although women initially steered clear of bicycles many became enthusiastic tri-cyclists, choosing more stable three wheeled varieties and special clothing designed for safety and comfort. Pleated skirts allowed more freedom of movement and the more modest individuals often wore breeches beneath their skirts.

There was a bicycle boom in the 1890s. New models were appearing almost weekly and new factories making bicycles opened up all over the country. The development of the safety bicycle, with chain-driven wheels of equal size, meant cycling was no longer restricted to tall athletic men. As cycling became more common cyclists' dress became less strange and men stopped wearing their cycling suits and began simply to wear their everyday clothes.

Because women were initially riding men's bicycles for which skirts were totally unsuitable, the Rational Dress Society and many cycling clubs encouraged them to wearing of a form of knickerbockers known as 'rationals'. The 'rationals' were not flattering and made their wearers objects of public ridicule. This proved too much for most women and by the turn of the 20th century most women had stopped wearing them.

As mass production brought bicycle prices down, the working classes grasped the opportunity to own their own transport. Bicycles replaced the pony and trap for the country postman, helped policemen cover large areas and speeded up shop deliveries. There were even experiments with bicycle-driven fire engines.

Local ironmongers and suppliers of agricultural goods began to sell bikes and many local blacksmiths became experts at repairing them.

The evolution of the bicycle

The desire for speed had a great effect on bicycle design. As the wheels of the early bikes were directly driven by the pedals, the only way to increase the speed was to make the wheels bigger. There were some models produced with a wheel diameter of 62 inches which weighed approximately 50 pounds. Other efforts to increase speed by reducing the weight of the machines resulted in bicycles which were only 22 pounds, needless to say they were very unsafe.

Bicycle racing

Long distance road races, such as London to John O'Groats, captured public interest and helped increase the popularity of cycling. However, as speeds increased, accidents became more and more frequent and eventually the police put a stop to racing on public highways. Controlled racing over selected courses of 50 to 100 miles were then organised by the National Cyclists Union. Road races, like the Tour de France, did not really catch on here until the early 1950s. The first Tour of Britain race, which later became known as the Milk Race, took place in 1951.

Track racing, on the other hand, was one of the original sports of the 1st Olympiad in 1896. World Championships were held in track racing from 1892, although women's events were not introduced until 1958.

Bicycles in the Museums collections

The earliest bicycle in the museum's collection is called a 'boneshaker'. It dates from around 1865, has an iron frame, wooden wheels and iron tyres, and is said to be the first of its kind in Cardiff. The collection also includes a country-made wooden 'boneshaker' copied from the manufactured type and built by a local craftsman. As well as the boneshakers, the museum also has Raleigh bikes from the 1930s, World War II roadsters, a 1938 New Hudson tandem and a sociable tricycle produced in the 1880s.

Article Date: 16 May 2007

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