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Ideas rise out of communities of creative people.
Priority is usually meaningless.


(John H. Lienhard, University of Houston)

What do the following have in common: a derailleur gear, an aluminum frame, the freewheel, disc wheels, anatomical saddles, clipless pedals, suspension, folding bikes? Answer: they were all ideas that originated in the late 1800s. The late English cycling historian, John Pinkerton, once remarked, “Think of a new idea in bicycle design and someone will have already invented it, probably in the nineteenth century.”

After the fundamentals of bicycle design had been conceived by the end of the 1860s, a multitude of subsequent improvements were suggested and tried. In some cases the ideas died, marking the end of that particular evolutionary branch. In other instances, the concepts were embraced to the point that they led to commercial successes. It’s worth noting that Jim Hurd, the former curator of the Bicycle Museum of America, says that at the turn of the century there were two buildings in Washington DC that held every patent in the U.S. One building held patents covering every type of product you can think of. The other building was reserved specifically for bicycle patents. It’s a manifestation of how much energy had gone into refining the bicycle and it’s the reason why it’s such a challenge for modern designers to make any sea-change improvements.

When browsing through the timeline below, remember that bicycle inventions that were successful were rarely the result of a spontaneous flash of inspiration by one person. More commonly, they were built on previous ideas and experiments and no one date or individual can always be attributed to a particular design. Furthermore, many viable prototypes were abandoned and not pursued until years later. One could argue, perhaps, that an invention should have successful “progeny” to be considered a true milestone. Some “milestones” can thus be challenged in that they only gained importance in retrospect; they might have marked a stepping stone to something more advanced from which there was no turning back but in reality, the innovation was quickly forgotten and had no permanent impact. All this creates both ambiguity and controversy as to who the “true” inventor was and the date when the first successful version was produced.

To add to the confusion, in recent years several early icons of bicycle history have been relegated to the hopper of popular myth. Most, if not all, alleged developments before the granting of the Von Drais patent in 1818 are highly conjectural.
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For example, the drawing of a “bicycle” (circa 1493) purported to be by Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci (photo left; click to enlarge; source #1), is now acknowledged by most to be a hoax.

The Flemish or German “Bicycle Window,” which was installed in Stoke Poges church in the 16th or 17th Click photo to enlargecentury (photo right; click to enlarge; source #2), shows an angel on a device that some argue looks like a prototype hobbyhorse. It is far more likely to be a one-wheeled contraption that was often associated with cherubims and seraphims in mediaeval iconography.

There is also the risk that, unless there is credible documentary evidence, some early innovations are actually subsequent bicycle priority claims from the 1890s or later and are thus false stepping stones that do not convey an accurate history.

Click photo to enlargeFor example, a vehicle with two wheels in-line (photo left; click to enlarge; source #3) was attributed to a Comte de Sivrac around 1791 but this story was most likely created by the historian Baudry de Saunier in 1891 and has erroneously been copied by numerous authors ever since.

Other claims are more problematical. A case in point is the chain and rear cog-driven Click photo to enlargevelocipede attributed to Meyer and Guilmet in 1869 (photo right; click to enlarge; source #4) and which is now in the Musée des Arts et Métiers. Serious questions remain unanswered as to the date and history of the bike even though it is held up by some to be a true missing link in bicycle evolution.

Arguments about who invented the bicycle are thus rarely fruitful and never conclusive. In all likelihood, the Baron von Drais (Germany), Kirkpatrick Macmillan (Scotland), the Michaux family (France), Henry Lawson (England) and many others, all contributed critical elements but it was the Starley family of Coventry, England who can perhaps lay claim to bringing it all together as a commercial venture even though their first models Click photo to enlargewere unsuccessful and they did not necessarily “invent” the designs that they incorporated. Nevertheless, within 20 years after the Boneshaker appeared in the 1860s, most of the basic elements of modern bicycle design had appeared and were included in Starley’s 1885 “Rover” (photo left; click to enlarge; source #5).

Even though controversy still surrounds Macmillan’s machine, it was prophetic in that it included three of these critical design elements: (1) two smallish, equally-sized wheels with the rider sitting between them (2) a rear-wheel drive and (3) a front wheel that was steered and was independent of the transmission. The additional two pieces of the puzzle that were subsequently incorporated by Starley and others were (4) a “geared-up” drivetrain (such that the number of pedal revolutions does not equal the number of wheel rotations) and (5) the chain drive itself which was eventually to become ubiquitous.

Since those early days, there have been periods of relative famine when it comes to dramatic improvements in bicycle or component design. This was largely a result of two phenomena. First was the rise of the automobile in the 1920s. The second cause was rather more ominous, namely the perverse policy of the Union Cycliste Internationale and other cycling organizations to ban radical or innovative bicycles from competing in their sanctioned events. These prohibitions included derailleur gears, wheel rims made of anything except wood and frames of a configuration other than the standard diamond. Not surprisingly, nothing earth shattering shows up between 1910 and 1930, until Tullio Campagnolo begins to influence the industry. There seems to be another period of relative inactivity in the 1950s and 60s but this was followed by the bicycle boom of the 80s led by Japanese and American companies and which spawned the high-tech machines of today. Trickle-down of the technology means that sophisticated bicycles can now be had for relatively modest prices.

In the last two decades, there have been many recent advances in materials, especially the increasingly widespread use of carbon fiber and titanium. In addition, the demise of the threaded fork and quill stem in favor of the threadless fork/stem combination, the increased numbers of gears and the improvements in wheel design are valid contributions to bicycle evolution. Finally, the fat-tire folks would probably consider the new fork and frame suspensions as fairly revolutionary changes in their bikes even though there were marketable versions of effective suspension systems that date back 100 years. Other design changes, such as larger steerer tubes, integrated headsets, and compact frames may still be controversial but do seem to be working their way into the mainstream of bicycle development.

And what of the future? For the mass market, the industry will need to continue to improve those things that discourage more people from riding: comfort, finicky gears, oily chains, flat tires etc. The road bike business got a severe wake-up call when the mountain bike phenomenon occurred although the playing field has leveled out somewhat since the heady days of the 1980s and 90s when the fat-tire contingent were outselling their skinny-wheeled brethren.However, since then, the “comfort” and hybrid bikes have now created a sizable niche in the market. Some form of suspension could soon end up on every good bike, road or mountain of any style. Perhaps recumbents and small-wheeled bicycles will now move further into the mainstream; their aficionados always claim that they should not be regarded as “velo-eccentrics” but sales figures do not really support them … yet. Even though they might be an anathema to the hard-core sports riders, new pedaling-assist mechanisms may also become more common.

At some point, maybe the crank/chain/cogs system of the drivetrain will be replaced by something totally different or at least by non-metallic components that need no lubrication. In the meantime, it is inevitable that still further increases in the number of gears is probably being considered though with thirty-speed systems now readily available, one must continue to ask what the practical limit is. Perhaps CVT (Continuous Variable Transmission) shifting system will achieve the light weight, robustness and efficiency to become a market player.

Effective electronic/automatic shifting will undoubtedly remain on the radar screens of component manufacturers. Even though the innovative attempts by Browning Research and Mavic failed as commercial ventures, Shimano is still in that market with their Nexus Auto-D unit, rolled out in 1999, which analyzes cadence and speed and automatically shifts for the rider. More importantly, Campagnolo’s Electronic Record, possibly due in 2005, will offer both front and rear on-demand automated shifting. In addition, the hundred-year-old Anglo-French competition between hub and derailleur gears might not be over. In 1998 Rohloff introduced a 14-speed hub gear that uses needle bearings, thus mitigating in part, one of hub gears’ inherent disadvantages, that of increased frictional resistance.

Tire developments will continue, especially in respect of lower hysteresis losses and greater puncture resistance through improved materials. Practical tubeless or lightweight solid tires would be a boon to cyclists if weight and rolling resistance remain within acceptable limits. Clipless pedals that are truly safe for recreational cyclists have yet to appear. [Editor’s note: It’s possible to get injured if you aren’t practiced enough.] Shimano tried it and admitted it was one area of research in which they failed.

Good quality spokeless wheels for the masses could go hand in hand with a move to smaller wheels which are less affected by sidewinds. Something similar to Mike Burrows’ monoblade wheel mounting system which enables tires and chains (or drive belts) to be easily be removed without taking the wheel off or splitting the chain might also gain mainstream acceptance. Lightweight disc brakes might well end up on all high-end bikes as they too continue to improve.

Looking further out in time, magnetorheological or electrorheological brake and suspension systems (which rely on fluids which change in viscosity when exposed to electrical or magnetic fields) might become viable. Bicycle computers will unquestionably get more and more sophisticated and minicomputer-controlled applications for various functions will become commonplace.

As if to reinforce the premise made at the beginning of this article, many of these ideas have been tried in the past but time will tell which of them will qualify for future lists of milestones.

Innovation Year Country Details
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source #6
1817 Germany Baron von Drais invents the “running machine” or Laufmaschine. Patented the following year. Known in various forms as: Draisine, Draisienne, Vélocipède. English version was the Hobby Horse (Denis Johnson). All have two, in-line wheels and the ability to steer.
hand drive 1821 England Louis Gompertz adds a hand-driven, ratchet mechanism to the front wheel of a Hobby Horse but the innovation, as with Drais’ was never really followed up.
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source #5
1839-1840 Scotland Kirkpatrick Macmillan is traditionally credited with a machine in which power was supplied to the back wheel via rods connected to treadle-type pedals. Thomas McCall marketed copies; an 1845 version is in the Dumfries Museum. It is questionable whether significant progress resulted from either.
rear-wheel-drive bicycle 1843 France Alexandre Lefebvre is credited with a rear-drive machine; he took it to America twenty years later and it still exists in the “History San Jose” museum (the earliest extant bicycle?).
pneumatic tire 1845 England R. W. Thompson invents the pneumatic tire but with no commercial follow-up.
treadle drive 1847 Scotland Gavin Dalzell builds a two-wheeled hobbyhorse with a treadle-drive, possibly copied from the Macmillan design.
crank-driven 4-wheeler 1851 England Willard Sawyer exhibits his four-wheeled, crank-driven vehicle at the Great Exhibition and subsequently becomes established as a velocipede manufacturer.
Boneshaker bicycle 1864 France J. Townsend Trench documents his purchase of a velocipede from the Michaux family. Possibly the first record of a “production” front wheel, pedal-driven bicycle (but note that it was not presented until 1895). This style became known as the “Boneshaker.” Historians still debate the claim of Pierre Lallement that he had previously invented the first pedal-driven machine.
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source #9
1866 USA Lallement, now in the USA, gets the backing of an investor, James Carroll, and their patent application is granted; probably the world’s first public record of the pedal-powered two-wheeler.
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source #10
1870 England James Starley produces the “Ariel” High Wheeler (aka “Ordinary” or “Penny Farthing”). Later versions had front wheel sizes of up to 5 feet.
wire-spoked wheel 1870 England W.H.J. Grout patents the radially spoked, nipple adjusted bicycle wheel (unlike prior load-bearing wheels). Some credit Meyer with this design two years previously.
ball bearings 1872 German Friedrich Fischer first mass-produces steel ball bearings, patented by Jules Suriray in 1869.
caliper brake 1876 England Browett and Harrison patent an early caliper brake.
differential gear 1877 England James Starley patents a differential gear; probably the first for a bicycle but the principle was not new.
internal hub gearings 1878 England Scott and Phillott patent the first practicable epicyclic change-speed gear fitted into the hub of a front-driving bicycle.
folding highwheeler 1878 England Grout patents a folding High Wheeler, the first “portable” bicycle
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source #14
1879 England Henry J. Lawson patents a rear wheel, chain-driven safety bicycle, the “Bicyclette” (his earlier models were lever driven).
chain 1880 England Thomas Humber adapts the block chain for use with his range of bicycles.
safety bicycle 1885 England John Kemp Starley (James Starley's nephew) markets the revolutionary Safety Bicycle (the “Rover”) with a chain/rear-sprocket drive and tangentially-spoked, similar sized wheels. Includes many of the major features of modern bicycles.
seamless tubing 1886 Germany The Mannessman brothers are credited with the invention of the process to manufacture seamless steel tubing.
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source #11
1888 Scotland Commercial development of the pneumatic bicycle tire by Dr. John Boyd Dunlop.
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source #12
1890s France Cycles Aluminium becomes one of the earliest manufacturers of an aluminum bicycle.
derailleur 1896 England E.H. Hodgkinson patents a 3-speed Gradient gear, a pre-cursor of the modern derailleur.
internal hub gearing 1896 England William Riley patents a two-speed hub gear. His later three-speed version was put into production by Sturmey Archer in 1902.
butted frame tubes 1897 England Alfred M. Reynolds takes out a patent on "butted" steel bicycle tubes.
freewheel 1898 Germany First major commercialization of the freewheel by Ernst Sachs. William Van Anden had obtained the first freewheel patent in 1869.
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source #13
1910 France The first, easy-to-use derailleur is invented by Paul de Vivie (Velocio) that shifted among four gears at the pedals.
recumbent 1914 France Peugeot markets their production recumbent bicycle. Charles Challand had exhibited his “Horizontal Bicyclette Normale” in Geneva in 1895.
dual-suspension mountain bike 1915 Italy Bianchi produced a folding bicycle for the Italian Army with telescoping seatstays, a leaf spring at the bottom bracket, a spring fork and large profile pneumatic tires. Bianchi now calls it the first dual suspension mountain bike! There are earlier versions of military folding bicycles. And Pierce had the Pan American dual-suspension road bicycle at the turn of the century.
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source #13
1930 Italy Tullio Campagnolo introduces the bicycle hub quick-release.
recumbent 1932 France Charles Mochet designs the Velocar, a recumbent bicycle on which Francois Faure breaks both the mile and kilometer records.
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source #8
1933-1934 USA Introduction by Schwinn of the balloon tire and “streamlined” bikes which leads to rugged bikes that can take the abuse of teenage boys and which set a forty-year trend. CORRECTIONS by Leon Dixon of the National Bicycle History Archive of America: "The implication here is that Schwinn invented something that did not exist, which is one of the biggest myths in bicycle history. Schwinn merely copied what they saw going on in Europe. Both Sears and Montgomery Ward had bicycles in 1932 that had balloon tires in the USA, a full year BEFORE Schwinn. And the streamline movement in bicycles was really pioneered by Sears and Huffman. Schwinn had a clunky diamond frame with straight tubes and a streamlined tank in 1934, but Sears Elgin (1935) and Huffman Dayton (1936) had fully streamlined frames, tanks, etc."
mountain bike 1938 USA Schwinn markets the "Fore-wheel" brake, "Cantilever Frame" and the "Spring Fork." Resulted in what was to be the Grandfather of today's mountain bikes.
small-wheel folding bicycle 1939 France A.J. Marcelin patents “Le Petit Bi”, a 16-inch wheeled folding bicycle, remarkably similar to the Moulton and Bickerton of later years. There had already been full-size folding military bicycles in 1915.
shifter 1946 Italy Campagnolo markets the dual-rod "Cambio Corsa" gear shifter (over ten years after the prototype) widely used for at least a decade.
index shifting 1949 England The Hercules Herailleur is launched; a rear derailleur with indexed shift levers. Marketed for five years.
derailleur 1951 Italy Introduction of Campagnolo's modern Gran Sport derailleur.
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1962 England Launch of the Moulton small-wheeled bicycle with separately sprung suspension and custom tires. Competed successfully in time trials and track pursuit events.
Sting-Ray 1963 USA Schwinn introduces the Sting-Ray that subsequently helped launch the BMX craze. Leon Dixon of the National Bicycle History Archive of America notes: "This is a very serious myth. First, Schwinn merely copied the Huffy Penguin which existed BEFORE the Sting-Ray. And these bicycles were pioneers in the 20-inch bicycle revolution/genre, but certainly did not necessarily father BMX. AND... the first Sting-Ray was officially stated by Schwinn as being NOT a 1963 model, but officially known as a "1963-1/2" model. Either way, Huffy was on the market first."
rear derailleur 1964 Japan The SunTour Grand Prix is marketed as the first slant parallelogram derailleur, a design that has held up till the present day.
index shifting 1969 Japan SunTour launch their indexed shift lever, the Five-Speed Click, and a combined freewheel-plus-rear hub, the Unit Hub. Neither of them found a market, and were abandoned. Bayliss Wiley in England had also experimented with unit hubs as far back as 1938.
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1970 England The aluminum Bickerton portable folding small-wheel bicycle is developed. Followed by the successful Brompton in 1976 and Dahon in 1980.
BMX
(Bicycle Motocross)
1970 USA The movie On Any Sunday by Bruce Brown debuts. Although it is a motorcycle documentary, a brief scene during the beginning of the movie shows kids on Sting-Ray bikes emulating motocross. This small spark eventually evolves into full-fledged, organized BMX racing by 1974.
mass-produced titanium frame/fork 1974 USA Teledyne markets the first titanium bike that was produced in any quantity (Speedwell of England had some Ti production frames as far back as the 1960s, welded by Lamborghini!) Litespeed brought titanium frames to a broader market in the 1980s.
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source #7
1975 USA The first carbon-tubed, metal lugged frame appears: the Exxon Graftek. Suffered from frequent frame failure. The technology was later perfected by Look, Trek and others.
oversize aluminum frames/bikes 1975 USA Gary Klein displays his welded and heat-treated aluminum frames with oversize tubing at the International Bike show. Klein’s frame was the result of an MIT design project in the early 1970’s under Professor Shawn Buckley. Alan (Italy) and Vitus (France) were producing their lugged aluminum frames around the same time. Cannondale launched their “Aluminum for the Masses” in 1983. (Background on the Klein/MIT connection courtesy of John S Allen and Donald W. Gillies).
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source #7
1978 USA Fomac Corporation designs the Avatar recumbent. It is one of the many styles that constituted the 1980s renaissance of recumbents which included Lightning Cycles winning the HPV-RAAM relay and Easy Racers breaking the 65 mph barrier.
high-quality folding clincher tire 1978 USA Specialized introduce the first high-quality foldable clincher tire (the Turbo) which launches the demise of the tubular.
aerodynamic road/track bicycles 1980 East Germany Introduction of aerodynamic bicycles with a stable construction. Culminated in the American "Super Bike" at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
mass-produced mountain bike 1981 USA The Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike is launched nationwide, capitalizing on the Marin County vogue inspired by Californian icons, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Tom Richey et al. (all of whom also produced earlier mountain bikes).
electronic cycle computer 1983 USA Avocet launch the first electronic cyclometer (bike computer).
Moulton 1983 England Moulton launches his second generation of “space-frame” small-wheeled bicycles.
clipless pedals 1984 France LOOK markets their clipless pedal (following on an earlier track model launched by Cinelli in 1970; the “Death Cleats,” no automatic release). There was also the circa 1983 Cyclebinding clipless pedal designed in the USA by Rick Howell. It featured a self-righting pedal and a walkable shoe. For more on pedal history visit the Speedplay Museum.
index shifting 1985 Japan Shimano introduces SIS indexed shifting (learning from their inferior product, the Positron, from 1977).
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1986 USA Kestrel introduces their production non-lugged, carbon fiber frame and Trek market their first lugged carbon frame.
suspended mountain bike 1987 USA Paul Turner demonstrates a full suspension bicycle with front and rear shocks. Eventually becomes a partner in Rock Shox. Diversified the sport of off-road biking.
aero handlebars 1987 (1984)* USA Scott USA manufactures the first mass-produced aerobars in 1987, the design, called the DH, is the brainchild of Boone Lennon. *However, the first aerobars were invented in 1984 by Richard Bryne for Jim Elliot to use in the 1984 Race Across America.
high-performance folding bike 1989 USA Hanz Scholz designs the Bike Friday "World Tourist". A reasonably compact folding bicycle that matches the performance of conventional touring machines.
integrated brake/shift levers 1990 Japan Shimano introduces integrated brake/gear levers.
electric derailleurs 1993 France Mavic markets their ZAP electronic shifting. Ceases production in 2001. Possible future follow-up by Campagnolo. Browning Research had invented a prototype electronic system in 1974. Shimano introduces it's Di2 electric drivetrain in 2008.
hydraulic disc brake 1994 USA Sachs (SRAM) introduces PowerDisc, the first mass-produced hydraulic disc brake system.
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1998 Germany Rohloff develops the Speedhub, 14 equally-spaced hub gears which are operated by a twist-grip with no overlapping ratios and a gear range as wide as a 27-speed derailleur system.
30-speed derailleur drivetrain 2002 Italy Campagnolo offers a 30-speed derailleur drivetrain with the Record 3-x-10 drivetrain

Note

Bicycle history marches on. The chart ends with a Rohloff hub transmission, and Campagnolo 10-speed drivetrain. Currently, Campy has the Super Record component group, which has an 11-speed cassette for building drivetrains with up to 33 gears. And, there have been developments in internal hub gearing, too, such as the ingenious NuVinci infinitely variable transmission. While Shimano just debuted their Di2 electric road drivetrain.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I used many published and Internet sources for the above list. It was remarkable how many inaccuracies and red herrings needed to be purged from my first drafts as I learned more about the controversies surrounding both the early claims and the more recent history. In this effort, I received many invaluable comments from the individuals listed below. Notwithstanding their generous assistance, any remaining errors that remain are mine alone. It is also worth observing that controversies still abound, not all my correspondents were necessarily in agreement but it would be most presumptuous of me to claim that resolution of such differences of opinion is within either my ability or the scope of this article.

  • Clarice Burgwardt of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park, New York.
  • David B. Perry, author of Bike Cult, 1995.
  • David Henshaw, A to B, alternative transport magazine. Castle Gary, England.
  • David Herlihy, directeur of the Lallement Memorial Committee in Boston and author of many papers on history of the bicycle.
  • David Metz of the Metz Bicycle Museum, Freehold, New Jersey.
  • Dave Stromberger of Nostalgic.net, classic bicycle restoration.
  • Derek Roberts, bicycle historian, author of Cycling History: Myths and Queries (1991) and founder member of the Veteran Cycle Club
  • Ed Charlesworth, Stress Management Recumbents, Houston
  • Frank Berto, author of The Birth of Dirt (1999) and The Dancing Chain (2000). He was the engineering editor for Bicycling Magazine for many years.
  • Gary Klein of Klein Bicycles Inc.
  • Harry Haltman, San Antonio who shared in several stimulating discussions
  • Industry contacts at: Kestrel, Trek, Litespeed, Cannondale, Specialized, the Corus Group (formerly British Steel) and the International Aluminium Institute.
  • Jeff Archer of First Flight Bicycles, antique vintage bicycles, parts and accessories. Statesville, North Carolina
  • Jim Langley, Content Director for SmartEtailing, author and editor of many cycling articles and books, and one time Chief Technical Editor for Bicycling Magazine.
  • John H. Lienhard, M.D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston.
  • Leon Dixon of the National Bicycle History Archive of America.
  • Pryor Dodge, author of The Bicycle, 1996 and inspiration behind the national tour of the Pryor Dodge Collection which “offered a glimpse of the 19th Century from the handlebars of a bicycle”.
  • Rob van der Plas of Van der Plas Publications (publisher of cycling books), San Francisco.
  • Scotford Lawrence, Trustee of the National Cycle Museum, Llandrindod Wells, United Kingdom.
  • Tony Hadland, author of several bicycle history books including The Sturmey Archer Story (1987) and The Moulton Bicycle (1981).
  • John S. Allen, cycling writer, former Bicycling Magazine editor, expert cycling witness and bicycle advocate.

Photo Credits

  1. On Your Bicycle, An Illustrated History Of Cycling by James McGurn
  2. The Bicycle, A Guide & Manual by R John Way
  3. King Of The Road, An Illustrated History Of Cycling by Andrew Ritchie
  4. The Bicycle by Pryor Dodge
  5. The Book Of The Bicycle by Roger St. Pierre
  6. A History Of Bicycles by Serena Beeley
  7. The High-Tech Bicycle by Edward P. Stevenson
  8. Schwinn Bicycles by Jay Pridmore and Jim Hurd
  9. Lallement Memorial Committee, Box 15077, Boston, MA 02215
  10. Early Bicycles by Nick Clayton
  11. Bartleet's Bicycle Book, The Story of Cycles & Cycling by H. W. Bartleet
  12. 100 Years of Bicycle Posters by Jack Rennert
  13. The Dancing Chain by Frank Berto, Ron Shepherd, Raymond Henry
  14. Cycles in Colour by Robert Wilkinson-Latham


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