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Cycling (Biking or Bicycling)

Medical Editor:

Are you looking for an activity that's low-impact, burns lots of calories, strengthens your heart, tightens and tones your legs, hips, and glutes, builds endurance, and transports you where you want to go quickly and efficiently? Biking might be just the thing. In this article, I'll cover everything you need to know about biking, from types of bikes and how to select one to how to get started.

What is the history of biking?

The search for a "human-powered" vehicle was first described by French mathematician Jacques Ozanam in his 1696 publication Recreations Mathematiques et Physiques, in which he describes the advantages of "a device in which one can drive oneself wherever one pleases, without horses." His publication featured a design by Dr. Elie Richard for a massive four-wheeled carriage which could be steered in front by the driver and pedaled in the back by a servant who stepped up and down to drive the axel. This predecessor of the modern bicycle lasted for more than 100 years without significant modification despite many attempts to do so.

It wasn't until 1813 when Karl von Drais, a German baron, built a four-wheeled vehicle that carried two to four passengers in which one or more riders worked a crank with their legs while another steered the device with a tiller. This didn't exactly catch on, and so in 1817, von Drais introduced what became known as a draisine or velocipede (from the Latin words meaning fast foot). It was a slender vehicle made almost entirely of wood except for the iron tires which were positioned in a straight line. The rider sat almost completely erect and drove the device forward by pushing off the ground with one foot, then the other, as if walking or running. Drais was able to reach speeds a high as 12 miles per hour, and his device caught the attention of the public. In 1818, he rode more than 50 miles from Mannheim to Frankfurt and received patents from France and Germany.

Over the next century, the velocipede underwent many modifications as technology improved. In the 1860s the term bicycle was introduced. By the early 1890s, bicycling had caught on. Bicycles were safer, pneumatic (air-filled) tires made bicycles faster, and more than 150,000 bicycles had been sold in the United States alone. The improvement in speed naturally sparked road races, and thus long- and short-distance races sprouted up all over Europe and the United States (the Michelin Company sponsored a 260-mile race from Paris to its headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand). Racetracks and cycling clubs grew in popularity (the League of American Wheelmen, still in existence and now called the League of American Bicyclists, lobbied for better roads for cyclists and automobiles), and by the end of the 1800s, bicycling was common as a method for recreation and commuting to work. By the 1890s, there were more than 25 bicycle manufacturers alone in Chicago, including the newcomer, Arnold, Schwinn and Company.

By the mid-1930s, European bicycle manufacturers were building lightweight bicycles made of alloy materials (most bikes weighed more than 50 pounds up until then), the geometry of bicycles was changing to create more comfortable and faster bicycles, and gears were introduced to make the riding easier and faster. Ten-speed derailleur bikes became very popular in the 1970s, although they had been invented before the turn of the century in Europe. By the 1980s, high-tech and lightweight frames were made of titanium, alloys of aluminum, and finally carbon fiber (the frame of the road model used by Lance Armstrong weighed only 2.5 pounds!).

Today more than 15-20 million new bicycles are sold each year in the United States, and according to a bicycle survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 57 million people age 16 or older rode a bicycle at least once during the summer of 2002. Can 57 million be wrong? Bicycling can fulfill a multitude of purposes, and if you're not pedaling, now may be the time!


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