Le magazine

Did you know the bicycle is only 200 years old?

jeudi 22 février 2018

Share on :

  • La vélocipédomanie, Alfred Darjou, Compiègne, musée de la voiture
    La vélocipédomanie, Alfred Darjou, Compiègne, Musée de la Voiture
    (C) RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Gérard Blot

For almost two centuries, our roads have been overtaken by the curious vehicles that force pedestrians to share their public spaces. Silent, easy to handle, fast, they have become such an integral part of our lives that we need to take a step back and measure the impact of bikes on our daily existence.

The ancestor of today's bicycle, the Draisienne or velocipede, is a long way from the sporty models favoured by contemporary cyclists. The French patent from February 1818 was the start of many disputed improvements by inventors over the coming decades. The appearance of pedals in the second half of the 19th century helped to ensure the success and growth of this locomotive device that still remained in the world of leisure.  Successive innovations concerned the size and arrangement of the wheels, lightening the weight of the structure and the invention of tyres. 

While these improvements opened the door to its utilitarian purpose, industrial manufacturing democratised its usage. It went on to spread across all the continents, saving time and improving mobility. It was still not available to women, under the pretext that it was anatomically unsuitable, incompatible with the female wardrobe and against moral standards. Fashion adapted to create bloomers, a type of short-culottes that could be worn while riding a bicycle and thus helped to emancipate women. In 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle.


Bicycle, Louis Vallet, Compiègne, Musée de la Voiture

(C) RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Franck Raux


Faster and with improved performance, it was now suitable for competitive use: the first ever cycle race was held in the Parc de Saint-Cloud on 31 May 1868, cycling was included in the first modern Olympic games in 1896, the Tour de France began in 1903 and the first European cycling clubs were all founded before 1900.

Bicycle Race, Georges Duchesne
(C) RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi


This boom was taking place at the same time as another invention was hitting the roads: the automobile. Horses, cars, bicycles and of course pedestrians initially had to find a way of sharing the roads, streets and sometimes even the pavements. The urban environment was completely transformed as it had to adapt to a cohabitation that was, if not harmonious, at least safe. These days, cycle paths are a feature of urban planning and the highway code polices the rights and obligations for cyclists.


Just like riding a bike, you never forget it.

Omnipresent in the city and the countryside, it has found its way into popular culture, symbolising a form of liberty from the moment the stabilisers come off to those first adolescent adventures. Yves Montand, Bourvil and Queen have all immortalised the bicycle in famous songs. Its allegorical power has also inspired many common expressions and images.

"Avoir la tête dans le guidon" (to have one's head on the handlebars)

Just like a sprinter focused on increasing his speed, this phrase signifies concentration on a single goal, occupied and ignoring all distractions.

Cycliste Jacquelin, Lucien-Hector Jonas
(C) Musée La Piscine (Roubaix), Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Arnaud Loubry


"Pédaler dans la choucroute" or "avoir un petit vélo" (to cycle in sauerkraut, or to have a small bike) 

The image evokes a notion of loss of control and uncontrolled and pointless gestures. These highly colloquial expressions date from the latter half of the 20th century.

Eléphant savant sur un tricycle, Bibliothèque nationale de France
(C) BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF


"Perdre les pédales" (to miss the pedals)

Borrowed from cycling slang, this phrase means to lose control, as on a bicycle when balance is lost and the pedals are spinning.

Tour de France cyclist puncture, Roger Parry
(C) Ministère de la Culture - Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Roger Parry


"Former un bon tandem" (to make a fine tandem)

The need for perfect synchronisation between the two riders on a tandem also serves as an image for any partnership requiring harmonious collaboration.

Two men on a tandem, 31 August 1895​
(C) Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Fratelli Alinari


It even touches the world of psychology. The bicycle metaphor is a professional development tool where each part of the device corresponds to a function: steering, lighting, propulsion, balance, protection, framework. In summary, bicycles are a question of balance!

And of course this includes artistic endeavours: whether the main theme of an artwork, the principal subject or otherwise diverted, it also remains highly photogenic.