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Veloci-Rapture: At 200 Years Old, A Look At the Bicycle’s Effect on Health, Sports and Culture

Tom Brady’s turning 40? Big whup. He’s got nothing on the bicycle—reducer of smog, improver of health—which celebrates its bicenntenial this summer.

This article originally appeared in the July 24-31 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here

Yes, they convey spindly men with gaunt faces and extreme farmer tans around France every summer. (No rider in the propeloton has a more ghastly rictus than current Tour de France leader Chris Froome, who should win the event on July 22, provided he can stay upright on his Pinarello Dogma F10.) But bicycles have, in their history, provided much more than racing drama. Around the turn of the previous century they played an important role in advancing women’s rights. Riding a bike helps reduce smog, curb obesity, increase mental acuity and keep the Grim Reaper at bay: A Danish study cited in Peter Walker’s 2017 book How Cycling Can Save the World charted the lives of 30,000 citizens over an average of 15 years and found that bike commuters were 40% less likely to die. Every summer two-wheelers strengthen the bond between the Packers and their youngest fans, who loan their rigs to the big lugs for the two-block journey from Lambeau Field to the practice area. Without a bicycle, Napoleon Dynamite could not have navigated the streets of Preston, Idaho, with such incomparable panache. E.T. could not have... gone home. 

So let’s join in celebrating the bicentennial of humanity’s best, oldest mechanical friend. It’s been two centuries since a star-crossed baron named Karl von Drais amazed onlookers by taking the first primitive bicycle, known as the Draisine, out for an eight-mile promenade on a busy boulevard in Mannheim, Germany. Since then, the two-wheeler has experienced a steady, if sometimes ungainly, evolution, from the baron’s brainchild to the sleek, 14-pound machines seen in the Tour de France. Until a half-century ago that evolution had been driven by innovations in Europe. But the last, truly earth-shaking shift in bike design took place in a part of the world known for its seismic activity. Fairfax, Calif., is 15 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in the lee of Mount Tamalpais, where mountain biking was born. If you happen to be pedaling through this friendly, sun-kissed community, stop by the Java Hut, where cyclists sip espressos while side-eyeing one another’s rides (is it carbon-fiber?) and legs (are they shaved?) before embarking on the glorious mountain and road loops nearby.

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Be sure to mind the traffic laws as you ride through downtown: Cradle of mountain biking or not, the cops here will happily cite you for rolling through a stop sign. A few blocks northwest of the Hut, not far from the park where Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead once squared off in a softball game, you will find the Marin Museum of Bicycling. (The Transformer-sized, 15-foot mountain bike in the parking lot is your first clue.)

My docent on a recent summer afternoon visit was Joe Breeze, who speaks with considerable authority on matters velo, and whose salt-and-pepper mustache calls to mind a set of bullhorn handlebars. In addition to founding Breezer Bikes, a line of mountain and “transportation” or commuter bicycles, this 63-year-old was one of the dungareed, shaggy-haired pioneers whose curiosity, ingenuity and appetite for adrenaline helped midwife a new species of bike—not to mention a new sport—40 years ago.

Like his father, Bill, Joe was a machinist and a serious road cyclist, logging 200 to 400 miles a week in Marin and Sonoma Counties with his fellow members of the Velo Club Tamalpais. A keen student of cycling history, he would scour Bay Area bike shops for antique two-wheelers from the turn of the century. One day, while nosing through the inventory in the back of a Santa Cruz store, he was persuaded by a friend to plunk down five dollars for a 1941 Schwinn.

“Probably the best five bucks I ever spent,” says Breeze, who took that bike home, scraped it down to its original color and was soon bombing down the same Mount Tam trails he’d been hiking most of his life. 

This became the off-season obsession of Breeze and a small tribe of riders intent on rediscovering the county’s rugged parklands on fat-tire contraptions variously referred to as clunkers, beaters, bombers and ballooners. In 1976 the jockeys of these craft—which they’d modified for the punishing terrain—decided to see which among them was the fastest downhill. A local named Charlie Kelly organized a time trial down the fire road that came to be known as Repack, a sinuous, sinister course replete with deep ruts and 52 turns, dropping 1,300 feet over 2.1 miles. Riders often found themselves pursued by a contrail of smoke, a by-product of the grease burning in the hubs of their coaster brakes, which would then need to be repacked—a nuisance, no doubt, but a fine name for a trail.

1) Push-bike Draisine, 1825 2) Penny-fathing, ca. 1870s 3) Safety bike 1885

1) Push-bike Draisine, 1825 2) Penny-fathing, ca. 1870s 3) Safety bike 1885

Repack was contested 24 times between 1976 and ’84. Breeze won 10. Kelly, who organized and meticulously chronicled those races—as seen in his definitive book, Fat Tire Flyer: Repack and the Birth of Mountain Biking—also participated in them. While very fast, he had trouble cracking the top three. More linebacker than cornerback, he often broke the frames on which he rode. Breeze, he knew, was a machinist who’d learned framebuilding from Albert Eisentraut, a legendary Bay Area designer. And so Kelly pleaded with his friend: Would Breeze make him a mountain bike? 

Yes, Joe would. After word got out about what he was up to, Breeze took eight more orders. Upon completing the first one—the Breezer 1, as it is known—he decided to keep it for himself. Riding the frame he’d welded from chrome-moly steel aircraft tubing, with clever innovations like thumb-shift derailleurs and brake levers cannibalized from motorcycles, Breeze won the next Repack on what was the first-ever purpose-built mountain bike.

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It was another Repack regular, Gary Fisher, who would go on to establish his better known, eponymous brand—and who would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to trademark the phrase mountain bike. But it was the Breezer 1 that would end up in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

There have been disagreements over who deserves credit, and how much, for bringing this sport into the world. But the forces holding the Repack tribe together are far greater than those pulling it apart. “It has long been a big family—dysfunctional at times, but a family,” Breeze says. “The glue that held this movement together was the sustainability of cycling. We saw the bike”—he is talking here about all bicycles—“as this great secret, something that could get you where you needed to go, create health, sometimes even save you time. Our hope was to get this secret out to as many people as possible.”

That happened, and is still happening. Fueled by the ferment of Repack, mountain biking soon exploded from a niche hobby to a mainstream sport. Sales of mountain bikes in the U.S. went from 5,000 in 1982 to 50,000 in ’83 to five million in ’89. By the time of the ’96 Summer Games, in Atlanta, mountain biking was on the Olympic program.

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When I asked Breeze about that period of velo-history in which he is a central figure, he deflected. “These are the bikes that are interesting to me,” he said, motioning to a row of machines dating to the 19th century. “These are people whose shoulders we were standing on.”

Suspended from the ceiling at the museum’s entrance, looking like a pair of oversized wooden spectacles, is the aforementioned Draisine—a rough, wooden bicycle without pedals, basically—invented in Germany 200 years ago this summer. Crude and heavy though it was (many had wheels of wrought iron), the Draisine was more than a curiosity, according to Margaret Guroff, author of The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. “It was a kind of jet pack in an immobile age,” she posits. Alas, on the cobbled, rutted boulevards of the day, the Draisine tended to tip over. Also known as a dandy horse, it enjoyed a brief spasm of popularity—affluent young swells locomoting through the Tuileries in Paris, hoping people were watching—before the public tired of it and it faded from history.

Karl von Drais was a prolific inventor whose genius (he also invented the meat grinder) was matched by his bad luck. The son of a conservative judge whose politics he rejected, Von Drais was beaten nearly to death by a student mob in 1838. After supporting a failed revolution, his money was confiscated. “He died penniless,” notes Breeze, glumly.

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It lifts Breeze’s spirits to come back to Pierre and Ernest Michaux, a French blacksmith and his son whose eureka moment changed the course of history. While repairing a dandy horse in the early 1860s, Pierre (or was it Ernest? The history is misty here) thought, What if we put pedals on the front wheel?

They were on to something big. The velocipede, or Michaudine, was the first bicycle with pedals. To increase the distance traveled per pedal stroke, early designers kept making the front wheel bigger. Eventually, they ended up with the high-wheel bike or penny-farthing—a large coin followed by a much smaller one. (Get it?) Difficult and dangerous to ride, these Seussian conveyances were ultimately consigned to novelty status by, among other influences, Hans Renold, a severe-looking Swiss who immigrated to Manchester, England, in the 1870s. About a decade later, while still in his 20s, Renold invented the Bush Roller Chain, which to this day is the type of chain-drive used to transmit power in a vast array of machines—including the bicycle, which came back to Earth, so to speak, thanks to Renold.

With a bike chain in the mix, “now you can pedal remotely,” Breeze effuses, “not on the front wheel.” There was no longer a need, in other words, to risk a skull fracture on what Guroff describes as the “mechanical giraffe” that was the penny farthing. That odd-looking beast was gradually replaced by the lower-to-the-ground “safety bike”—not so dissimilar to the bike as we know it now—a trend that prigs and moralists of the day declared dangerous. With its lower profile, the safety bike appealed to women, who “thrilled to the new machine’s exhilarating ride,” writes Guroff. It wasn’t just the rush and freedom that they enjoyed. “What made the bicycle truly liberating,” she continues, “was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women.” Housewives traditionally yoked to domestic duties found themselves free, all of a sudden, to journey for miles on their own. Unmarried young women, discouraged from venturing out sans chaperone, were seen cruising solo across the countryside. Whalebone corsets gave way to what was referred to, at the time, as “rational dress.”

No good would come of this new independence, moralists warned. Physicians had their own concerns. Guroff cites a doctor who fretted that climbing hills on a bicycle might excite “feelings hitherto unknown to, and unrealized by” young women. In spite of such misgivings, the sport surged in America and Europe. Civilization survived.

Hearing Breeze hold forth on how rational dress led to some distaff cyclists being banned from British teahouses, I thought of another female athlete, and another shrine to the bike.

Located in the hills south of Lake Como, Italy, the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo is home to an impressive array of cycling mementos, including bikes once ridden by such hallowed grand tour winners as Fausto Coppi, Francesco Moser and Eddy Merckx. Among the signed jerseys suspended just below the bikes is one that Connie Carpenter-Phinney was given after the road race at the 1984 Olympics. Three hundred yards from the finish on that sweltering day in Mission Viejo, Calif., she had looked over her right shoulder at the exact moment her main rival, Rebecca Twigg, launched a sprint on her left. Carpenter-Phinney immediately rose from the saddle and started digging. With a football field to go, she was still 10 yards back, but closing. With a perfectly timed “bike throw,” she won the gold medal by three inches, in the process exciting feelings hitherto unknown, and unrealized by, well, any female. She’d just won the first Olympic road race for women.

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Up next, in the men’s road race, was her husband, Davis Phinney, a Thor-like specimen who would later become the first American to win a road stage of the Tour de France. A favorite for Olympic gold, Phinney came in fifth, a galling disappointment he has since put in perspective. Eighteen years ago, at the age of 40, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s. Over time he has learned to live with the disease, to focus on what he calls “victory moments,” the smaller, more quotidian triumphs available to us all, every day.

One bountiful source of those moments has been their son, Taylor, who has overcome considerable adversity of his own. At the U.S. nationals in Chattanooga three years ago, in a gruesome crash caused by an inattentive motorcyclist, Phinney suffered a compound fracture of his left tibia and a severed patellar tendon. For good measure, he lost a chunk of his kneecap. Doctors believed his career was over. Instead, it was merely interrupted. There was Phinney in Liege, Belgium, earlier this month, following the second stage of his first Tour de France, bussing podium girls who had just helped him slip into the polka-dot jersey awarded to the Tour’s best climber. This was sublime and ironic: The 6' 5" Phinney’s formidable skill set does not include floating effortlessly up the mountains. On this day the polka dots were his reward for spending nearly 200 kilometers of a flat stage in a four-man breakaway that was subsumed by the boiling peloton a half-mile from the finish.

All Joe Breeze wanted was to turn more Americans on to cycling. He was going to do this in his 20s by shining a light on the sport’s intriguing history and lore. That preoccupation brought him into contact, in the mid-1970s, with an aeronautical expert named Ralph Igler, who had antique bikes stashed in rooms all over his Palo Alto house. Igler’s collection of three dozen ancient bicycles was one of the best in the country. While scavenging for those dusty, fin-de-siècle safety bikes and penny-farthings, you will recall, Breeze bought the fabled five-dollar Schwinn Excelsior. One passion cut the line in front of another. “What we were trying to do with these [antique] bikes totally fell away,” he admits. “It was derailed by this new fascination.”

That passion, of course, morphed into the mountain bike, which drew more people to the sport, arguably, than anything in the history of cycling. “It was a derailment,” he concludes, “but a wonderful derailment.”

He got back on track a few years ago. Igler passed away in 2004, but Breeze, after some Googling, was able to locate his son. David Igler, a history professor at UC-Irvine, agreed that his father would have loved to see his antique collection on display at the Marin Museum of Bicycling, where it now resides.

Breezer 2—an early model of its namesake's line—resides at the Marin Museum of Bicycling.

Breezer 2—an early model of its namesake's line—resides at the Marin Museum of Bicycling.

To further commemorate the bicentennial of the bike, Breeze did a deep dive on Von Drais. The intrepid baron had caused quite a stir on June 12, 1817, when he took his creation out for its first shakedown cruise. Having researched Drais’s route “for months”—reading every account and studying old maps— Breeze arrived in Mannheim on July 9, two centuries and 27 days after the First Bike Ride. His plan was to rent a bike and retrace the trailblazing path of a man he clearly sees as a kindred spirit. Shortly after completing that journey, Breeze was kind enough to email an account of it, excerpted here:

As I exited Mannheim’s main train station I spied the NextBike bikeshare stand, where I chose my steed.... While the loudly creaking left pedal was annoying I was at least glad I had pedals, and something well more comfortable than iron tires!

My months of studying the route came through and I was able to navigate from internal GPS, pretty much. You can follow my ride on Strava at “First Bike Ride-200 years later.”

My main [target] was the turnaround point of Drais’ ride, in today’s Rheinau, a suburb of Mannheim. [That point] was the Relaishaus, a postal inn, which was also where horses would be refreshed for Mannheim-Schwetzingen coaches.

Today there’s a monument to Drais and his “Laufmaschine” at this turning point, not far from the Autobahn 6. There’s a large abstract stainless sculpture of Drais’ rig on a pedestal installed maybe 10 years ago, and on the ground nearby is a marble stone denoting what took place here 200 years ago and why it matters.

Breeze felt a twinge of sadness, he admitted, “that this hallowed ground was fairly unkempt.” Summoning his signature optimism, he predicted that in the fullness of time, Drais’s reputation, and memorial plot, would be restored.

Making himself slightly vulnerable, Breeze shared that he had been “looking forward to this 200-year moment since I was a child.”

That moment had passed, and now he sounded like a man who had come full circle.