A Short History of the Off-Road Bike (Part 1 – Continued)

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From the 1860s to the Beginning of the 20th Century (continued)

Popular Roads and the Standardisation of Road Racing

Just as today’s bike magazines are filled with suggestions for off-road rides, the early cycle magazines printed descriptions of exceptionally good roads. Among the cyclists in England, the country of origin of the modern bicycle, the Portsmouth Road was particularly popular. The road led from London, the capital of the Empire, to the most important port of the Royal Navy and was therefore well developed and comparatively smooth. As the carriages lost their importance to the railway, the cyclists adopted the road. Since the 1880s, a popular day trip led from London’s Battersea Park to Ripley to stop at the local pubs and inns. Thereby strengthened, they cycled back to  the metropolis. Viscount Bury, a cycling enthusiast of the first hour, even ennobled Ripley Road as the “Mecca of all good cyclists“.

View from Littleworth Common towards Thames Ditton on the Ripley Road
Source: Cycling World Illustrated, 18th March 1896
© British Library Board (General Reference Collection 1896 LOU.LON 91 [1896])

In road racing, events have always been held on public roads. Nevertheless, racetrack were established in the competitive field. The tracks were built of ash, later of wood planks or cement. Thanks to the smooth ground, it was already possible to race with high wheeled bicycles under comparatively good conditions. On the tracks, the racing machines were not only more comfortable to ride, but also much faster.

Herne Hill Race Track in London with Wooden Planks
Source: Cycling World Illustrated, 15th July 1896
© British Library Board (General Reference Collection 1896 LOU.LON 91 [1896])

In time trialling and endurance competitions, particularly good roads were used as an alternative to mundane laps on the track. In England, for example, the Great North Road was used, which – similar to the Portsmouth Road – was always kept in good condition as it was the main connection from London to Scotland. An article in Wheel World described the North Road in 1886 as an “Elysium for Fast Riders” and individual parts of the road as “miles of the best road in the world”.

Great North Road in East Finchley in North London
Source: Cycling World Illustrated, 17th June 1896
© British Library Board (General Reference Collection 1896 LOU.LON 91 [1896])

Thanks to racetracks and the almost routinised use of roads such as the Great North Road, several factors could be controlled. The track was smooth and the route was the same for all competitors. Standardised conditions like these allowed the performance of the racers to be compared not only within a single race but across different events. Only then was it possible to compile meaningful lists of the fastest times currently run on certain routes – the records.

Excerpt from a List of Records on Racing Tracks, from: Viscount Bury & G. Lacy Hillier, Cycling (Badminton Library), 3. ed. London: 1891

Other racing formats like the demanding long-distance cycling races – e.g. Paris-Brest-Paris, which was established in 1891 and covers over 1,200 kilometers – or stage races like the Tour de France, which was launched in 1903, seemed almost inhumane. Not only because of their length but also because of their use of conventional (i.e. gravel) roads. The loose road surface promised an additional thrill. This not only strained the health of the riders but also the material had to be robust enough to stand the test of the roads.

Charles Terront, Winner of the First Edition of Paris-Brest-Paris 1891 on a Humber Racing Machine with Pneumatic Tyres
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not unlike today’s mountain bikes, these early road bikes were equipped with wide tyres. Such races therefore seem to have become only possible with the availability of the pneumatic tyre.

Octave Lapzie, Winner of the 1910 Tour de France in the Pyrenees

Octave Lapize, who won the Tour de France in 1910 which included the now famous passes of the Pyrenees like the Tourmalet or the Aubisque for the first time rode such a sturdy bike. However, he attributed his victory to another reason: In winter-time he used to race the demanding “cyclo-pédestre”. Now known as cyclo-cross, this sport also originated in France at the turn of the 20th century. The race courses led over rocks or logs and where designed in a way that the racers also had to carry or push their bikes. Under these conditions, the machines couldn’t be anything but suitable for off-road use. Looking at pictures from the early races “cyclo-pédestre”, it almost seems that the mountain bike sport was invented back then for the first time.

French Championship in Cyclo-Pédestre in Fontainebleau, 1922
Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

(To be continued in part 2: From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1960s)

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