The Velocipede – ‘Mustang of Steel


Velocipathy or cycling is a term that describes the various uses of the bicycle in daily life, covering everything from recreational riding in its many forms to professional cyclists that train and perform in sporting events, transport and utility cycling that is used by many people for both personal and business transportation of goods. The central reason why cycling became so commonplace all around the world with over one billion being used every day,   are health reasons, ease of use, quite inexpensive with prices that go as low as a couple of  hundred Euro. However, the more expensive sports designs can cost many thousands. Also, they’re relatively easy to maintain, reduced pollution of burning fossil oils, reduced traffic and parking congestion, and less need for perfectly maintained road surfaces. In recent times cycling has again become popular so much so that there are approximately 150 billion velocipedes being used throughout the world.



On a Bicycle Built For Two


Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you’ll look sweet

Upon a seat

Of a bicycle made for two

Michael, Michael, here is your answer True

I’m not crazy all for the love of you

There won’t be any marriage, If you can’t afford a carriage ‘Cause I’ll be switched if I get hitched

On a bicycle built for two [1]



 “Next to a leisurely walk, I enjoy a spin on my tandem bicycle. It is splendid to feel the wind blowing in my face and the springy motion of my iron steed. The rapid rush through the air gives me a delicious sense of strength and buoyancy, and the exercise makes my pulse dance and my heart sing.” [1]




n 2013, Jeremy Clarkson surprised viewers of Top Gear by declaring: “I bought a bicycle.” Then he told them he’d also bought a T-shirt to wear while riding his new possession and held it up to display its logo: “Motorists: Thank you for letting me use your roads.” His starting point is so obvious it possibly doesn’t need to be stated even to the Clarkson’s of this world. From occasionally observing the silliness exhibited by Clarkson and his colleagues in the Top Gear programme, it’s evident they don’t suffer from vehophobia or tacophobia and its strongly advisable not to try and emulate their puerile and grandiloquent antics on the show. However, before cars and Top Gear came along, there were plenty of roads and originally cars were seen as the interlopers.


MP Sir Ernest Soares told Parliament in 1903:

“Motorists are in the position of statutory trespassers on the road … roads were never made for motor-cars. Those who designed them and laid them out never thought of motor-cars.” [2]


Also, Sir Frederick Banbury MP for Peckham said:


“A few people claim the right to build cars of enormous weight and speed and to monopolize the public roads for the running of these cars … harmless men, women and children, dogs and cattle have all got to flee for their lives at the bidding of one of these slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity.” [3]


Life on two wheels has been an integral part of our culture since the 1800s, where it met the perfect collision of growing cities and technological innovation. From the velocipede to today’s carbon frames, the bicycle knows innovation just as well as the steam engine or automobile. The resurgence of cycling culture in recent years is nostalgic of the significant boom to the end of the 19th century. Developments in transforming transportation, the growing burgeoning social movements can be largely attributed to the popularity of the bicycle (although some may argue that the Industrial Revolution played a bigger role). The history of the bicycle is a perfect reflection of industry and society being one and the same. [4]

Today, the closest cycling area that mimics cycling was recreational riding of mountain bikes which was born recently during the 1970s. There’s nothing more important to a bicycle than the wheel. Just when this simple yet powerful device was invented is hotly debated, but historians generally agree it originated in Mesopotamia in around 3,500 BC. These early wheels tended to be attached to carts and drawn by draught animals – predominantly horses. It would remain relatively unchallenged for millennia until the Industrial Revolution making human-powered devices more practical. The thrust of this article is to look at the evolution of the velocipede and its uses since its humble beginnings back in the 1700s.


Various  Names

Throughout its time, in its various shapes and incarnations, the bicycle has collected a long list of names which help illustrate its ubiquity.

Naming an invention can be difficult because it should be a perfect fit, a “living word” that relates the function and character of the device. As the invention evolves in technology and culture, the name must continue to “live” or else be replaced.[5] To describe early bicycle-like machines, many inventors, critics, and scholars combined various root-words until the Franco-Greco-Latin word “vélocipède” (velox: fast + ped: feet) became the first international name. The velocipede itself became a root-word for creative additions such as velocipedomania (a social phenomenon), velocipathy (a natural exercise and general development to every muscle of the body) and other words such as velocinasium, velocipedarium, velocipedestrienne. According to historical records, the origin of cycling has its roots in the garden of the Palais Royal in Paris. In 1791, the Comte de Sivrac was spotted riding a rigid two-wheeled contraption called a Celerefere. Although entirely dysfunctional and impossible to steer to change direction, the rider had to physically redirect the front wheel with a drag, lift or jump. The Celerefere, according to stories, had four wheels and a seat and was powered by the rider using their feet to walk or run to push off and glide for a short distance. The novelty of the new invention sparked interest among the public by 1793 as sporting clubs all over Paris began organizing frequent races along the famed Champs Elyesees. [6] As with any popular invention, the Celerefere went through many iterations before resembling today’s geared and chained bicycle. Over the years the Velocipide has many different names such as the Draiseine, Boneshaker, Penny-Farthing, High Nellie, Rover, Safety Bicycle and others.


The “Velo”

The word “bicycle” appeared on an 1869 British Velocipede patent by J.I. Stassen and in a few years the name was commonly applied to high-wheelers.[7] The Flemish author Stijn Streuvels described the naming of the bicycle in his Collected Works: [8]

“I think of our Flemish word “rijwiel” for “bicycle.” Has any machine ever become so popular, so widespread in so short a time, and have we ever had more difficulty in finding a name for it?

The new machine was like a revelation, everyone wondered how something so simple could have remained unknown for so long, why it had taken so long to discover it. Each nation gave it a name of its own in their own language. The French had little trouble with this and, as always when they have to name something new, they took a piece of Greek and a piece of Latin and stuck them together, giving us the “velocipede.” For everyday use, however, this name proved too long and too cumbersome for something so speedy, and they shortened it to “velo.”

The growing family of cycling machines inspired many attempts to rename and categorize them. The name “human-powered vehicles” came about as a generic way of making the point that people can transport themselves with their own energy in unlimited ways. Many people feel this is not a “living” phrase, even though the human is combined as driver and power source. As a vehicle it opens up possibilities and reflects a new paradigm for cycling machines. Like many phrases of its day, it comes with the acronym HPV (prounouned “_ch-pee-vee”), which some folks thought was DOA. Mike Burrows describes the HPV dilemma in “My Other Bike is a Recumbent” from Encyclopedia 1993/94:

“Mention the initials HPV to the average person and you usually get a blank look. Mention them to a cyclist and you will either get a beaming smile or be told they are the greatest, or a growl and some mutterings about going under lorries.”

‘Mustang of Steel’

If you have ever been or currently a Velocipedist, then you‘ll understand the benefits and also the dangers associated with riding the ‘Mustang of Steel’. Velocipedes have been around since the 1800s and have improved substantially in the intervening years. Increased cycling activity delivers considerable benefits to communities across Ireland and the UK. On average, 90 per cent of cycle commuters and 80 per cent of mixed mode cycling commuters attain recommended physical activity levels compared to 51 per cent of non-active commuters.[9] Analysis by Transport for London (TfL) found that if Londoners cycled or walked for just twenty minutes a day, the NHS could achieve net savings of roughly £1.7 billion over the next 25 years (TfL, 2017). 



Before the creation of today’s modern bicycle, there were several examples of simpler transport devices. It all started in the 16th century with the discovery of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches, which included simple bicycle designs. Some historians claim that either his student – Cian Ciacomo Caprotti – made these drawings or that they were fake. These designs were never used to produce a working model and in the following 400 years, horses remained the only affordable means of transport on public roads. The German, Baron Karl von Drais invented the precursor to the modern bicycle during the early 19th century. This Velocipede named “Laufmaschine” aka ‘Running Machine’ or ‘Hobby Horse’ consisted of two wheels that were held together with one central bar. The driver had to walk and run to gather the required speed and then raise his legs and continue to cruise until his momentum faded. Von Drais’s design was improved in England with the commercially successful “Dandy Horse”. [10]


War Cycling

During the long history of bicycles, another interesting cycling type was formed – the war cycling. This type of transportation was used by military units that were trained to use bicycles as the main transport device for both soldiers and cargo. After more than 100 years of use all around the world, the last bicycle infantry unit was disbanded in 2003 in Switzerland. Transportation during battle has a long and fascinating history. Horses have been used as transport in many civilizations throughout history. Did you know that during World War II, Hitler attempted to invade the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) with more horses than Napoleon did? Next to horses, the use of bicycles was popular and for some armies as an important mode of transport. At the start of WWII, the German army used bicycles to infiltrate Norway and Poland. Also, the Japanese army used the most bicycles during WWII. During the invasion of Malaysia, thousands of soldiers cycled into Singapore. Because of a fuel shortage, the bicycle was an easier and faster way to transport militaries to the front lines, than other vehicles. For the Japanese army, fuel was not the only problem. Since rubber was in short supply, they had to learn to ride their bikes on the rims when they had flat tyres and could not repair them. One of the more interesting innovations in military bikes was the BSA Airborne bicycle. These bikes were specially designed for the UKs paratroopers. The bike could fold up and be attached to the front of the paratrooper’s suit. When folded, the bike was compact enough to be carried and to jump out of the plane with the bike.

The Birmingham Small Arms Company produced 70,000 of these bikes between 1942 and 1945. Their greatest use was by the British and Canadian infantries during the D-day invasion and in Arnhem in the second wave. Although these bikes were not used as much as the original plan intended, it was still better and faster than walking. In 1944, the military jeeps were available and bicycles became less important. With the advent of the bicycle, military minds recognized the efficiency of transporting troops via a mode that required no feed, no special care and no rest. On 12 October 1944, Hitler personally approved commencement of the largest bicycle theft that the bike-crazy nation of Denmark had ever witnessed. He did this in the middle of the Soviet advance and with the US and UK armies encroaching from the west. (During Operation Barbarossa)


Cycling Infrastructure

The Government has therefore sought to boost cycling activity to help improve public health outcomes and secure broader economic and ecological benefits. In 2017, the average number of miles cycled per person was 54 per cent higher than in 2002. The introduction of new Cycle Superhighways and Quietways in London has also succeeded in increasing cycling by approximately 56 per cent in the capital (TfL, 2017). Within its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy 2017, the Government dedicated a further £1.4 billion to help boost safe cycling activity. Key allocations include an extra £101 million to ‘improve’ and ‘expand’ existing cycling infrastructure (DfT 2018). Despite sustained investment, the actual number of UK cyclists has not grown since 2002 (DfT, 2018). The amount of individuals who are dependent on cycling for commuting purposes has also remained stable at 4 per cent throughout the same period. In 2017, a social attitudes survey conducted by the Department for Transport (DfT) reported that 62 per cent ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that “It is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”. Moreover, a 2018 review published by Sustrans has warned of inadequate cycle paths across the country with 46 per cent of the National Cycle Network considered either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ (Sustrans, 2018). The review also suggested establishing priorities to educate road users and promote cyclists’ wellbeing through further training opportunities. Also, to develop approaches to deliver joined up transportation systems which support existing transport infrastructure and utilize smart design. In 2017, the Rt. Hon Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport said:


“We are making cycling and walking more accessible to everyone because of the substantial health and environmental benefits –

it will also be a boost for businesses because a fitter and healthier workforce is more productive… we are now publishing a long-term investment plan because we are absolutely committed to increasing levels of cycling and walking”.


Ford Started Good Roads?

It wasn’t motorists who began the process of improving roads in the UK and US, after decades of neglect during the age of the train. It was late-19th-century cyclists and well-organized lobbying organizations such as the Cycling Touring Club in the UK and the Wheelmen of America. They first campaigned for properly paved roads, mapped them out and also ensured that politicians took notice. One parade of cyclists in San Francisco in 1896 even carried with it a “gallows, from which hung a dummy representing ‘the first man who will vote against good roads’.”

It was only later that motoring groups were able to start taking credit for the cyclists’ work. They often deliberately distorted history in the process. In 1927 Henry Ford sent out a press release commemorating the 15 millionth Model-T to have rolled off the production line and declaring that “Ford … started the movement for good roads”. In the face of the mass of evidence Reid [11] presents, this untruth seems egregious – although not out of character. Ford appears as a fantastic bogeyman throughout the book, putting almost as much energy into spreading lies as he did into making cars. Even the idea that Ford invented assembly line mass production is exposed as a myth. As early as 1881, the Pope Manufacturing Company was manufacturing bikes (trade name ‘Columbia’) [12] with interchangeable parts and developing production lines with modern machine tools soon after. Reid produces evidence that Ford visited the Columbia factory before developing his own production line.


Saddle, Paddle & Skedaddle

Cars owe plenty of other debts to bikes. Alongside the usable roads that made it possible to career around in early cars, motorists can thank cyclists for differential gearing, pneumatic tyres, the mass production of ball bearings and the first road signs. “I was also delighted to learn about an Anti-Automobile league set up by a group of farmers who vowed to “give up Sunday to chasing automobiles, shooting and shouting at them” said Carlton Reid. [13]

And who wouldn’t share Reid’s pleasure in the “delicious” subtitle of the 1896 tome – The Velocipede: Its Past Present and Future – Straddle a Saddle, Then Paddle and Skedaddle. (Reed refers to himself as a Velocipedestrianisticalistinarianologist – one who studies the study of cycling). [14] It is sometimes possible to argue with Reid. He claims that 19th-century cycling, like motoring, was mainly a rich man’s pursuit. “Tricycles, especially, were vehicles for moneyed individuals,” he writes. In fact, HG Wells had access to one in the early 1880s when he was barely out of short trousers and most definitely wasn’t rich. His mother was a servant, his father was a failed shopkeeper and injured county cricketer and he himself was sent off to be a draper’s apprentice before he completed his education. This experience would form the basis for his novel The Wheels of Chance – an 1896 book describing cycling as a pursuit easily within the reach of its protagonist, another poor draper’s assistant – and indeed describing it as a pursuit that helped level out the classes. But that doesn’t detract from Reid’s main arguments: that cyclists pioneered highway improvements, that the arrival of the car saw the needs of the many “thrust on one side for the few”, that the supposed libertarian motorists calling for “freedom” on the roads have won their own privileges at the expense of other users. Next time Clarkson wears his bike T-shirt, someone should throw this book at him.


Evil Spirits and Our Long Love Affair with the Bike

National Bike Week always gives us an opportunity to reflect on the road we’ve travelled from the first ‘Boneshakers’ to bike-to-work schemes, bikes for hire, cycle lanes and legally dubious motor-enhanced models. Ireland’s love affair with bicycle got off to a shaky start, with some alarmed rural dwellers mistaking the first cyclists for evil spirits. At least on terrified pioneer had to pedal furiously to escape a hail of stones. Historian Brian Griffin dug up a report from one early enthusiast whose group approached the village of Spiddal Co. Galway in the 1880s. As dusk descended, they switched on their lamps. One wrote:  “It happened to be a holiday and the people had assembled in crowds along the roadside to chat or indulge in rustic games. As we noiselessly approached, every voice grew silent and they gazed awestruck, at the mysterious light against the murky sky … But as soon as they saw we were real flesh and blood, they ran alongside with shouts of delight and exclamations in Irish.” The lethal Penny Farthing, or Ordinary Bicycle, was the natural enemy of long skirts, so the Safety Bicycle appeared in 1886 especially for women. With two same-sized wheels, a chain and pedals, men quickly demanded the same.

The spectacle of women in the saddle drew open hostility from the man in the street. Beatrice Grimshaw lamented that “yells, hoots, prayers and curses” followed after the daring pioneers of feminine wheeling wherever they appeared. By the turn of the 20th century, the craze had swept Ireland as both an adventure sport and a practical means of getting from A to B. With factories springing up everywhere, the Irish became a nation of bicycle owners. In 1898, Irish Tourist ran a piece entitled ‘Dublin 50 Years Hence’, which imagined the River Liffey from Capel Street Bridge to the Custom House pumped dry to create a long, broad cycleway. That didn’t happen and 50 years on, the Liffey still flowed freely to the sea, but the vision of Dublin as a bicycle city had otherwise come to pass. In 1954, one newspaper complained that cyclists acted liked they owned the roads. In an article headed ‘Are You a Road Menace’, the writer fulminated: “What of the bicycle menace? Dublin alone, sometimes known as the City of the Bicycles, offers some startling lapses of road safety. Defective brakes, lack of rear lights, cycling three abreast, swerving unexpectedly, and taking chances in crowded traffic – all play their part in the toll of road accidents.”  Irish society has run on two wheels for generations before a small economic boom in the 1960s brought many more cars on the roads. The upwardly mobile classes now looked down on the humble two-wheeler that had served them so well for so long.



Cycling’s prestige hit a pre-Lance Armstrong low when the Fine Gael political party were attacked for failing to protect the law-abiding public from “the thug, the robber, the flick-knife operator and the gentlemen in Dublin with their bicycle chains.” Cycling in Ireland enjoyed not just rehabilitation, but a renaissance in the 1980s. When the very first professional rankings were completed in 1984, the statistics’ paced Waterford’s Sean Kelly as Number one, a position he held for five straight seasons. But it was the media –friendly Stephen Roche who really put Irish bums back on the triangular seats. In 1987, Roche won cycling’s big three events, the World Championship, Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, Cycling was now Ireland’s new national sport. As Roche-mania swept the land, he realised he’d created a monster; “You end up being hassled by people talking about bicycles all the time. That’s why I stay home a lot.” Sadly, the cycling craze coincided with the arrival of a revealing new wonder fabric in sports clothing, Lycra, which in turn gives us the ‘mamil’ or middle-aged men in Lycra. Sporting crazes come and go, but men in the throes of midlife crisis will always be with us, and the unsightly bulging of the biking mamil remains a hazardous distraction to other road users. In the name of a green future, we are all being encouraged on to our bikes, which may mean a short-term increase in mamil sightings.

But as a non-biodegradable, non-recyclable synthetic fibre, Lycra could well be headed for the banned list. Future generations will surely give thanks. [15]



It would be hard to imagine a world without bicycles. They are everywhere and chances are that most or all of you reading this can or have ridden one at some point in your life. The history of this apparently popular mode of transport is a long and interesting one but the bike is actually a fairly new invention. For some time now, there has been a debate that Cian Giacomo Caprotti – a student of Leonardo da Vinci – might have made a sketch of a bicycle-like device in 1534. The authencity of this evidence has been suggested as a fake by many prominent historians but yet others attest to its validity. Then the ‘Laufmaschine’ aka the ‘Running Machine’, or ‘Hobby Horse’ was invented by Baron Karl Von Drais – a German inventor. Although it might be unrecognisable as a bicycle when compared to modern examples, it did consist of a frame with two wheels. The velocipede was a two-wheeled bicycle that came with pedals and cranks on its front wheel. It consisted of a combination of a wooden frame with metal tyres that made for very uncomfortable ride over cobbled streets. Because of its design, it quickly earned the nickname the ‘Boneshaker’ – a name that would stand the test of time. A major plus of cycling is the health benefits and with the increasing volume of motor vehicle traffic in towns and cities, cycling is a good way to get to your destination quickly but not necessarily safely. However, cycling comes with some danger, as motorists and cyclists don’t always appear to mix well. As mentioned above, the Velocipide doesn’t need feed, takes very little maintenance or rest and can be stored quite easily. While the basic frame design has stayed the same for over a hundred years, the use of space age materials like titanium and carbon fibre has created bikes far lighter and stronger than creations of the early iron and wooden models could ever have imagined. Today, there are hybrid bikes and commuter bikes that can range from fast and light racing-type with flat bars and other minimal concessions to casual use, to wider-tyred bikes designed primarily for comfort, load-carrying and increased versatility over a range of different road surfaces. Electric bikes have also become more popular of late – a trend that is unlikely to slow down in the future. In 2010, worldwide production of bicycles was in the range of 125/130 billion. Therefore, this is indicative that cycling is once again a booming activity.

Finally, it appears many motorists assume the roads were built for them. In fact, many will argue that cars are the Johnny-come-latelys of the highways and must recognise that cyclists – who preceded cars – are as entitled to use the highway as they are.  Remember too, cycling is better for your body, mind, wallet and the world and will get you to your destination much faster especially when the roads are clogged with heavy  traffic and travelling at a snail’s pace. This is where your Velocipede – or ‘Mustang of Steel’ which originated all those years ago shines out. And if 100 years from now there is a further synthesis of body, mind and machine in cycles, we humans may become biocyclists riding cybercycles in an effort to help keep our minds and body fit and healthy.


Tom Harrington LL B F Inst. MTD (January 2019)

[1] Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, notes how the physical effects of bike riding are exhilarating to the senses.

[2] The Guardian April 2013:

[3] The Guardian April 2013:

[4] Bicycles in America. Yasmeen Mughal.

[5] David Perry. Bike Cult: The Ultimate Guide to Human Powered vehicles – Naming the Bicycle

(Last accessed 19 March 2019).

[6] https://www.backroads .com

[7] David Perry. Bike Cult: The Ultimate Guide to Human Powered Vehicles – Naming the Bicycle

(Last accessed 19 March 2019).

[8] David Perry. Bike Cult: The Ultimate Guide to Human-Powered Vehicles. Naming the Bicycle.

[9] British Medical Journal (2017)

[10] Bicycle History.

[11] Roads were not built for cars by Carlton Reid – review.

[12] Made by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Boston, Mass around 1881. National Museum of American History.

[13] Roads were not built for cars by Carlton Reid – review.

[14] The Guardian.

[15] Damien Corless. Evil Spirits, MAMILS and Our Long Love Affair with the Bike. Irish Independent. Tuesday June 25, 2019.


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