MAN'S SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT bicycle began in 1816, when Baron Karl von Drais put together two wooden wheels on a heavy wooden frame, sat on a torturously uncomfortable wooden saddle and propelled himself forward by pushing with his feet. The "Draisene" weighed 70 pounds, cost $300 ($2400 by today's standards) and was an immediate hit all over Europe.
By 1885, the bicycle had a chain-driven rear wheel, handlebars, metal frame and 30-inch solid rubber tires, which resulted in a teeth-rattling ride. That year an Irish veterinarian and weekend inventor, Dr. John Dunlop, solved the tire problem by making a pair of air-filled tires for his son's tricycle out of rubber sheeting and strips of linen. Dunlop's pneumatic tires smoothed the bike rider's jaunts all right, but ironically, contributed substantially to the machine that stifled bicycle sales in America for 50 years.
By 1898, four million Americans owned two million bikes, made by 400 American manufacturers. One American out of ten owned a bike that year, compared to one out of 350 in 1971. Membership in the pioneer U.S. cycling organization, The League of American Wheelmen, numbered over 100,000.
However, by 1902 the motorcar had hit the bicycle industry with devastating impact. Sales dropped an astounding 95 per cent and the League's membership dwindled to 8,629. The evolution of technology had continued from Foot to its natural extension, Wheel; and from tandem Two-Wheel to Four-Wheel. America's love affair with the automobile had begun.
After a 50-year hibernation in attics and garages, bikes again are all the rage. Why? Well, for one thing, people have more leisure time. The four-day work week, second vacation home and three- week vacation, have all helped increase bicycle sales. So has rising personal income with its natural result, increased consumption of leisure goods. Bicycle salesmen profited by the ecological movement. Bikes make no noise. There is no exhaust pollution. Insurance and repairs are cheap. Most important, bikes are fun.
People began dragging out the old balloon-tired machine of newsboy fame, dusting it off, and learning to bike again. Cycle historians date the bike boom from 1960. From the 3.7 million new bikes sold that year, the number of bikes has climbed to 74 million today. In 1971, the Bicycle Institute of American reported that 8 1/2 million new bikes worth half-a- billion dollar's were sold. For the long-suffering bike shop owner, patience, indeed, had its own reward.
There had been some awakenings of bicycle popularity before 1960. Dr. Paul Dudley White, a member of the Bicycle Hall of Fame and President Eisenhower's heart specialist, told us to exercise more and recommended an hour's bike ride as the perfect way to keep arteries from hardening and waists from expanding.
In the 1960s, discount houses and mass retailers began to offer a bewildering array of strange looking bicycles that were fairly cheap and weighed half as much as the old newsboy special.
Thomas Stevens would eat his heart out if he could see today's bicycle. In 1884, Stevens became the first man to cross the U.S. on a bike. Sitting atop the huge 60-inch diameter front wheel that was coupled to a normal 17-inch back wheel, Stevens rode a 75-pound "Ordinary" from Oakland to Boston in 103 1/2 days. In 1954, Richard Berg left the Santa Monica, California, courthouse riding an eight-speed, stripped-down machine and carrying only a water bottle and a rear light. Fourteen days later he arrived in New York City, dog tired and cursing the cactus which had caused as many as 13 flats a day during the trip.
The bicycle of today is light, safe, durable and fun to ride. Its whole is only as good as the sum of its parts, however, and this First Law of Bicycle Shopping must always be kept in mind. No matter if you're going cross country or around the block, to buy a cheaply made bike with shoddy equipment is foolish. You will end up hating it as much as the four wheel clinker that is costing a fortune in repairs.
To help you make the best decision in buying a bike, and to help you get the most out of it once you have bought it, we have compiled some information that should be helpful.
Different spokes for different folks —Which bicycle is best for you? Do you need ten speeds, five speeds or three speeds on your bike? Two factors, aside from price, should be considered: Where and how much you will be riding.
Geography is important. If you plan on riding an hour or two a week and if there are few hills and a flat terrain where you live, then a three or five-speed would be adequate for your needs. If you have decided on a bike in this catagory, an excellent choice would be the Gitane "Tourister", a French five-speed that costs $89.95.
However, in the long run a good ten-speed is probably the best buy for most uses.
Contrary to most kinds of exercise, bicycling is something you want to do more once you learn how. Longer hours on a bike with fewer than ten gears means lots of work and aches and pains.
Another reason for preferring ten speeds is one of the best: price. For example, in the under-a-$1OO range, the Schwinn Suburban five-speed costs $86.95. For only $10 more you get five additional gears added to the same bike. The Raleigh Sprite DL-90 five-speed costs $94.95; the ten-speed, $5 more.
The anatomy —Major parts of today's bicycle include the frame, derailleur, brakes, tires, handlebars, saddle, pedals, and gears.
Frame—The first consideration in bicycle buying. In cycling, as in back-packing, the object is to travel as light as possible. The frame, more than anything else, determines the machine's weight. Secondly, since the frame is the suspension system of the bike, it must be resilient and able to absorb road shock. So the lighter and more resilient the frame, the better. The best frame in the world is