Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903

Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903

by Andrew Ritchie



Throughout its early history, from 1867 to 1903, the heavily technology- based sport of bicycle racing was engaged in a discourse, in words and actions, with bicycle manufacturers about how the bicycle – a complex machine dedicated to achieving human-powered movement – could best harness the physical capabilities of the human body and achieve speed, endurance, comfort and utility.  In this period, bicycle racing demonstrated a continually evolving symbiotic relationship between the sport and its specialized tool – the bicycle itself – a theme which is one of the central concerns of this book. During its early evolution, the changing functional design of the bicycle was heavily influenced by considerations of sport and speed, as well as those of comfort and practicality.

Quest for Speed provides a chronological, developmental, historical account of the emergence of bicycle racing and bicycle technology between 1867 and 1903, focusing to a large extent on Britain, but also investigating France and the United States as the two other major players. As a social and cultural history, it gives an outline of the social and institutional organization of cycling and the wider cultural, economic and technological context of the sport. In doing so, it tackles themes of class, nationality, industry and commerce, the press, speed, and the physical capacities of the human body, and also the nature and definition of ‘modernity’.

Two themes have been crucial in motivating the organization of Quest for Speed. Firstly, the ambivalent nature of the bicycle, both as a tool of sport and recreation and also as a method of practical utility transportation; and, secondly, the inextricable relationship between bicycle sport (as both competition and recreation) and the emerging modern bicycle industry and wider patterns of commerce and consumption. The 19th century cycling ‘industrial complex’ presents a well-developed, early historical example of a ‘modern’ sport used to market constantly changing products to consumers. Designers, manufacturers, advertising and marketing personnel and the cycling press were engaged in a new style of commercial activity dedicated to ‘the sport and pastime’ of cycling.


Table of Contents:


–   Sport, Speed, Technology and Modernity

1. The origins of bicycle racing in England: technology, entertainment, sponsorship and publicity

–        Historical overview
–        The beginnings of commercial bicycle production, 1865-69
–        Velocipede developments in France and the United States, 1867-69: their influence on the British sport
–        Charles Spencer’s London gymnasium
–        Bicycle competition as athletic novelty and public spectacle
–        Links between manufacture and sport
–        Varieties of competitive activity
–        An elite emerges: match racing and championships

2. Expansion of bicycling in Britain: professionalism, amateurism and social class in the 1870s

–        Overview: a cutting edge, modern technological sport
–        Technological innovation at the birth of cycle sport
–        Amateurism and professionalism in the 1870s
–        Cycling at Oxford and Cambridge universities and associated class
–        ‘Muscular Christianity’: the cycling career of Ion Keith-Falconer
–        ‘Gentlemen, not players’: the establishment of the Bicycle Union, 1877-78
–        The Bicycle Touring Club, 1878
–        Public recognition of bicycling

3. Bicycle racing in the United States in the late 1870s

–        Overview: American cycling in the late 1870s
–        The foundations of American cycling
–        Harry Etherington: bicycling entrepreneur and promoter of endurance spectacles
–        Etherington’s 1879 ‘Anglo-French’ tour of America and its repercussions
–        The founding of the League of American Wheelmen

4. Expansion of the high-wheel sport in the late 1870s and 1880s

–        Overview: the new sport expands and matures
–        Bicycle racing infrastructure: roads conditions and track construction
–        Competition in Britain: amateurism and professionalism in the late 1870s and 1880s
–        Competition in France
–        British ‘Meets’, the Springfield Tournaments and the growth of international competition
–        New departures: tricycle racing and recreational tricycling

5. Speed and safety: ‘geared up ordinaries’, the ‘safety’ bicycle and the pneumatic revolution, 1885 – 1892

–        Overview: intense development within the bicycle industry and the sport
–        Alternative designs: the ‘Facile’ and the ‘Kangaroo’
–        The rear-driven ‘Rover safety’ and the first ‘safety’ races
–        The rise of road racing
–        Competition and the revolutionary pneumatic tire

6. The foundations of modern road racing in Britain, France and the United States

–        Overview: road competition in Britain and France
–        Sport as business and athletic celebration: the foundations of modern road racing in France
–        Opposition to organized road racing in Britain
–        Lacy Hillier: amateurism versus the ‘New Professionalism’
–        Road racing in the United States

7. International competition, world championships and the foundation of the International Cyclists’ Association in 1892

–        Overview: bicycle racing as a global sport
–        National championships, international competition and early ‘World Championships’
–        The International Cyclists’ Association
–        World Champion: the international career of Arthur Zimmerman
–        Amateurism, professionalism and licensing schemes
–        The 1896 Olympic Games

8. Bicycle racing and modernity: the obsession with speed, distance and record-breaking at the turn of the century

–     Overview: the transformation of bicycle racing in the 1890s
–     Long-distance races on the road
–     Stage-races on the road and the origins of the Tour de France
–     ‘Stayer’ (paced) races
–     Six Day races
–     Professionalization and commercialization
–     ‘Gigantism’ and the pursuit of records as a social phenomenon
–     Sensationalism and ‘Gigantomania’
–     Conclusion: the emergence of a modern, professional sports structure


– Bicycle racing, speed, technology and social change

Bibliography and Index


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: