We’ve all gotten a little overexcited about bikes from time to time, and why not. Every since we learned balance in motion, new avenues of liberation were opened to us. Throughout history, a handful of bikes have changed—really changed—cycling. We’re not talking “7 percent lighter” here, we’re talking “feels like a whole new sport.” In chronological order:
1. The Velocipede, aka The Boneshaker, 1864
Before 1864, the closest thing anyone had to a bicycle was the “Walking Machine”—essentially a bicycle without pedals, or an adult-sized Strider bike. In 1864, a documented purchase of a pedal-driven two-wheeled vehicle, the Velocipede, was recorded. Its pedals were attached directly to the front wheel hub (so it was also the first fixie), and it was made completely out of wood (including the wheels/tires), giving early adopters a bumpy ride, and earning it the nickname “The Boneshaker.” The Michaux family sold the machines in Paris, and the Velocipede became one of the bigger asterisks in bicycle history: The family may have used Pierre Lallement’s pedal-driven wheel design, which he patented in the United States in 1866.
2. Safety Bicycle, 1876
In 1876, Harry (or Henry) John Lawson designed what came to be known as the world’s first “safety bicycle”—most men at the time rode around on high-wheel pennyfarthings, which placed the rider high above the ground. The safety bicycle used a chain-and-sprocket design, and put the rider lower, with feet in safe reach of the ground.
3. The Pneumatic-tired Safety Bicycle, 1888
In 1888, an Irish veterinary surgeon named John Dunlop tinkered with his son’s tricycle, fitting it with inflatable canvas tubes bonded with rubber. He used the word “pneumatic” for the first time to describe the tires, which were the world’s first inflatable tires, not just the world’s first inflatable bicycle tires. This improved the boneshaking characteristics of bicycles significantly, and W. Edlin and Co. began to manufacture frames to fit the new tires. In 1889, cyclist Willie Hume raced for the first time on pneumatic tires and won all four races at a Queens College Sports event in Belfast.
4. Allegro Competition: Derailleurs Go Mainstream, 1937
You actually could pick any number of bikes from the 1937 Tour de France, because that was the first year in which derailleurs were allowed (though many racers still shunned what they considered the anti-competitive devices). Derailleurs in those days were rudimentary (chain drops were very common) but they were still faster than changing wheels for climbing or sprinting. That proved decisive for the eventual winner, Roger Lapébie, a wise early adopter of the technology. His advantage by stage 15 had his Luddite rivals seeking revenge — someone cut his handlebars with a saw just before the start and he had to do an emergency fix. That cost him some penalty time, but he still went on to win the stage and the entire race, and from then on nobody raced the Tour (or any other form of non-track competition) without derailleurs.
5. The Huffy Penguin and the Schwinn Stingray: The First BMX Bikes, 1962-63
In 1962 and 1963, Huffy and Schwinn both took note of a Southern California trend: boys who built funny-looking modified bikes with 20-inch wheels and butterfly handlebars. Both companies introduced production models of the idea in 1963, although Huffy abandoned the Penguin and started making the Dragster the next year. The Schwinn Stingray would survive in most Americans’ memories as the “first.” In 1970, the motorcycle movie On Any Sunday made its debut. The first scene in the movie featured kids riding Schwinn Stingrays on a dirt track and imitating their motorcycle heroes—which many historians agree is the genesis of BMX racing in America.
6. The Breezer: The First Mountain Bike, 1977
Joe Breeze, a Marin County framebuilder, put together the first all-new mountain bike, a prototype named Breezer #1, in late 1977. It had lightweight tubing, knobby tires, Schwinn S2 rims, and Phil Wood hubs. Breeze showed it to his friend Tom Ritchey, who took interest, and his friend Gary Fisher. A bit earlier in 1977, Charlie Kelly had designed a mountain bike and had his friend Craig Mitchell build it—but he wasn’t as satisfied with it and eventually bought a Breezer. Tom Ritchey started building mountain bike frames, and had a hard time selling them, so he asked Gary Fisher to sell them. Fisher and Kelly started a business called “Mountainbikes,” which later became Gary Fisher Bicycles.
7. Specialized Stumpjumper FSR, 1994
Specialized founder Mike Sinyard has never been afraid to take a good idea and make it better, even if that meant buying patents and refining them. So it went with the Horst Link, a four-bar rear suspension design that divided pedaling forces (a.k.a., “bob”) and chain tension from what the suspension was supposed to do — soak up impacts from the ground. The Horst design originated in motocross, but Sinyard saw the potential for bikes, and the Horst was renamed FSR (Future Shock Rear) — a design Specialized has revised it ever since. The patent is set to expire and that may yield yet further refinement from other brands, though we’ve also seen enough variations on the theme to guess that Specialized itself might go an entirely new direction just as the competition adopts the old FSR idea.
8. Gary Fisher Supercaliber 29, 1999-2000
As with all things mountain bike, the 29er “invention” myth is argued over with the zeal that only the truly pious can muster. The reality is that wheel sizes have been monkeyed with on bikes for their entire existence. And guys like Gary Fisher toyed with 29ers as far back as the early 1980s, they just couldn’t get knobby 29er tires until near the end of the millennium. That’s when WTB was pushing its Nanoraptor 29er rubber on the likes of Fisher. Eventually that led to an entire line of Fisher bikes with big wheels and, after a very deliberate push, the skeptics became converted. Or lots did, anyway. Now about that 27.5 thing…
9. Santa Cruz Blur: Suspension Gets Real, 2001
Santa Cruz didn’t invent the virtual pivot point suspension, but who cares? It bought the rights from a nothing brand and built it into something that changed the industry. And we should all be grateful for it, because up until that point most of the suspension on the market only kinda sorta worked to isolate pedaling forces, which meant you’d pay a huge price on the climbs for riding full suspension. And while critics still complain that VPP can cause “brake jack” — sometimes the suspension fails to travel when you’re braking and pedaling simultaneously — the design has become the poster child for suspension that could be light, efficient, and would work in increasingly longer travel applications — a phenomenon seen in Santa Cruz’s broad and highly successful line. Also, VPP pushed other brands to go further. VPP made the extremely popular single-pivot bikes look stupid, which meant that all the major players had to innovate.
Additional reporting by Michael Frank