June 3rd is World Bicycle Day. It's a good day to reflect on this rather simple machine.
Do you remember your first bicycle - not a tricycle or a 'strider', but a real honest-to-goodness bicycle? Mine was red and white and second-hand. But first, I had to learn how to ride.
With no training wheels or 'striders' back then, mom or dad or an older sibling would run alongside, holding us up and then letting us go, and we fell, and we got back up, and washed off the tears and occasional bloodied knee and repeated the pattern many times over until we were able to travel increasingly longer distances before ultimately falling over - until we were able to race down our long country lane by ourself.
There was nothing like it. We rode so fast. We explored. We met up with friends. We were independent for the first time in our lives (until suppertime).
I've never grown out of it. Riding a bicycle provides that same sense of power, of independence, of freedom that it did some 60 years ago. You forget your emotions, and your hair blows in the breeze, and the sun is on your face, and the colours of the landscape are vivid, and the birds are chirping, and the smells tickle your nose, and the endorphins kick in – and all is right with the world (or, at least, better – and we all could do with a little ‘better’ in this world today). With all those senses in over-ride, we don't pay much attention to the researched benefits of riding a bicycle. Bikeradar.com in ' 27 great benefits of cycling' provides, well, 27 benefits of cycling, ranging from fitness to less illness to lung power and even an improved sex life. You might want to check out that article. And you might know someone who just might be struggling if it were not for their trusty two-wheeled steed.
I go on short rides around the city and I go on longer rides in the country, and I've had the great fortune of going on days or weeks-long bicycle trips – some self-supported (carrying way too much gear – tent, stove, food, clothes), some semi-supported (someone was duped into carrying all that gear, and extra), and some in well-managed tours where everything is arranged and provided (except for your own strength, stamina, and perseverance) and where you meet the most amazing, like-minded people who remain social contacts forever.
If you have a road bike that costs more than most cars, or a clunker, or a townie, or a gravel bike, or a dirt bike, or a 29er, or a fat tire, or an electric bike, or even a wee strider, chances are you know all the benefits of spinning your wheels. And it doesn’t matter how far you go - if you ride, you are a cyclist.
Many of us have been enjoying cycling for over 60 years, but the lowly bicycle has been working it’s magic for generations. German Baron Karl von Drais is credited with creating the first “two-wheeled contraption in 1817", but several other inventors improved on his model and developed the bicycle as we know it in the 19th century. A ”bike craze” hit in the 1890’s and, quoting from a New York Times article from 1896: “the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give”. (history.com; 'The Bicycle’s Bumpy History').
Just as I said, it’s that feeling of power and freedom that the bicycle has been providing for hundreds of years. But ‘power and freedom’ can mean different things to different societies. In North America, it might mean a reprieve from the stressors of life or a means to get into shape or a way to enhance our health or a path to moments of happiness or a way to meet new friends or it might even be a status symbol or a way to make business connections.
In some societies, a bicycle is the main form of transportation – think of countries such as Holland and Denmark where bicycles will run you over as commuters scurry to their offices or run errands. In 'Bike Culture: Europe vs America' (reliance-foundry.com), it is pointed out that in 2011, 63 percent of people in Amsterdam rode their bicycles daily and that there were 800,000 bicycles to only 263,000 cars. In Denmark, 90% of people owned a bicycle while only 56% owned a car. And the majority of those bikes were for utility – sturdy bikes with attachments to carry groceries and supplies - and children. Of course, there are different reasons for the cycling popularity in Europe versus America, such as infrastructure, space, costs of car ownership, distances, climate, etc, but that is another topic for another time. The article is worth a read. Another insightful article with more recent, 2022, information is ‘A nation of cyclists’ (Denmark.dk) about the necessity of bicycles in the Danish lifestyle and the secondary benefits in terms of health and environment.
But in some undeveloped and developing nations, bicycles can mean the difference between survival or not for people living in rural areas. The United Nations in ‘The Value of Cycling as an Accelerator of Sustainable Development’ (un.org) spells out how a bicycle can be a means to access employment, education, markets, and medical services, all of which provide hope and growth and development (and thus equality) for needy persons and societies. A quick internet search will bring up many organizations who recognize this and are encouraging the donation of used bicycles to be repaired and sent to these countries. The United Nations believes that nearly a billion people in isolated areas can be helped through bicycle donation.
So, whether it is in North American where we tend to cycle for pleasure, fitness, stress relief, and socialization, or in Europe where the bicycle is a primary form of transportation, or in developing countries where two wheels can be essential for growth and survival, that simple machine is a powerful tool, indeed.
So, if you are able, enjoy your ride. And if you have a bicycle that has been well-used and just gathering dust, you might consider donating it to any number of agencies who will refurbish it and hand it over to a country where it might be the difference between life and death.
On June 3rd, let's give reverence to the lowly bicycle - and salute inventors like Baron Karl von Drais who had a vision.
And what was your first bicycle?