In 1892 the Reverend Malte wrote in his book ‘How to Bicycle’, “If I were not a man, I would like to be a bird. As I am a man, I do the next best thing and ride a bicycle”. And his near contemporary Karl Kron who took nearly a thousand pages to describe ‘Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle’, mused, “All creatures who have ever walked have wished they might fly. With high wheelers [penny farthings] a flesh and blood man can hitch wings to his feet”.
And bicycles played a role in flesh and blood man archiving the centuries old dream of flight. It’s fair to say Wilbur and Orville Wright, the mechanically minded brothers from Dayton Ohio in the USA, changed the world a century ago with an invention that revolutionised transport forever. We are of course, referring to the self-tightening bicycle pedal.
Of course people had flown before. Gliders had been carrying (and sometimes killing) people for fifty years, but history does not record which of these pioneering aeronauts was the first to think, “Wow! This feels just riding a bike”. For us cyclists, the Wright Brothers achievement of 1903 was completely overshadowed by the first Tour de France, which took place in the same year. However Kill Devil Hill is now a National Park with a museum, giant obelisk and statues to mark the spot where the two bicycle mechanics swapped their wheels for wings. There’s also a sign at the bottom of the hill saying “No Bicycling”.
People thought of the Wright’s dreams of flight as crazy (until they actually did it, then they just thought they were crazy for doing it). Descriptions of the earliest cyclists are just as doubting as to their sanity. For their part the Wrights didn’t initially think of the airplane in terms of mass transport, but more as fulfilling that age old dream of man to fly like a bird. Some probably thought they should have stuck to their bikes. Louis J. Helle Jr. wrote, “Bicycling is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds. The airplane simply carries a man on its back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own”. It must be that same feeling of freedom (or maybe the feeling of wind in your hair, now lost to pilots in modern aircraft with enclosed cockpits and balding riders such as myself) that makes descriptions of flight and cycling sound so similar.
Today, flight is commonplace – it makes travel seem trivial. Rather than a delight it has become something to be endured before your holiday can begin. Jets shrunk the world, bicycles broadened horizons. A few years ago I visited the site of that first flight and on the way back to the UK gazed out of the airliner’s window at the clouds below and thanked Wilbur and Oliver for keeping the pedals on my bike and not in the air.