Backpedaling

BackpedalingBackpedalingBackpedaling

I want to ride my bicycle.
I want to ride my bike.
I want to ride my bicycle.
I want to ride it where I like.

—“Bicycle Race” by Queen (1978)

Released in the year of my birth, the song’s opening lines still route the same way in my mind, and in plenty of New Haveners’ minds. May is both New Haven and National Bike Month, with lots of local cycling-related activities in motion.

Pedal power has been moving New Haveners for longer than just about anywhere else. The city has a place near the epicenter of cycling history, going back to a Frenchman named Pierre Lallement, who tinkered with “dandy horses,” early bike-type contraptions that riders moved by walking and pushing. In 1863, he invented a foot crank—a pedal mechanism—that would change those dandy machines forever.

sponsored by

Wave Gallery & Gifts - Mother's Day 2015

Unemployed, Lallement saw more opportunity in the United States than in France, settling in the industrial hamlet of Ansonia, CT, in 1865. He brought his experimental bike project with him, finishing improvements to the prototype that fall.

Then it was time to road-test it. Lallement pedaled around Ansonia and Derby, where he experienced the first recorded “header”—or bike crash—while trying to avoid a horse-drawn wagon at the bottom of a long hill. In the spring of 1866, Lallement rode his bike from Ansonia to New Haven, taking it for a spin around the green. While riding around town, he piqued the interest of James Carroll who, seeing the potential in Lallement’s creation, convinced Lallement to apply for a patent. The application, submitted on May 4, 1866, is the first known public record of the bicycle anywhere in the world. The patent, calling the contraption a “velocipede,” was granted on November 20 that year.

Lallement first looked to manufacture his bicycle in the U.S., but he couldn’t find any traction. Selling the patent to Calvin Witty, a New Yorker, for 10,000 Francs, Lallement returned to France in 1868, working to advance the cause in that country. Around that time, in trendsetting Paris, a bike-riding craze took hold, spreading from there to the rest of Europe. Tens of U.S. companies hopped onto the bandwagon, with stateside manufacturers, including carriage-makers, creating dedicated velocipede divisions after purchasing production licenses from Witty.

sponsored by

The Critique of Reason - Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery

In New Haven, wheelers of all shapes and sizes began hitting the streets. As Samuel Hayes Elliot’s The Attractions of New Haven, Connecticut: A Guide to the City put it in 1869, “Velocipedes are now the rage at New Haven.” In 1870, the city added velocipedes to its list of vehicles prohibited from sidewalks.

By the time the initial novelty wore off, early bikes were considered too clumsy and expensive, deflating their popularity. But the bicycle’s story tunes up again in 1876, when the first high-wheel “ordinary”—or penny-farthing—bicycle was introduced to the States from England. In 1877, American Bicycling Journal began publication. The following year, the first commercially available bikes to be manufactured in Connecticut were put together by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford.

Pope produced what became known as the “Columbia ordinary” model, with a huge front wheel and tiny back one, strikingly similar to the decorative bikes you can see today in Pitkin Plaza outside The Devil’s Gear Bike Shop. (The shop keeps an authentic 1905 Pope-made Columbia model inside the store, though it’s not an ordinary but a “safety bicycle”—a much-improved design over the former, sporting evenly sized wheels, chain-driven gears and “a first-generation single-speed coaster brake,” with which you can “pedal backwards to activate the brake,” says Devil’s Gear founder Matthew Feiner, pictured second.) Pope would purchase the Lallement patent outright, and Lallement would later return to the United States to work directly with the company.

American hobbyists’ interest in cycling would surge in the 1880s. The League of American Wheelmen, now known as the League of American Bicyclists, began at the start of the decade, spurring bicycle clubs to open in New Haven. Female riders were called “Freewheelers,” a bit of a dig given that exercise activities for women were generally frowned upon at the time. Eventually, bicycles would be designed to cater specifically to women, better accommodating the dresses society still expected them to wear.

Today, bikes have heavily optimized chains and gears and brakes. They come in space-age materials with bright colors and designs. They’re specialized for surfaces from roads to mountains and tailored for purposes from leisure- to stunt-riding. There are convenience-minded folding bikes and ergonomics-minded recumbent bikes, plus tandem bikes for people who like to ride together (literally). All day, every day, they’re ridden around the world with glee.

And to think: all it took for the bicycle to get its initial kickstart was a ride around the New Haven Green.

Written by Colin Caplan. Photographed by Dan Mims.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Colin M. Caplan is a New Haven native, published author, architectural designer, historian and owner of Taste of New Haven Food and Drink Tours. He received his Masters of Architecture from Tulane University, is an Arts Award recipient from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and runs Magrisso Forte, which offers historic building consulting and vintage photography services.

Leave a Reply