‘Two wheels, one behind the other, would fall over’

The earliest sketch of a two-wheel vehicle, with a human-like figure astride, was made by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, probably early in the 16th century. For some unknown reason, a 9-inch, almost square, stained-glass panel left Italy and is located in a small church in Stoke Poges, England, near London. People laughed, of course, at Leonardo’s tiny gnome-like figure, balanced on two wheels and also tooting a horn!

According to the science of physics in da Vinci’s time, everyone knew that "two wheels, one behind the other, would fall over."

I learned about this unusual little windowpane from Jack Hearnes, who operates Hearnes’ Bicycle Shop, near to that church. On later tours, I returned and snapped photos, including a black-and-white one for my book, "Just Leave the Dishes."

Probably as an after-thought, da Vinci added "sky hooks" to hold the "very first known sketch of a bicycle" to keep it from appearing to fall.

Da Vinci left books containing thousands of sketches, which were thought to be no more than doodles!

Three hundred years later, two carriage makers in France created a two-wheeled "toy" for the entertainment of adults. The thing rolled only straight forward because the front wheel was stationary! It had no brakes! It was propelled by the feet "thumping the ground," thereby wearing out the soles of shoes in a hurry.

Men solved the problem by having metal taps put on the front part of their soles. The discomfort of the ride on this contraption was compared to "riding a wild hog." But it was fun, and acceptance grew by leaps and bounds.

The carriage makers made two of those wood and metal "boneshakers" in 1861. Various other two-wheel devices followed.

Bicycle riding was a dress-up, rich man’s sport, and women were left at home. Their men enjoyed bicycle clubs and races on Sundays in the parks.

Women went along to watch their men having all that fun. It was not enough to dress up and be spectators; they wanted action.

One woman, activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer, got women out of their big skirts and petticoats by designing pants suitable for female bike-riding. The pants were called, of course, "bloomers." That costume allowed the movement needed for riding bicycles, without the hazards of petticoats and skirts getting tangled by the moving wheels.

Big skirts were doomed, not just on Sunday afternoons in the parks! The freedom from many skirts and undergarments was a relief, and it was here to stay.

It was women who lobbied for - and got - smooth streets and roads suitable for people riding bicycles. Many city streets were "paved" with wooden blocks set end-wise, but time and weather caused the wood to rot and disintegrate. Women lobbied for streets to be constructed of nonrotting materials, and they got them!

The high, front-wheeled Pennyfarthing, with pedals in the front axle, was the fastest bicycle! A man on a bicycle could outrun a horse. A doctor making house calls could relieve his horse of standing and stomping at flies while he was with a patient.

Little by little, the bicycle earned our attention for many jobs, for health, for efficiency and for great enjoyment.

July is the time to keep our eyes on France - this July more than any other. The Tour de France this year will include the United States’ great cyclist, Lance Armstrong, attempting to break his own records as he rides day after day, in good weather and bad, on short races and long mountain climbs.

It will consume most of the world’s attention.

Don’t miss it!

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