The Foundations of Bicycle Racing and the Golden Age of the
Racing Bicycle
The sport of bicycle racing
has been around since the
earliest days of the
velocipedes of the 19th
century.
Following the advent of the high-wheeled
“ordinaries” bicycle racing became a very
popular, yet quite hazardous activity. These
cumbersome cycles with hard rubber tires and
a brake in name only required considerable
courage to ride and gave rise to the term
“breakneck speed” since a crash often resulted
in the rider getting pitched over the front of
the wheel, often with devastating results. The
desire for even greater speed resulted in ever
larger wheel diameters since the only way to
get the cycle to go faster was to increase the
size of the driving wheel
With front wheels reaching 60 inches in diameter and
beyond, a search for a safer design led to the development
of the bicycle known as the “safety” which had both
wheels of equal size. The invention and development of
the pneumatic tire was a significant development in
bicycle racing and the first recorded race using pneumatic
tires was held in 1889. Safety bicycle design, pneumatic
tires, and the principle of gearing combined to bring
bicycle racing to a new level of competition, and soon
these bicycles racing on banked wooden tracks became
the sensation of the sporting world.
Professional bicycle racing
in velodromes was an
immensely popular
spectator sport in the
United States with racers
like Arthur Zimmerman
and Marshall “Major”
Taylor receiving the
accolades awarded to
superstars, their sport of
bicycle racing practically
the national sport of the
United States
Track racing prospered in Europe as well.
In 1881 a new form of track racing
originated in England – Six Day Racing –
where racers rode ordinaries
continuously around a cinder track for
six days or until fatigue overtook them.
The grueling event was soon abandoned
in England but was quickly adopted in
America where six-day racing was
enthusiastically embraced in venues like
New York’s Madison Square Garden. In
1899 the single rider competition was
outlawed for humanitarian reasons but
continued with two man teams racing
around the clock for six days
In Europe, track racing was popular, but it was road racing that captured the imagination of the people. Long
distance races from city to city such as the 355 mile (572 km) race from Bordeaux to Paris, or the punishing 795
mile (1280 km) race from Paris to Brest and back to Paris were contested before the turn of the last century.
Other races that begun then, such as
Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, are still being held to this day,
but it was in 1903 that the “race to end all races” was devised, the epic
Tour de France
A Belgian team assembles before
the start of the 1925
Paris-Roubaix
Frames of prewar racing bicycles were made of lightweight butted tubing using lugged construction. Wheel
rims were made of wood and were quite durable given the harsh road conditions encountered, however,
aluminum rims became the standard for road racing by 1937.  Derailleurs, though developed as early as the
1900's, were rarely used in road racing competition. The competitors believed derailleurs were unreliable and
created excessive drag, and were not even allowed to be used in the
Tour de France until 1937.  Multiple gear
ratios were used however. With up to three gear cogs on the rear freewheel, a gear change could be affected by
dismounting the bike, loosening the wingnuts, sliding the rear wheel in the frame dropout to release the chain
tension, placing the chain on the new cog, repositioning the rear wheel to gain proper
chain tension, remembering to retighten the wingnuts before remounting once more.
The Belgian racer Romain
Maes with Georges
Speicher at the start of the
1935 Tour de France. Maes
led the Tour from start to
finish. 1933 TdF winner
Speicher finished 6th
overall.
Maes with Gabriel
Ruozzi taking a moment
to chat at the start of a
stage in the 1935 Tour de
France. The era of
derailleurless bicycles in
professional road racing
was coming to an end.
Using their numerous racing victories
to promote their line of bicycles,
Automoto proudly displays their
competition bicycle, 'model Tour de
France' alongside the more
"pedestrian" models.
Roger Lapebie,
winner of the 1937
Tour de France,
leading the
peloton.This was the
first year derailleurs
were permitted in the
TdF and the average
overall speed for the  
Tour increased
dramatically.
Lapebie's 1937 Tour de France win,
along with Eloi Meulenberg's 1937
World Championship title using
Super Champion derailleurs signaled
a new era for the racing bicycle.
1950 Thanet Silverlight
fixed gear time trial bicycle
1955 Gillott
derailleur-equipped
time trial bicycle
In England, "massed start" races on
open roads were banned in favor of
individual time trials, where one
rider at a time set off to complete the
course against the clock. Time trial
bikes were often fixed gear bicycles,
with derailleur equipped bicycles
used when the terrain required
multiple gears.
Board track and road racing bicycles of the
prewar era have a more relaxed frame geometry as compared to modern race bikes. This made these bikes
less responsive, therefore more challenging to handle in tight quarters, however the long wheelbase
made the road racing bicycles more stable on the mostly unpaved roads they raced on.