DOMAZAN, France (AFP) — For the next month the eyes of the sporting world will be on the Tour de France, yet few people know what a significant year this is for the bicycle.

Much to the chagrin of amateur historian Claude Reynaud, the 200th anniversary of the invention of the bicycle is likely to pass by with little pomp or fanfare as millions of pairs of eyes gaze at television screens or from the roadside to watch Chris Froome and his rivals battle for yellow jersey glory.

And yet, the 104th edition of the world’s most prestigious cycle race starts in Dusseldorf on Saturday. In this country, 200 years ago, Baron Karl Drais invented the bicycle.

Billions of people use bicycles, many on a daily basis, and yet few are aware of this important milestone.

“No one is celebrating it because the information is unknown,” complained Reynaud, a viticulturist from the south east of France. “While the Tour de France starts in Dusseldorf this year, when the Grand Boucle presented its route, no one evoked the bicentenary — it’s unknown outside of a small circle of initiates.”

Reynaud has fought a 50-year battle to defend the memory of the invention of the bicycle.

He even houses a museum in its honor at his chateau in Domazan, in the Occitanie region of France.

“I could talk about it for hours,” Reynaud said of the history of the bicycle, his gravelly voice almost drowned out by the sound of crickets.

He has written several self-published books on the subject that are sold only at his chateau.

“It’s from passion,” he said of his tireless labours.

Reynaud said it was on June 12, 1817 that “for the first time, a man took a two-wheeler and went on a road” in the Mannheim region of what was then the Grand Duchy of Baden, now part of southwest Germany.

Baron Drais’s “velocipede” (nicknamed the ‘dandy horse’) had no pedals or a chain. It required the rider to propel his “Laufmaschine” (running machine) by pushing off the ground with his feet.

But the Baron’s genius was that “he discovered balance on two wheels,” said Reynaud. “Like all ingenious inventions, it seems obvious, but someone had to think it. He invented the two-wheeler!”


However, the running machine was far from a resounding success and had its faults. Notably, it was difficult to control on bumpy surfaces.

When Drais organised a demonstration of the velocipede at the Jardin de Luxembourg park in Paris in 1818, “it was a disaster.”

“People thought it was ridiculous and made cartoons about it,” said Reynaud. He has included some of those caricatures in his museum.

“At first, it didn’t work, he couldn’t sell it, people made fun of it.”

But the idea had taken root and was soon being copied, particularly in France. Many draisines (as it was known there) were adorned with horses heads.

In 1866, Pierre Lallement attached pedals to the draisine and invented a pedal-powered velocipede.

The next stage in the development of the bicycle saw a huge front wheel attached with a small rear wheel. The machine was far from stable and resulted in some spectacular crashes.

It wasn’t until 1885 that two similar-sized wheels were attached to the velocipede.

“After that it was just a case of technical improvements, but all the ideas already existed — brake cables, pedals, chains,” said Reynaud.

“The bicycle enjoyed an exponential success, especially from 1890 with the invention of the tire.”

Reynaud’s Chateau de Bosc welcomes 6,000 visitors a year to its museum but the amateur historian’s greatest regret is that he doesn’t own an original Laufmaschine to put on display.

“There are only four left and they belong to national museums. They’re out of reach, I’ll never have one.”

Here’s a galley from another bicycle museum in France, the Musée du Vélo:

Musée du Vélo: Main entry
The Musée du Vélo was originally in Cormatin, France, from 1997 to 2007. It had to close its doors for financial reasons, but it later re-opened in Tournus, France, in 2009. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Plastic bike
An all-plastic bicycle, with the exception of a few parts, was built by Itera in the 1980’s. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Triplet
With drop bars in front and mustache bars in back, this triplet bicycle dates back to 1938. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Velo china
A collection of velo-inspired china. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Adjustable saddle
There was even a three-level saddle height adjustment on the dandy-horse from 1820. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Dandy-horse
In 1817, German Baron Karl Von Drais invented the dandy-horse. Ridden like a strider bike, the dandy-horse is the first known bicycle and was patented in 1818. This 1820 version was used by Von Drais to cover 14.4km in one hour. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Child's bike
It is hard to tell the scale from the photo, but this Peugeot wooden bicycle is sized for a child. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Needlepoint
Handmade needle work scenes of European cycling. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Lefty righty
Lefty! No, righty! This wild bicycle has a lefty fork and righty stays. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Downtube shifter
A downtube shifter on a 1937 Tour de France bicycle. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Derailleur
In 1937, the derailleur made its debut at the Tour de France. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Tour de France poster
The 29th edition of the Tour de France in 1935 was won by Belgian Romain Maes. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Head badges
The museum has an extensive collection of vintage head badges. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Bells
“On your left!” A beautiful collection of bicycle bells. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Geometric tubing
This 1935 aluminium-lugged bicycle has octagonal tubing. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Front suspension
A front suspension bicycle from 1935. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Swiss Military
The Swiss Military bicycle was in production for 90 years, from 1905 to 1995. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Delivery trike
Michel Grezaud, the founder of Musée du Vélo, collected bikes and bike-related items for 40 years. He was a butcher in the 1950s, and used this old milkman delivery tricycle to deliver his meats to his customers. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Child seat
This early front-mounted child seat was equiped with arm rests, foot rests, and a seatbelt. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Drivetrain
Note the very interesting gearing on this Levocyclette “Terrot.” Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Mini peloton
A miniature peloton of figurines. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Velo cigars
Cigars and matchboxes of cycling greats. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Two-wheel drive
This 1950 bicycle could be driven by pedaling but also by pumping the handlebars from side to side. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Hand brake
Shown here is the braking system from an 1869 bicycle. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Pennyfarthings
Pennyfarthings big and small. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Child's tandem
A child’s tandem bicycle, complete with pink saddles. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Musée du Vélo: Large chainring
This bicycle may have been used to attempt a speed record at one time by the looks of the huge chainring. Photo: Brad Kaminski