The ancestor of the modern pedalled bicycle, the velocipede – also known as the boneshaker – appeared on New Zealand roads around 1869. Invented in France, it had a heavy iron frame, wooden wheels, and a pair of cranks and pedals attached to the front wheel.
Velocipedes were hard to ride on New Zealand’s rough roads, but newspapers carried reports of people racing, doing tricks and generally learning to master the new machine.
By the late 1870s, the penny-farthing (also called a high wheeler and an ‘ordinary’) was appearing on the roads. It had been discovered that a bigger front wheel meant a faster machine, because fewer revolutions of the pedals were required to pick up speed. The back wheel needed to be smaller to keep the machine light and make it easier for the rider to mount. The new bicycle was called a penny-farthing after coins of the day – the large penny and the much smaller farthing.
Christchurch Bicycle Band
Christchurch even boasted a band that played on bikes. Set up by brothers Fred and Joshua Painter in 1895, the Christchurch Bicycle Band played brass instruments while cycling in formation. They entertained the public, on the stage as well as the streets, for about 25 years – initially on penny-farthings.
Penny-farthings were hugely popular in the 1880s and early 1890s, and thousands were imported or made locally. The expense and dangers of riding penny-farthings made them most popular with younger middle-class men. Others who could afford to cycle tended to stick to a three-wheeled version of the velocipede.
The late 1880s saw two of the most significant developments in cycling history: the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre. The safety bicycle’s lower frame, equal-sized wheels with a chain and more comfortable ride meant it could be ridden by most people. Its pedals and cranks were connected to a large sprocket at the base of the frame, the chain wheel. A chain linked this to a smaller sprocket on the back wheel, and the gearing ratio shifted from the wheels to the sprockets – for every revolution of the pedals the back wheel turned three times. Manufacturers began producing models especially for women, and sparked a cycling boom. The pneumatic tyre softened the ride on bumpy roads.
Bicycles with chains could have gears. Basic 2-, 3- and 4-speed bicycles became popular from the 1930s, and by the 1960s they were the norm.
Christchurch as Cyclopolis
Christchurch – mostly flat – was nicknamed ‘Cyclopolis’ in the early 20th century. In 1924 the city council’s motor inspector estimated that there were 40,000 cyclists in the city – half the population. A 1936 traffic census found 11,335 cyclists passed one corner of Cathedral Square between 8 a.m. and 5.30 p.m., a rate of one every three seconds. Christchurch was home to 50,000 of the 250,000 cycles in New Zealand in the late 1930s.
The 10-speed, invented in the 1970s, had more gears than previous bikes and was a big leap in the bicycle’s evolution. World oil prices were increasing, and a bike with gearing ratios – allowing even inexperienced cyclists to ride over hills and into the wind – was a boon in a hilly, windy country.
During the 1970s children could choose from a range of new designs such as choppers, with high handlebars, banana seats and a raised bar at the back, and Raleigh 20s, which spawned New Zealand-made imitations Healing Loline and Cruisers. From 1979 the BMX (bicycle motocross) craze took off among children and teenagers.
Mountain bikes and beyond
In the 1980s the mountain bike was introduced. It offered a wide range of gearing ratios, increased stability with smaller wheels and fatter tyres, much improved brakes, and later on, suspension for increased safety and comfort. Riding bikes, both on and off the road, now became a more attractive option in hilly cities like Dunedin and Wellington.
Mountain bikes sparked another cycling boom. Between 2001 and 2006 around a million bicycles were imported, the majority of them mountain bikes. Since then the rise of retro-styled single-speed and electric bikes has ensured cycling remains popular, especially in urban areas.