Tour de truth: bicycles with pedals were invented in France

Did you know? Bicycles with pedals were invented in France. We explore the history in advance of this year's Tour de France.

19 August 2020
Pierre Lallement riding his invention (a bicycle with pedals) in Paris in 1870.Did you know that bicycles with pedals were invented in France? Photo: Pierre Lallemant, 1870.
By Connexion Journalist

As well as the Tour de France which starts on August 29 this year, the French have another claim to fame in the cycling world: the invention of the first bicycle with pedals around 1860, which led to the first cycling races. There is some debate, though, as to whether it was an invention by father and son Pierre and Ernest Michaux from Paris, or Pierre Lallement from Nancy.

Bicycle evolution

Whoever it was, all three wanted to improve on the drasien or dandy horse, the first two wheeled machine designed for individual travel, invented by a German, Karl von Drais in 1818. It consisted of two wheels which were linked by a wooden bar. You moved forward by running your feet along the ground.

One version explaining the addition of pedals takes place in locksmith Pierre Michaux’s workshop on Avenue Montaigne, Paris. One day, a client brought a dandy horse, for repair. Once mended, Ernest Michaux, the son, wanted to try it out. He found it such a terrible experience he had the idea to adapt the front wheel by attaching pedals to it so you could turn the wheel with your feet. A cord was also added to the handlebars and stretched to a lever on the back wheel to act as a brake.

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Velocipede Lallement's patented model for US market.
Velocipede Lallement's patented model for US market.

A different version of events

An alternative story is that Pierre Lallement, who built prams in Nancy, saw someone riding a dandy horse and modified what he saw by adding pedals and a rotary crank mechanism. He moved to Paris soon afterwards. The Michaux family began producing these new bicycles, either inspired by their own idea or that of Pierre Lallement. Two wealthy brothers, Aimé and René Olivier, backed the business and the first mass-produced bicycles were on the market.

Lallement moved to the USA and patented the new velocipede, where it quickly became nicknamed the “bone-shaker” because it was not a comfortable ride. Again a Frenchman, Eugène Meyer, is widely accepted as the inventor of the high bicycle, or penny farthing which made the ride smoother, but very dangerous. Inventors made further modifications over the years until the bicycle as we know it evolved.

From the start, bicycles with pedals were a huge success. Less than ten years after their invention, the first races took place. On November 7 1869, the Paris to Rouen race was won by James Moore, an Englishman who had lived in France from age four when his parents moved across the Channel.

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The very first Tour de France: 1891

In 1891, the first Paris-Brest 1,200 km race took place and in 1903 the Tour de France was launched. It was won by Maurice Garin, who finished 2 hours 49 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor and still holds the record for winning the race by the greatest margin.

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