As the world gears up for the 110th annual Tour de France this July, a BYU professor shares the rich history of the bicycle in France.
Covering 3,500 kilometers over 21 days, the annual Tour de France isn’t just the most prestigious, challenging bike race in the world — it’s also a celebration of the bicycle’s central place in French culture. It all started with a now-forgotten vehicle called the velocipede.
The forerunner of the modern bicycle, the velocipede was a two-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle made of wood and iron that, according to BYU French professor and cycling enthusiast Corry Cropper, became a French phenomenon in 1868–69.
“The carnival-like euphoria associated with the Tour de France, when people take off work to see this rolling circus go through the countryside, mirrors the carnivalesque representations of the velocipede in late-1860s France,” said Cropper, who recently finished up years of research on the velocipede with a newly published book called "Velocipedomania."
Much of the excitement around the velocipede was how it improved greatly upon the offerings at the time, namely the 1817 German draisine. The draisine was essentially two wheels connected by a rail, propelled by riders touching their feet to the ground.
“The real stroke of genius of the velocipede is that pedals were engineered onto the front wheel, so riders could move faster than with the draisine,” Cropper said. The velocipede’s front wheel was bigger than the back wheel for gear-like functionality, but only slightly — the velocipede didn’t have the almost comically large front wheel with the tiny back wheel of the later, faster British penny farthing, making the velocipede more stable for everyday use.
Common as the bicycle now is, the heavy velocipede may not sound “carnivalesque,” but it was thrilling in nineteenth-century France, where people were amazed to see cyclists zipping along. In fact, mania for the velocipede inspired plays, operettas, songs, poetry and manuals.
“It provided an outlet for the French people to look on their time as one of progress and celebration,” Cropper said.
In addition to representing France’s status in the machine age, the velocipede helped democratize French society. It emerged alongside many grassroots groups, including musical assemblies, sporting associations, proto-feminist groups and (of course) velocipede clubs, preparing the ground for the French Third Republic of the 1870s. In this same spirit of self-governance, the velocipede opened new vistas for both physical and social movement.
Before the velocipede came along, most people in Paris would use an omnibus — a big, horse-drawn carriage that could hold groups of people — for transportation, which was relatively inexpensive.
“But with the velocipede, people could power the vehicle on their own and go places they previously couldn’t,” Cropper said.
Hinting at a more egalitarian future, the velocipede freed women as never before, providing them with a loophole to circumvent gender-based customs. Women cyclists could travel unsupervised and even wear pants, which was forbidden except during Carnival and mid-Lent in Parisian legal code of the time (a policy technically reversed only in 2007!).
As with most technological innovations, the velocipede also met resistance, which is apparent in the media representations of the day. Many criticized the replacement of the noble horse with cycling, from which travelers might arrive at their destination in an undignified sweat. Others saw even deeper evils in the velocipede.
“Some detractors argued that men were being dehumanized and emasculated by the velocipede,” Cropper said. The book’s cover illustration, for example, shows a man riding a velocipede and being whipped by a woman standing behind, with a dog along for the ride. “Yes, the velocipede is replacing the horse, but guess who has become the horse? It’s the man who is slaving away to pedal this thing.”
At the same time, advocates framed the velocipede as part of French tradition, often referring to cyclists as horseback riders to connect the velocipede to the familiar. One operetta featured a medieval French king riding the velocipede. In Cropper’s view, the velocipede became a deeply embedded symbol of national identity, even though it was brand new.
Fervor for the velocipede was short lived: France’s war with Prussia in 1870 and a civil war in 1871 led to a national mood shift, in which cycling was seen as frivolous. But the practical, yet whimsical, spirit of the velocipede lives on in the bicycle’s popularity, as the Tour de France and the ubiquity of cycling worldwide testify.
“It could be argued that the bicycle remains the most important form of transportation ever invented; it provides mobility for people from every socioeconomic level in nearly every region on the planet,” Cropper said.
Velocipedomania: A Cultural History of the Velocipede in France was coauthored by Oxford’s Seth Whidden and published by Bucknell University Press in 2022.