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Book Review

David V. Herlihy's Bicycle: The History


By Antoine du Rocher

New York, 28 March 2005— Among contemporary French speakers, "le vélo" (or "le vélocipède", from the Latin velox pedes, "swift of foot") is still a widely-used abbreviation for "la bicyclette" or bicycle. And France was the birthplace of the bicycle, as freelance writer, historian and longtime cyclist David V. Herlihy recounts in his Bicycle: The History .

Herlihy's account follows the evolution of the bicycle from the musings of French mathematician Jacques Ozanam and blacksmith Pierre Michaux's first "boneshaker" velocipede with pedals and brakes in 1867, through the vertiginous high-wheelers of the 1880s to the racing and high-tech mountain bikes that we know today. He also considers the bicycle as cultural phenomenon, examining phenomena such as the early rage for bicycles in the aristocracy and grande bourgeoisie of France and Britain, and the bicycle boom of the 1890s in America.

Generously illustrated with extensive engravings, patent drawings, posters, newspaper photos and period advertisements, Bicycle benefits from Herlihy's prodigious reseach and grasp of the technologies, delivered in a wry style that is at once entertaining as it is informative. To further balance the bicycle's techinical history, Herlihy makes clever use of lively sidebars to document the bicycle's impact on lovers in France, fashion, racial restrictions in America, sports, police surveillance and military operations, women's racing and more.

Herlihy brings the story up to date with an exploration of the resurgence in the bicycle's popularity with technological developments such as the versatile modern mountain bike, as well as such social impacts as the popularity of competitive cycling (witness the celebrity of Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Americans Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong ), the development of extreme sports-related forms of biking (acrobatic BMX "bunny hops") and ever-increasing feats of endurance (from the merely Herculean triathlons to nigh-Sisyphean six-day marathons). The bicycle's political ramifications are examined as well, as Herlihy looks at such disparate developments and the push for incorporating bicycle-based commuting into urban planning and efforts to deliver inexpensive, usable low-end bicycles in the developing world.

Bicycle: The History
By David V. Herlihy
Illustrations: 96 colour, 117 b&w
480 pages
Yale University Press (November 2004)
ISBN 0-300-10418-9

David Herlihy will give a lecture and book signing at a reception on Thursday, 31 March from 6 - 8 pm at the opening of the Bicycle Poster Exhibition at the International Poster Center, New York City.

Following Bike New York (May 1), the annual 5-boro New York City bike ride attended by some 28,000 cyclists, David Herlihy will appear at Coliseum Bookstore, New York, NY, in an event co-sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists.

Antoine du Rocher is a French cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member of the editorial board of

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