Christopher Cumo. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 1, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Cycling is an on-road and off-road sport with variations in terrain, slope, distance, and type of bicycle affecting its outcome. The sport began in France in 1868 and has spread throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia.


The Industrial Revolution gave birth to the bicycle after nearly a half-century gestation period. The first crude two-wheeler of 1817 ceded the stage to the velocipede, the first bicycle with pedals, in 1863 when three Frenchmen, brothers Pierre and Ernest Michaux and their compatriot Pierre Lallement, claimed its invention. Yet the bicycle was not an immediate boon to sport in a century still in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. They had insisted that machines be useful and that they further the ideal of progress. No invention, lest of all a machine, was an end in itself, but instead it was to be a precursor of an even grander innovation. In this context sport gave way to utility. The bicycle was a new form of transportation as well as the herald of a new age of invention that would culminate in the automobile and airplane.

The ideology of the Industrial Revolution might have marred the future of cycling as a sport but for the rivalry between France and Great Britain. In 1868 business and civic leaders in Paris sponsored the first bicycle race, a 1,200-meter circuit of the Parc St. Cloud both to showcase the majesty of Paris and to celebrate the invention of the bicycle, the latest proof of French ingenuity. The event disappointed Parisians who watched Englishman James Moore rather than one of their own sprint to victory. The next year, Moore again deflated French pride, winning the 133-kilometer race between Paris and Rouen, a prelude to the stage races that would capture the French imagination, in 10 hours, 25 minutes. The event was the first to admit women, though once more the French could not claim victory. American Margaret Turner, who took the sobriquet “Miss America” to distinguish herself from her European rivals, captured the women’s title to become the first American to win a bicycle race.

In 1878 cycling leapt across the Atlantic, with the first race in the New World in Boston, Massachusetts. The delay of nearly a decade between Turner’s win and the first U.S. competition was cause by the tendency of Americans to brand European culture, including sports, as decadent. Yet Americans, even more than Europeans, were fascinated by machines and celebrated the bicycle for the freedom and mobility it gave riders. The bicycle helped democratize the United States, as it was available to men and women, both working class and middle class. The League of American Wheelmen, which could count only a handful of members in 1880, numbered 102,000 in 1889, triple the membership of the U.S. Cycling Federation in 1987.

But the league was no sanctuary from the racism of segregation that plagued the United States. The 1892 league convention erupted in dispute over the admission of African-Americans. White southerners opposed their admission, and the most militant racists stormed out of the convention. Others, repulsed by the thought of black men fraternizing with white women, were willing to admit blacks on condition that the league bar them from social events. A third group proposed segregated chapters within the league, modeled on the Jim Crow laws of the South. When the dust settled, league members voted to admit blacks so long as they were “gentlemen.” The ambiguity of the word gentlemen gave white members the latitude to turn away blacks without cause, an injustice that lingered until the 1960s.

By then France had reasserted supremacy with the Tour de France, whose origins are among the strangest in sport. In 1894 the French Army accused Alfred Dreyfus, a captain and a Jew, of spying for Germany, igniting a nationwide furor. Pierre Giffard, owner of cycling magazine Le Velo, thought Dreyfus the scapegoat of anti-Semitic military commanders and government ministers, whereas bicycle manufacturer and nobleman the Marquis de Dion declared Dreyfus a traitor. The feud grew so bitter that in 1900 Giffard refused to run an advrtisement from Dion, then Le Velo‘s largest advertiser. Dion counted by founding his own magazine L’Auto-Velo in hopes of driving Giffard out of business. Desperate to attract readers, L’Auto-Velo‘s editor Henri Desgrange organized a series of road races, among them the Tour de France, which he launched 1 July 1903.

Almost from its inception the Tour, which circuits France and portions of northwestern Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, claimed a mystique no other sporting event approaches. Although the course varies from year to year, it invariably sweeps across land once owned by the medieval Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. It ascends into the Pyrenees and Alps traverses, passes through which the Carthaginian commander Hannibal marched his army in 218 BCE. The spectacle of cyclists streaming beneath the Arc de Triomphe recalls the grandeur of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. In these and other ways, the Tour transcends sport in its evocation of religion, politics, and history. Pope Pius XI recognized as much when he elevated Gino Bartali to the status of Italian icon, blessing him “the Pious” on his winning the Tour in 1938.

The rise of the Tour as an elite event provoked a backlash during the 1960s in the United States among those who yearned for a mythic past when cycling was open to all. This impulse was strongest in California among white suburban teens who reveled in the excitement of motocross, a sport for motorcycle riders, and envisioned a new type of bicycle—and a new type of cycling. To be sure the road bike has virtues. The high frame permits full leg extension with each turn of the pedals. Slender, smooth tires reduce weight and roll resistance (the friction between tire and road), and aluminum or carbon alloys lighten the frame. High gear ratios maximize speed and the dropdown handlebars allow riders to crouch, minimizing air resistance. But the road bicycle lacks the ruggedness to withstand the shock of jumps and the maneuverability to negotiate the sharp turns of a motocross course. In 1963 the Schwinn Bicycle Company built the Sting-Ray, the prototype of the BMX (bicycle motocross) bicycle. Its short compact frame, small wheels, and thick studded tires absorbed the force from jumps and enabled riders to make abrupt turns. Despite its novelty the BMX bike is a throwback to the first chain-driven bicycles in having only one gear, for multiple gears offer no advantage in the frenetic sprint that is the motocross race. BMX began as an impromptu and informal affair with teens staging the first race in 1969 in Santa Monica, California. In 1975 some 130,000 cyclists competed in more than one hundred BMX races in California alone. BMX spread to more than thirty countries during the next two decades.

Around 1970 the off-road movement of which BMX was one manifestation spawned mountain biking, a phenomenon that combined sport, recreation, and communion with nature. Like BMX, mountain biking sunk roots in California, this time in Marin County, an upscale community that transferred the bohemian spirit and open terrain of cross-country running to cycling. Riders made do with the touring bicycle, the sturdier sibling of the road bike, or cobbled together their own contraptions until Specialized Bicycles owner Mike Sinyard built the Stumpjumper, the first mountain bike, in 1981. It was an eclectic model, borrowing the high frame and multiple gears of the touring and road bicycles and the thick studded tires, cantilever brakes, and flat handlebars of the BMX bike. But the Stumpjumper was not simply a touring-road-BMX hybrid. Its gears spanned a wider range than those of the touring and road bikes and shifted on the handlebar rather than from levers on the frame. The result was a bicycle capable of covering a wide variation in terrain and slope and of igniting a sport. The National Off-Road Bicycle Association organized the first mountain bike championship in 1983, with the first world championship in 1987 and a debut in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

In all its permutations cycling has swelled in popularity. In 1992 bicycle production worldwide tripled that of the automobile, putting the number of bicycles at several billion according to one estimate. In 2003, 43 million Italians watched the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s most prestigious road race. In 2004, 20 million Frenchmen and women thronged the stages of the Tour de France. So popular is cycling that it attracts sponsorship from Coca-Cola, Toyota, and other Fortune 500 companies. American millionaire Donald Trump has sponsored his own race, the Trump Tour, since 1989.

But popularity has not insulated cycling from controversy and scandal. In 1899 the state of New York banned cycling amid reports of riders hallucinating from exhaustion. In 1950 poor sportsmanship, a consequence of animosity between France and Italy, marred the Tour de France. Gino Bartali, in pursuit of his third triumph, surged into the lead in a stage in the Pyrenees. French spectators pelted him with bottles and stones and, when these actions failed, blocked the course and threw Bartali to the ground. Tour director Jacques Goddet broke up the mob with a stick and Bartali won the stage. That evening, he and the entire Italian team withdrew from the Tour. Goddet retaliated by changing the route so it would not traverse any Italian territory. No less pernicious has been the scandal of drug abuse. In 1908 Lucien Petit-Breton, two-time Tour winner, denied rumors that he used drugs to enhance his performance. Then as now, race promoters preferred to the look the other way rather than confront riders, but in 1924 Frenchmen and brothers Henri and Francis Pelissier rekindled the furor by admitting their use of cocaine, chloroform, and an assortment of pills. “In short, we ride on dynamite,” confessed Francis. Drug abuse caused catastrophe, even death. In 1960 Frenchman Roger Riviere, high on amphetamines, was paralyzed when he crashed in the Pyrenees. In 1967 Englishman Tom Simpson died of cardiac arrest on Mont Ventoux. He too had been on amphetamines. In 1998 drugs threatened to unravel the Tour. Six days before its start, French customs officials seized a car laden with anabolic steroids and other drugs owned by the multinational team sponsored by the Swiss watch manufacturer Festina. The arrest of team masseur Willy Voet, director Bruno Roussel, and physician Eric Rijchaert forced Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc to suspend Festina’s cyclists from the race. In disgust over the scandal, 102 of the 198 riders quit the race, and Italian cyclist and eventual winner Marco Pantani refused to start the twelfth stage. The remaining riders joined him, provoking a confrontation between cyclists and Leblanc that threatened to end the Tour that year.

Nature of the Sport

The road race has been a staple of cycling since its inception. The surface of road varies among concrete, asphalt and stone, and the slope from flat to steep incline. A road race may traverse a single route in one day. Amateur races of this type often range between 100 and 120 miles and professional races between 150 and 190 miles. One type of road race is the criterium, which resembles a track race. Riders circuit a rectangle of streets as many as sixty times. Another type, the stage race, knits together a series of routes over several days or weeks. The Tour de France, the most famous stage race, averages about 2,000 miles over three weeks. Among its stages, which have varied between twenty and twenty-two since the end of World War II, is the time trial, unique in road cycling in requiring a rider to negotiate a course alone rather than as part of a group. One might expect the stage race in its diversity of surface, slope, and type of stage to favor the well-rounded cyclist; yet the champion, American Lance Armstrong is an example, is usually the best climber.

This fact, counterintuitive as it may seem, stems from the aerodynamics and tactics of the stage race. At speed a cyclist dissipates 90 percent of his energy against the wind. By drafting behind one or more riders, he minimizes air resistance and thus energy expenditure. The stages on flat terrain bunch riders in a pack as they seek to draft behind their rivals. Riders seldom steal the race by surging ahead because the wind tires them and they fall back into the pack. Mountain stages, however, recast the dynamics of a race. The rigors of the ascent often fragment the pack, reducing the number of riders who can draft behind others and allowing a climber to surge, building a lead of several minutes. Once he breaks from his rivals, the leader looks to his teammates for aid. These teammates hinder what remains of the pack by staying in front of it but at a slow pace. When a rival tries to pursue the leader, teammates move to block the pursuit. Far from being unfair, these tactics reinforce the hierarchy of cycling: Each team has its star whose success the other members labor to ensure, even at the expense of their own ambitions. The cyclist who commands the mountains may amass a margin of nearly an hour, as Italian Fausto Coppi did in the 1952 Tour. Thereafter, the leader may finish the other stages in the pack without surrendering more than a few minutes of his lead.

Among the road races, the criterium has its parallel in the track race, a mainstay of the Olympic Games and popular in the United States until the 1930s. The 1,000-meter sprint, run over three laps, pits two cyclists against each other in a tour de force of speed and tactics. The two draw lots before the race to determine who must lead the first lap and thereby bear the brunt of wind resistance. At the end of the lap, the leader will try to force his rival ahead of him by coming to a virtual standstill, balancing precariously on his bicycle without falling or drifting backwards. His opponent, equally reluctant to lead, will respond in kind until 200 meters remain, when the clock starts and both cyclists bolt for the finish. The trailer has the advantage of draft and surprise but must time a surge correctly to win. If he moves too soon his opponent may recapture the lead in a countersprint, if too late, he will not overtake his rival. Sprint tactics are absent from the pursuit, a type of track race over 3,000 meters for women, 4,000 for male amateurs, and 5,000 for male professionals. Cyclists chase one another (hence the name pursuit) from opposite sides of the track. They compete as individuals or on a team. If part of a team, a cyclist may draft behind his mates, but the start on opposite ends prevents rivals from drafting or jockeying for position. In fact there is no passing in pursuit, for a cyclist who catches his rival wins the race. Otherwise, the cyclist with the fastest time wins.

The importance of drafting as a tactic diminishes in BMX because cyclists dissipate less energy against the wind than road and track cyclists and more on absorption of shock, roll resistance, and the effort to balance and maintain traction on loose terrain and sharp corners. With drafting less beneficial, advantage tilts toward the leader rather than pursuer. The danger of a wreck, compounded by loose terrain and tight turns, increases this advantage, for the leader will emerge unscathed with the opportunity to widen the lead. Consequently, riders sprint for the lead at the start. The leader into the first turn has the greatest probability of winning the race.

BMX favors technique rather than tactics. A cyclist who leaps a jump in an arc looks picturesque at the expense of time. While airborne a cyclist slows. Better to make a low jump, reestablish traction, and resume pedaling. This logic also applies to cornering. The shortest line through a turn, like the shortest jump, is fastest. As it does in BMX, rough terrain negates tactics in mountain biking. The need to ford streams, climb steep banks, and wind down precipitous trails requires strength and stamina akin to that required to meet the demands of the mountain portions of a stage race.

Whatever the terrain and tactics, women have participated in cycling since it origin, though men have not always welcomed them. The form-fitting leggings women wore in competition struck nineteenth-century moralists as risqué. The scandal in the 1890s over male cyclists hallucinating from exhaustion bolstered the argument that the sport was too rigorous for many men let alone women. The argument countered the fact that in 1896 sixteen-year-old Englishwoman Monica Harwood rode 429 miles at the first women’s six-day race in London, England, and American Frankie Nelson, “Queen of the Sixes,” finished every six-day race she entered, losing only four times between 1896 and 1900. The conviction that women were too frail nonetheless persisted, leading the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, Italy’s most prestigious stage race, to bar women from competition in 1903 and 1904, respectively.

Women clawed their way back into cycling during the second half of the twentieth century, though the lingering belief in their inferior stamina and strength confined them to shorter distances than men raced. In 1984 Tour de France organizers created the Tour Feminin at 625 miles, less than one-third the men’s distance and without ascents into the Pyrenees and Alps. The Hewlett-Packard Women’s Challenge bills itself as the true equivalent of the men’s Tour because it includes ascents into the Rocky Mountains, but at 688 miles in its inaugural year of 1984, it was little more than a third of the Tour. Since the inclusion of mountain biking in the 1996 Olympic Games, women have raced between 30 and 40 kilometers compared with between 40 and 50 kilometers for men. The women’s road race spans between 100 and 140 kilometers compared with between 230 and 250 kilometers for men. On the track, women sprint 500 meters, half the men’s distance. As noted earlier the women’s pursuit covers 3,000 meters compared with 4,000 for men. The 3,000-mile Race Across America, however, does not distinguish between men and women. Both pedal the same course.

BMX has been the most successful among the types of cycling in recruiting youth, sponsoring races that admit participants as young as age three. Boys ages eleven and twelve, the largest cohort of BMX racers, have their own age division in state and national competitions. Small races group all youth under age sixteen, sometimes under eighteen, in their own division.Youth, particular in affluent communities in the United States, flock to BMX as they once did to Little League Baseball.

Competition at the Top

The Tour de France has been the jewel of cycling for a century. The world’s best cyclists converge on France during the last three weeks of July. The winner conquers not merely a grueling course but the sport itself. Gino Bartali won the Tour in 1938, but during World War II, the Nazis conquered France and abolished the Tour. Undaunted, Bartali returned to the Tour in 1947 and won again in 1948 to become the only person to win two Tours a decade apart. The next year, and again in 1952, Fausto Coppi captured the Tour, establishing himself as the fiercest mountain climber of his generation. The Campionissimo (the Great Champion) climbed like “a homesick angel,” gushed British journalist Phil Liggett. His revised twenty-nine-minute margin of victory in 1952 wounded French pride, causing Jacques Goddet to bar Coppi the next year. In addition to the Tour, Coppi won the Giro d’Italia five times, Italy’s Milan to San Remo thrice, and France’s Paris to Roubaix once. Barely past his zenith, he died in 1959 in Italy after returning from a criterium in Africa. The medical examiner declared malaria the cause, but the explanation never satisfied Italians who believed a rival poisoned Coppi. In 1999 Italian prosecutors reopened the case, but the evidence remains inconclusive. Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy “the Cannibal” Merckx, and Spaniard Miguel Indurain each won five Tours, but in 2004 Lance Armstrong eclipsed them to become the only six-time champion, a feat all the more remarkable because of his recovery from a near fatal case of testicular cancer.

Armstrong was not the first American cyclist to win international acclaim. Several may claim the honor, perhaps none more deserving than Marshall “Major” Walter Taylor, the grandson of slaves. In 1891 Taylor, then only thirteen years old, won his first competition, a 10-mile road race in Indianapolis, Indiana. His forte, however, was the track rather than the road. In 1898 he won the U.S. Sprint Championship and broke seven world records between one-quarter mile and 2 miles, twice lowering the time for the mile. He would shatter the record again in 1899 and 1900, setting the mark at 1:22.4 minutes. In 1899 Taylor won twenty-two races, including the World Sprint Championship. Between March and June 1901, he won 18 of 24 races in France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Italy. He won 42 races in 1901, 40 in 1902, 31 in 1903, and 159 overall despite the fact that rivals elbowed him and referees ruled against him in close races. In Paris in 1901, sprinter Edmund Tacquelin thumbed his nose at Taylor and Le Velo attributed his success to biology: Taylor was typical of blacks in having been born strong and fast at the expense of intellect. His American rivals Floyd MacFarland and Owen Kimble assailed him with racial epithets. Twice he retired from cycling, returning both times in search of financial security, only to die destitute in 1932.

Taylor’s career coincided with the rise of cycling as an Olympic sport. The first Olympic Games since Greco-Roman antiquity, the 1896 Games in Athens, Greece, featured an 87-kilometer race, an out and back course between Athens and Marathon. Track cycling included the 1,000-meter sprint and 4,000-meter pursuit. In its emphasis on road and track events Olympic cycling mirrored track and field and the marathon, the staple of Olympic running events. Only in the last decade has Olympic cycling broadened its appeal with new events: mountain biking in 1996, and keirin, a Japanese variant of the track sprint, in 2004.

Women Participate

Olympic and world cycling records dispel the myth of female inferiority. The sprint is the best comparison, being timed over the last 200 meters for both men and women. The men’s Olympic and world records are 10.129 and 9.865 seconds, respectively, and the women’s 11.212 and 10.831, a difference of only a second, or 10 percent, for both Olympic and world records. Two women, New Zealander Sarah Ulmer and Australian Anna Meares, hold both Olympic and world records for their events, the 3,000-meter pursuit in 3:24.537, minutes and the 500-meter time trial in 33.952 seconds, respectively. Ulmer and Meares signal the emergence of a new generation of women champions. French mountain-biker Anne-Caroline Chausson won twelve downhill and slalom world championships by age twenty-six. Former U.S. Olympic skier Juli Furtado turned to cycling in 1989, winning five U.S. mountain biking championships between 1990 and 1995 and the U.S. Road Championship in 1989. As with Coppi, disease truncated Furtado’s career. In 1997 doctors diagnosed her with systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease.

Other major competitions for women have included since 1984 the Tour Feminin, the Hewlett-Packard Women’s Challenge, and the Race Across America. Ultramarathon cyclist John Marino founded the Race Across America in 1982, admitting women two years later, in hopes of generating enthusiasm for a long race unburdened by the rigidity and elitism of the stage race. Marino envisioned a less-commercial, more-spontaneous event. The 1984 women’s race exceeded expectation, ending in a sprint between Shelby Hayden-Clifton and Pat Hines, both of whom finished in 12 days, 20 hours, and 57 minutes, the only tie in the race’s history. Like the Tour de France and Tour Feminin, the Race Across America posts no records because of variations in distance and terrain.

The Future

Cycling may be entering a period of experimentation in which the traditions of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia give way to a search for freedom and self-expression through sport. In 1984 writer, traveler, and cyclist Jacquie Phelan founded in Marin County, California, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society, an organization that combines this new spirit of reverence for sport and impatience with the status quo. The society has organized mountain bike races for women in California, New Mexico, Alaska, and Massachusetts. Phelan wants to stoke competition not as an end in itself but as a mean of self-discovery. This is a vision of cycling as both sport and therapeutic escape from a high-tech world. In pursuit of this goal, cycling promises to attract a new generation of enthusiasts.