Manchester may not rank as highly as the likes of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Beijing or Bogotá as a 'cycling city'. However, it has played a long and surprising role in the development and popularisation of cycling. And with the introduction of the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone in 2022, cycling in the city is now more important than ever.
In this story, we will highlight Manchester’s connection to the history of cycling, and take a closer look at a mode of transport that not only predates motorised vehicles by several decades, but may also be challenging the car for supremacy on the city's roads once again.
The emergence of travel on two wheels
In wealthy areas across Europe from the start of the 1800s early bicycles, or 'velocipedes'—human-powered land vehicles with one or more wheel, started to emerge. It was in 1808 in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris where a simple design of a seat placed centrally on a bar of wood supported by a wheel at each end was first recorded. In Germany at around the same time two wheeled machines known as 'draisienne', after the inventor Karl Drais, were being ridden. The idea quickly spread to Britain.
This first craze in ‘hobby horses’ or ‘dandy horses’, as they became known, was taken up by the wealthy in Regency era society. It would be another 100 years before the cost of these machines would come down enough for a wider section of society to access them. Outside the parks and riding schools, the roadways of the early 1800s, having been worn down by horses and carriage wheels, were not suited to this new form of transport. Riders were easily thrown off course or covered in mud and dust, so they took to mounting the pavements. This created great tension with pedestrians. Velocipede riding all but died out as quickly as it started.
It wasn’t until the 1860s, when pedals were attached to the axle of the front wheel, that the next iteration of the bicycle emerged, and it has been a continuous presence on our roads ever since. Manchester’s innovative thinkers quickly saw the potential of these machines. With an appetite for trying new things and the local expertise in engineering and carriage making, Manchester quickly emerged as one of the most exciting places to encounter this new bicycle craze. Designers and manufacturers started springing up all over the city.
Manchester played an important part in cycling’s fascinating history and it is once again putting cycling at its heart to create a sustainable city region for the future.
Manchester's first bikes: 1860–1880
Manchester in the mid-1800s was bustling with the sounds and excitement of first railways bringing in goods from around the world. As well as the explosion in international trade and goods, there was the impact of industry. By the mid-1840s, there were around 500 smoking industrial chimneys on Manchester’s skyline. Manchester was alive with new ideas and technologies, as well as coal and smoke.
People who could afford to, and had the leisure time to spare, started to indulge in new ways of accessing the city and beyond. The addition of a fixed pedal on the front wheel of the velocipede increased the appeal of these machines. But with wheels and materials still based on carriage manufacturing, they were heavy, cumbersome and not particularly suited to journeys across the roadways of Manchester.
Despite the discomfort and unwieldy nature of these ‘boneshakers’, the demand for bicycle travel was increasing in Manchester and local companies quickly capitalised on this. Over 150 years ago, published in the Bury Times in April 1869, Andrew Muir, of Victoria Bridge, Salford, was advertising velocipedes for hire—'suitable to be ridden in the various districts of the country and town'—illustrating that hiring bikes in the city centre is certainly nothing new, in fact it has a history as long bicycles themselves.
Offering various heights, and with anti-friction bearings made from the best forged iron and steel finely wrought and tempered, combining elegance, safety, ease and durability.
Andrew Muir, the Bury Times, April 1869
There was clearly a demand for this sort of machine, but to make it really viable as a mode of transport rather than just a novelty more speed and comfort was needed. A new model emerged attaching the pedals directly to the front wheel. This meant the rider could achieve a 1:1 drive (one revolution of the pedal equals one revolution of the wheel). The high ordinary, or ‘penny farthing’ as it became known, was developed because if this principle. If the direct energy from the rider’s legs could be transmitted to the largest surface area possible the bicycle could go further with one rotation of the pedals. Hence the large front wheel. However, with this design the speed of the wheel was still limited by the cadence (or pedal rate) of the rider’s legs.
The increased desire for speed led to increasing wheel circumferences. The bigger the wheel, the faster the bike. At its design extreme the saddle of a high ordinary could be over 1.5 metres above the ground. They became the pursuit of the athletic youth. This was encouraged by the establishment of racing clubs and events. Riders amazed spectators as they raced their high ordinaries round grass tracks at breakneck speed.
The safety bike
James Kemp Starley from Coventry is credited for making the first commercially successful ‘safety bike’ in 1885. What made the safety bike different to its predecessors was that it was rear wheel drive, powered by a chain. The advantage of this was that the front wheel was now freed up for steering.
Manufacturing advancements around this time meant the components, including the steel tubes that made up the frame, could be made thinner and lighter. Along with the invention of the pneumatic tyre by Dunlop in 1888, bicycles became more comfortable to ride, and, as the name suggests, safer, than ever before.
Dunlop Tyres – company timeline
Pneumatic tyres were invented by John Boyd Dunlop (1840–1921). Born in Scotland, he lived and worked in Ireland as a successful veterinarian and businessman.
- 1887: Dunlop was inspired to invent the pneumatic tyre whilst watching his son struggle on a solid wheeled tricycle.
- 1888: Dunlop patents the pneumatic tyre.
- 1889: Cycle races were set up to prove the success of Dunlop's invention.
- 1890: Dunlop founded Dunlop Pneumatic Tyres with the president of the Irish Cyclists' Association and financier Harvey Du Cros.
- 1895: Dunlop pulled out of the business.
- 1930s: Dunlop Tyres, the company that still bears the inventor's name, was one of the first multinational brands and one of the largest companies in Britain.
Riders no longer needed to mount their bicycle at speed or with assistance, as you did with the high ordinary. Riders could comfortably stand astride the frame and push off from a standing start. The safety bike allowed cycling to be an option to more people and cemented itself as an activity for leisure and sport, as well as to aid trade and communication.
Bicycles were still prohibitively expensive to most. However, Mancunians were getting the cycling bug. Cycling on Manchester’s late Victorian roads was really taking off. An early champion of cycling in all its forms was Haydon Perry, the Guardian’s ‘Wheel notes’ correspondent. He was committed to bringing cycling to the public.
Incredibly in the mid 1890s on a route out of Manchester heading south past Trafford Barr, Perry noted that it was not unusual to see about 600 cyclists between 14.30–15.30 on a fine Saturday afternoon.
There is not a town, hardly a village, throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain which does not contain at least a few inhabitants who possess a ‘cycle’. It carries the mechanic to his work, the tourist through his summer holiday, and the doctor on his daily rounds; tradesmen use it to deliver their goods, and newspaper proprietors for distributing their wares.
The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 1466, pp. 252–253 (1889)
People like Perry and cycling clubs began to have an influence on how the city’s roadways were thought about. In his book, The first book of road and lane (1896), Perry wrote extensively about cycling around Lancashire, Cheshire and into Yorkshire in order to open up the countryside and cycling as a burgeoning sport for all that could afford to do so. Some observations from 'The North Round' through Burnley, Middleton, Bacup, Rawtenstall and Bury:
This delightful wheeling excursion which I recommend all and sundry to undertake. It will emphasise the lesson for those who have not mastered it, that there are beauties in Lancashire which no wheelman who is within reach of them should overlook.
Haydon Perry, The first book of road and lane (1896)
Starley's Rover certainly had safety and comfort advantages. However, the poor chain efficiency made these bicycles incredibly energetically expensive to ride. That was, until a further invention emerged that helped to revolutionise cycling.
Renold and the bike chain
A big leap forward in the development of travel on two wheels came with the invention of a reliable chain. This new technology allowed for rear-wheel-drive. Power from the rider's legs, now located roughly in the centre of the bike, could transmit mechanical power via the peddles to the back wheel.
Chain drives were first described in the 3rd century BCE, but it wasn't until Hans Renold's invention of an innovative and successful chain, consisting of a series of short cylindrical rollers held together by side links, that this seemingly small piece of technology was able to revolutionise bicycle travel. Up until this point chains were heavy, unreliable and inflexible. Renold's new development gave greater reliability and with it a more efficient means of power transmission.
In 1873 at the age of 21, Swiss-born Hans Renold came to England and found work in Manchester with a firm of machinery exporters. By 1879 The Hans Renold Co. was established, following the purchase of the James Slater business, a small company making textile chains in Salford. This makes Renold the oldest established transmission chain company still in existence. It continues to exist in the region, with their headquarter based in Wythenshawe, Manchester.
It was in 1880 that Hans Renold introduced the world to the block cycle chain. He decided not to hold on to his patent and openly gave his idea to the cycle trade for all to freely manufacture. Next came the bush roller chain. The solid bushing has even contact throughout the pin/bushing area, which reduces the pressure points, meaning less wear over time. It is a testament to Renold's design that incredibly, bike chains have changed very little and are still used today.
The company Renold founded has not stopped innovating. Their chains are found in applications around the world in anything that requires lifting, rotating or conveying, from cement making to chocolate manufacturing, subway trains to power stations, escalators to quarries. Amazingly every medal won by Britain's riders in the Izu Velodrome during the 2020 Toyko Olympics and Paralympics (2021) was won using Renold's latest 3/8" Velo CT-T design chain. Also, British medal winners Bethany Shriever and Kyle Whyte rode using the standard size 1/2" Velo-CT chain during their historic BMX supercross rides at the same Olympics. Renold have created strong and durable chains that are low in friction, which makes them more efficient. In cycling, more efficiency means less power being wasted to heat or friction, and therefore more speed.
Women and the shape of cycling
There were, and still are, a lot of social and physical barriers to women taking up cycling. Not least the confusing and biased medical advice of the late 1800s. Concerns were raised, although much of it quickly debunked, regarding female over-excursion, gynaecological damage, or even excessive stimulation.
Not everyone thought women were too fragile or lacking in common sense or ability. Suffragist and temperance leader Frances Willard called her bicycle an ‘implement of power’ and rejoiced ‘in perceiving the impetus that this uncompromising but fascinating and illimitably capable machine would give to that blessed “woman question”.’ Furthermore, American civil rights activist Susan B Anthony is credited as coining the phrase ‘freedom machine’ in reference to bicycles and is widely quoted to have said in the early 1900s that ‘Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’.
Female clothing along with the perception of women’s physical suitability of the time influenced the original design of bicycles. High ordinary bicycles were out of scope for all but a few women daring or rebellious enough, due to the heavy long skirts worn at that time. The safety bicycle was more accessible for women, but women’s clothing was still a major barrier that needed to be overcome to allow for ease of peddling. Some suggestions were to put lead weights in skirts to stop them fluttering up. Another was to connect clothing garments directly to the bike frame by way of sewn-in hooks—hardly practical if needing to dismount quickly.
Women were far from seen as equals to men and manufacturers pursued a variety of strategies for gendering the safety bicycle. Their aim was to sell bikes to as many people as possible; they did not want to limit themselves to only the male population. Frames were designed for either males or females, a trend that has never really gone away. The drop frame, that meant women did not need to lift their leg over the cross bar was created to allow women to access cycling while still conforming to the dress code of the day, and importantly, not revealing anything above their ankles.
Because the diamond frame used in men’s bike design is structurally stronger, women's models were inherently heavier and less manoeuvrable due to their less efficient design. Other versions or adaptations included a side-saddle bike, which quickly fell away, leaving two distinct designs: one for men and one for women.
Tandems were once a much more common sight on the roads around Manchester. Ralpho, based in Altrincham, designed a tandem specifically arranged for the woman to be in the front. Incredibly, the steering and breaking was controlled only by way of two rods running from the front forks to the handlebars, and the man at the back: quite literally backseat driving.
Men dominating the design and manufacture of bikes is still a reality today, although there is some progression. The first competitive cycling saddle designed specifically for women was produced in 1992. In 2005, the ’secret squirrels’ (an innovative group within the Manchester-based Research and Development team at British Cycling) developed, in collaboration with top female cyclists, a custom, high performance racing saddle specifically designed for women. It was used in the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and prompted an industry-wide rethink to what women’s saddles should look like.
The future of cycling in Manchester
As bikes took their hold on the streets of 19th-century Manchester, coal was being established as the dominant source of energy. As the world’s first industrial city, Manchester has a long and difficult history of urban air pollution. At the peak of Manchester’s industrial history, the air was filled with noxious, sooty coal smoke.
The towering coal-driven mills may now be gone, but unfortunately, there is another cause of harmful air pollution to contend with in Manchester: emissions from road traffic. There is a great need to reduce the toxic pollutants in the air, especially in our cities where pedestrians and cyclists share roadways with cars, buses, vans and lorries, breathing in their fumes.
The Greater Manchester city region is now making moves to address this issue. Cycling is a key aspect in the Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan, while The Bee Network is Greater Manchester's strategy to become the first city region in the UK to have a fully joined up cycling and walking network, the most comprehensive in Britain, covering 1,800 miles. Plans for the network were unveiled in 2018 by the former Cycling and Walking Commissioner and cycling Olympian, Chris Boardman, who is now Greater Manchester’s first Transport Commissioner.
In his book, Biography of the Modern Bike (2015), Boardman stated:
The potential of this wonderful machine to solve many of the big problems our society faces today, from pollution and congestion to health and social wellbeing, is huge… if we let it.
Chris Boardman, Biography of the Modern Bike (2015)
Manchester’s plan is to make cycling a real option for people who move about the city. The new Bee Bikes initiative will enable the public to rent one of 1,200 bikes from more than 200 stations across Manchester, Salford and Trafford. There will also be 300 e-bikes making the scheme as accessible as possible.
Smart technology is being used to make Manchester's roads safer and more accessible for cyclists. In 2021, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) announced the city-wide roll out of a series of 20 AI controlled smart traffic junctions, which use sensors to identify different types of road users, and to adjust traffic signals to give to give cyclists priority; and the building of the UK's first CYCLOPS (Cycle Optimised Protected Signals) junctions, designed to separate pedestrians and cyclists from traffic and reduce the possibility of collisions or conflict.
Another technological initiative designed to help inform Manchester’s cycling infrastructure was the See.Sense bike light, which gathered information relating to the cyclist’s route, road surface, accidents and near misses. It was used in a Manchester-based trial of the technology and was part of a programme of research that ran between 2016 and 2018 into how smart technology can transform and connect the city.
As digital and cleaner technologies are becoming an increasing presence on our roads, what does this mean for cycling in Manchester? Electric vehicles will create less pollution and autonomous vehicles are programmed to be risk avoidant, with safe parameters around obstacles being strictly observed. Our roadways may soon be healthier and safer for cyclist in a city increasingly controlled by AI technology. Through the likes of smart road junctions, smart bike lights and further technological developments, the future of cycling in Manchester may be cleaner, safer and an option for more people than ever before.
- Henry Sturmey, The Complete Guide to Bicycling or how to become a Bicyclist, 1885
- Haydon Perry, The first book of road and lane: a handbook for Manchester cyclists and tourists, 1897
- Isabel Marks, Fancy Cycling, 1901
- Renold Ltd., 1879-1979: the first hundred years, Renold and Coventry Chain Co. Ltd, 1979
- Chris Boardman with Chris Sidwells, The Biography of the Modern Bike, 2015
- Kat Jungnickel, Bikes and bloomers: Victorian women inventors and their extraordinary cycle wear, 2018
- Science and Media Museum blog, The surprising link between cycling and photography
- Science and Media Museum blog, On your bike! Cycling in our photography collection
- Science and Industry Museum blog, Cycling in Manchester: the road to sustainability