Discover some of France’s most fascinating icons
Despite being a real symbol of the French lifestyle, the bicycle was actually invented in Germany in 1817. Named after its inventor Baron von Drais, the Draisine had a wooden frame and wheels and was propelled by foot power.
The French can, however, lay claim to developing the first popular design in the 1860s. Pierre Lallement, a carriage maker, decided to add pedals to create a velocipede (fast feet). The Michaux family, who built Parisian coaches, then began mass-producing bikes made of wood and iron. Napoleon III’S son started riding a bike around town and truly launched the fashion for these two-wheelers.
Production almost stopped by the 1870s because of the Franco-prussian war but was resurrected a decade later by publisher of Le Cycliste magazine Paul de Vive. His design was called the Gauloise and it had smaller wheels plus a system of chains which allowed for different gears. At the time, solid rubber tyres were in use but in the 1890s, Edouard Michelin invented the removable tyre which heralded a new era.
Cycle racing had started but it wasn’t until 1902 that the breakthrough came when journalist Géo Lefèvre pitched the idea of a race around France to his editor at L’auto magazine. The first edition of the now-iconic Tour de France ran from 1-19 July 1903 over 2,428km.
The success of the Tour de France led to a surge in the popularity of cycling. In 1920, there were 4.3 million bikes in France and in 1926, the figure had risen to 7.1 million. Its popularity dwindled in the 1960s as cars became more affordable. But when air pollution became common knowledge in the 1990s, the French government decided to encourage the use of bikes again by creating cycle lanes in cities.