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A 'tough love' history of the bicycle (Rebroadcast)

When riding a bike, you're floating on air.
When riding a bike, you're floating on air.

Bicycles were invented in 1817 by German inventor Karl von Drais. Since then, they’ve grown to become the most popular form of transportation (besides walking) worldwide.

For many, bicycles have been a symbol of freedom. Women suffragists hopped on bicycles to defy the patriarchy at the turn of the century. A child learning to ride their bike – and finally freeing themselves from their parents’ grasp – is an early step towards independence. In 1989, young people streamed into Tiananmen Square on bicycles to protest China’s communist government.

“I loved…the sense of escape,” one listener wrote us about his early memories on a bike. “Riding gave me a sense of freedom, away from home, with me deciding where I went,” wrote another.

Bicycles, however, have a complicated history. The early surge in biking’s popularity in the late 1800s also meant a surge in demand for rubber. Belgian King Leopold II extracted much of that rubber from Congo, enslaving and killing millions of Africans as he did so.

Bicycle enthusiast Jody Rosen describes his new book, “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle,” as a “tough love” history of the storied form of transportation. His reporting takes us through the present, amidst another surge in biking’s popularity.

During the pandemic, many people tried to avoid public transportation and get outside. City infrastructure, however, has often pitted bicyclists against drivers for a place on the road.

We explore the history and mystery of the bicycle with Rosen and turn to a bicycle activist for his perspective on the current issues facing cyclists.

Copyright 2022 WAMU 88.5

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Avery Kleinman