Every volcanic ash cloud has a silver lining: the birth of the bicycle

Indonesian eruption in 1815 led German inventor to develop early velocipede

The volcanic ash cloud currently hovering over Europe may have wreaked havoc with air travel and caused riders such as Bradley Wiggins and Carlos Sastre to miss last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race, with others having to travel to the Netherlands by car to compete – but it was the eruption of a volcano almost 200 years ago that led to the invention of the bicycle in the first place.

The volcano in question was Mount Tambora in Indonesia, whose eruption in 1815 disrupted global weather patterns, and as pointed out by Carlton Reid’s blog, that gave rise to what was known as “the Year Without Summer” –a cheerful prospect, given the winter we’ve just endured – which caused Europe’s crops to fail, and with transport dependent on horses at the time, no oats spelt bad news for the economy of a continent still reeling from the Napoleonic Wars.

That led one German aristocrat-cum-inventor, Baron Karl von Drais, to start developing a form of transport that would help reduce dependency on our equine friends, and the result was a “running machine” unveiled in 1817 which he called the Draisine, the first velocipede - think of Fred Flintstone trotting away on a bike instead of a car, and you're pretty much there.

It took several decades for others to add features such as pedals and brakes and for diamond-shaped frames to be added, let alone a chainset and gearing, but with two wheels, a saddle and rudimentary steering mechanism, it is still recognisable as the forerunner of the modern bicycle.

Presumably, there is an alternative universe somewhere in which a volcano in Indonesia didn’t erupt in 1815, meaning that crops in Europe grew as usual the following year and no-one thought of linking two wheels with a plank of wood as a means of getting round. Which in turn would mean that nine decades or so later, there wouldn’t have been a pair of brothers working as bike mechanics who turned their attention to how to make a heavier-than-air machine fly, meaning no flights to disrupt a century later due to the effects of a volcano erupting in Iceland.

Now there’s a thought.

Simon has been news editor at since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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