As long as there have been bicycles, people have been racing them. After all, put two kids on a bike, and they’re likely to be racing before too long. The history of bicycle racing provides a fascinating look into the development of modern cycling sport and is full of stories of drama, injury, failure, and glory.
The first race
History records the first official cycling race as taking place on the last day of May, 1868, on the west side of Paris, at the Parc de Saint-Cloud. It covered 1200 meters and was won by James Moore, an Englishman, who rode a wooden bicycle with iron tires.
Local racing associations
Cycling groups associated with a particular city, region, or country have existed for a long time. One of the first was the National Cyclists’ Union (originally called the Bicycle Union) of Great Britain, which was formed in 1878.
In the early days, the NCU focused on organizing races across Britain. At first, these served as de-facto world championships, but that job was soon passed on. In the 1940’s, the NCU merged with the British League of Racing Cyclists — but only after a bitter 10-year dispute between the organizations over closing down roads for races. The organization still exists today and is called British Cycling (formerly the British Cycling Federation).
Cycling in the United States
The governing body for cycling in this country is called USA Cycling, or USAC. This organization emerged from the Amateur Bicycle League of America, which was created in 1920.
The organization now oversees all official racing activities in the US, including road, track, mountain bike, cyclo-cross and other types of racing. Racing clubs, officials, coaches, teams and others comprise the membership of USAC, which counts more than 70,000 members. USAC is also sub-divided in 34 local associations, which organize and promote local races and cycling-focused events.
The world stage
The first body created to oversee international cycle racing was called the International Cycling Association and was formed in 1892 by an Englishman, Henry Sturmey (incidentally, the creator of the first three-speed hub).
The first cycling world championships were held in Chicago, and the winner received gold medals. Arthur Zimmerman of the USA took first place in both the 1-mile sprint and the 10km sprint, while Lawrence Meintjes of South Africa took gold in the 100km event.
Discontent simmered among French cyclists around the turn of the 20th century, incensed that colonial teams from Scotland, Ireland and three other colonies were permitted to each field teams alongside Britain itself, while the French were limited to just one team.
Due to host the world championships in the year 1900, the French cycling association instead went rogue and decided to create the Union Cycliste Internationale — which only allowed one team from the United Kingdom.
Union Cycliste Internationale
Within several years, the UCI was the dominant cycling institution on the world stage, setting rules and hosting world championships. At first, the organization hosted five events: sprinting and road racing for both amateurs and professionals, as well as motor-paced races of greater distance.
Today, the UCI is the governing body for professional and competitive cycling around the world, enforcing standards and rules against drug use and doping and attending to a ranking system for the difficulty of various races and the relative positions of competitive riders, who are awarded points based on their performance in various races.
The Tour de France
The most famous cycling race began as a fundraiser for a French newspaper (L’Auto) in the year 1903. The race has fascinating roots in the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal over the selling of French state secrets to the Germans — more interesting history in the past of cycle racing.
The modern Tour de France is held over 21 days in France (and occasionally neighboring countries) and features top cycling teams from around the world competing for the top individual honors as well as prizes for the best team, best sprinter, best climber and best young rider.
Modern road racing takes a wide variety of forms and is one of the more popular competitive sports on the planet. Road cycling races are the most popular events, with the Tour de France as the biggest. But road races vary from short sprinting events to long-distance, multi-day affairs, and occur on every level from small local clubs to world championships.
Track cycling is still common, though perhaps not as popular as in the past. Cyclocross racing, in which participants ride beefed-up road bikes on rugged loop trails usually a mile or two in length, are increasingly popular and draw large crowds — especially in Belgium and France. Mountain bike races are common as well, especially cross-country rides (mostly focused on singletrack terrain) and downhill, which often includes technical terrain, large drops, and complex obstacles.
Other common races include Keirin, a Japanese style of cycling that begins with motorcycle-pacing and ends with an all-out sprint.
Bike racing history in SLC
Since Bikewagon is based in the Salt Lake City area, we have to put in a bit of local history here as well. Around the turn of the century, bicycle racing was popular at the Salt Palace (now a massive convention center) and Saltair, an upscale resort on the Great Salt Lake. Both featured wooden tracks and hosted regular races which drew large crowds