Bicycle has rich history as popular mode of transportation

"Who invented the bike, and how did they do it?" asked a bicycle enthusiast from Libertyville Recreation Department Teen Travelers Summer Biking Camp.

Learning to ride a two-wheeler is one of life's most exciting moments. Ask anyone about the first time they pedaled solo and they'll pinpoint the exact moment.

Bike riding is all about the freedom to travel by yourself from place to place, and adds the thrill of exhilarating speed for a feeling that almost doubles as a ground-level takeoff.

Electric bikes take you even faster, speeding up to 20 mph. Adults love bicycling, too. It can be a means for a cheap work commute, a way to stay fit, a pathway to meet new friends and a positive mood booster.

Paul Fitzgerald, who confesses to biking every day, is general manager of Working Bikes, a Chicago not-for-profit that repairs unused bikes and distributes them to groups in need. Fitzgerald explained that bicycles are a key travel mode around the world.

"In many parts of the world it's the only form of transportation," he said. "For many of our customers, it's the best option to get around."

They are pretty popular - about 42 percent of households worldwide own at least one bicycle, for a total of about 580 million bikes being pedaled around the globe.

Biking has a great history. While some say Leonardo da Vinci, one of the world's greatest inventors, might have designed such an invention, most cycling experts point to an inventor from the 1800s who surprisingly had a background in forestry.

Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn used a wooden bar to connect two iron wheels and topped off his contraption with a padded saddle. The rider would perch atop the saddle and jog. The wheels moved fast, treating the rider to a mode of transportation that was quicker than walking. Missing pedals, a chain and breaks, this low-tech invention used reins for steering.

Karl Drais was an inventive marketer, seizing the opportunity to showcase his drais, or drassine, invention in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens, the preferred park path of the rich and famous. Drais also offered these "dandy horses" for rent. Unfortunately, this model was quickly copied and his invention didn't drive Drais up to the ranks of his rich or famous customers.

New inventors added key elements that would ultimately steer prototypes into the bicycle we know today.

In the mid-1800s, a bicycle debuted that featured a huge wheel in the front joined to a much smaller back wheel, called the velocipede. Pedals were added, but this riding machine was an unstable device. Its nickname was the boneshaker. The next version had upgraded metal rim wheels with rubber tires, making a sort-of-smoother ride.

It's easy to donate bicycles you won't use to Working Bikes through its network of supporting bike shops in Chicago, suburban Cook and Lake counties. A listing of donation sites is on the Working Bikes website, Bikes are repaired and sent to many beneficiaries locally, including veterans, shelters, refugees and PADS. The organization also ships refurbished bicycles internationally to locations in Africa and Latin America.

Consider touring the showroom at 2434 S. Western Ave., Chicago, if you're in the market for a new bike, or if you'd like to help at a workshop.

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