Bicentennial of the Bicycle 8

Saddle Up for the Celebration in Mannheim Germany

On any given Tuesday evening at the pub adjacent to the Rothaus Brewery in Germany’s Black Forest Highlands, you’ll find a table of local cyclists toasting with their mugs of Tannenzäpfle, the brewery’s most popular beer. They’ve been making beer here for 225 years and the cyclists choose this spot to celebrate the end of their weekly 40-kilometer ride through the winding, hilly roadways of southwest Germany.

That Germans and all Europeans have an affinity with their bicycles like Americans love their automobiles is nothing new. But in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, that relationship is intertwined with local pride in that the very first bicycle was built here in 1817.

That means there’s a big party in southwest Germany this summer and you’re invited.

Building the First Bicycle

Leonardo da Vinci and a number of other visionaries played around with the design of a bicycle for hundreds of years, but no one actually did anything about it until Karl Drais came along. After years of bad crops throughout Europe in the early 1800s, people were reduced to eating their horses simply to survive. A reliable means of transporting people and goods that didn’t need to be fed and cared for was Karl Drais’ goal.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call that first contraption a bicycle. Yes, it had two wheels and a method of steering but there were no pedals. You simply dropped your feet to the ground and pushed yourself along. That’s why the early bicycle was called a “laufmaschine” or running machine. Drais named it the “draisine” but others called it the Dandy Horse.

Put this date on your calendar: June 12, 1817. That’s when Drais took his invention out for its first ride, reportedly going from Mannheim to Rheinau, a distance of about five miles. The iron wheels were connected by a piece of wood about the size of a 2 X 4 with a small amount of padding where the rider sat.

Replicas of this running machine and other early bicycles are on permanent display at the Technoseum in Mannheim. Guided tours are available in English, and that’s a good option because it’s probably the only way you’ll be offered the opportunity to ride a “laufmaschine” replica on an indoor corridor. During the bicentennial celebration this summer a much larger temporary exhibition will focus entirely on this, the first horseless means of transportation, and how it launched a desire for greater mobility for us all.

Check out the party plans in Mannheim at Tourist-Mannheim.de/en/.

Great Bike Trails Throughout Southwest Germany

Few places in Europe are as ideal for cycling with the variety of terrains as southwest Germany. In the Stuttgart region, you can bike through vineyards that were planted hundreds of years ago. Beautifully groomed trails along the Rhine and Neckar River contrast with the rugged challenges of riding through the Swabian Alps and along the shores of beautiful Lake Constance or Lake Titisee.

Castles, monasteries and other major attractions throughout the region can all be reached on two wheels. Of course, numerous breweries and wineries along the way provide wonderful opportunities to raise a glass with the locals. They call this system of trails and services dedicated to cyclists the “Radstreckennetz.”

For those who may wish to bike a few hours here or there, Stuttgart, Mannheim and nearly every community of any size throughout Baden-Württemberg has a bike rental program through NextBike with many locations adjacent to train stations in those communities. The cost is about 1€ per half hour. You may reserve up to four bikes at a time on-line in advance of arrival or via the NextBike app.

But for longer, more complex exploration of the region on two wheels, visit Tourism-bw.com/Nature/Cycle-vacations. Here you’ll find links with detailed information on bicycle friendly accommodations, a bicycle route planner and the two separate long-distance routes along the Rhine River.

Two other items of concern:

1 – Germany does not require cyclists to wear helmets, but of course, it’s a good idea. Packing your most comfortable helmet from home won’t take a lot of space in your luggage.

2 – You don’t speak German? Not too worry – much. Most Germans, especially those who interact with travelers, speak some English and are more than willing to communicate the best they can. But even if not, you and your hosts will speak the common language of cycling, and that’s all you’ll need for a bicycle birthday adventure this summer.