It all started with a volcano.
When Indonesia’s Mount Tambora disastrously erupted in 1815, debris thrown into the atmosphere temporarily chilled the globe, resulting in widespread crop failures and a shortage of feed. Horses starved.
Enter Baron Karl von Drais, a German, who in 1817 invented a two-wheeled, human-powered device that a rider could straddle and propel by pushing on the ground with his feet. Later tweaks added pedals and cranks. Thus, the bike, now celebrating its 200th year, was born.
As early as the 1880s, bicycles were promoted as a form of exercise, according to Juston Anderson, a bike collector, volunteer with the fledgling Cycling Museum of Minnesota and captain of the Minnesota Wheelmen, an antique bicycling organization.
Women, though, were warned away, told that cycling could injure reproductive organs. Some brave females rode anyway, especially after the development of the “safety bicycle,” with equal-sized front and rear wheels, driven by a chain.
Bicycling’s beginnings were riddled with safety challenges. Bikes were expensive and sometimes dangerous status symbols, with nicknames like “boneshakers” and “dandyhorses,” and were ridden by fashionable, well-off daredevils. Over time, better roads and bikes meant the benefits of riding on two wheels outweighed the risks. Today, we know bicycling is good for the heart, brain, muscles and bones. One study in the Netherlands noted every hour of cycling added an hour to a person’s life span.
Thanks to a new biking app called Zwift, today’s cycling can take place in the virtual world. Zwift will translate how hard you pedal a smart indoor bike trainer into a digitized avatar of yourself speeding on a course displayed on a monitor. Riding next to you could be avatars of other bicyclists from around the world, also pedaling on their trainers.
It’s sort of like a multiplayer online game, but with more spandex and sweating.
“A lot of stuff that happens in the real world happens in Zwift,” says Ken Bayliss, a St. Paul lawyer who uses the app. “It’s highly realistic.”
Zwift riders cycle on a scenic imaginary Pacific island called Watopia where hot air balloons, quaint villages and waterfalls can be seen along a rolling course. And of course, there’s a volcano.