On top of Safety in Sokolniki. Where and what bicyclists were riding 100 years ago

September 6

We are riding two-wheelers into the 19th century, along with a new exhibition at the Sadovoye Koltso (Garden Ring) Museum, dedicated to the history of bicycling in Moscow. We love the most interesting exhibits – antique bikes from the personal collection of Andrei Mitiayev – and reading his narrative about how the “iron horse” evolved from an overseas curiosity to an everyday necessity.

The first bicycles

The first bikes rolled into Moscow in the mid-1860s, ridden by the aristocracy and the wealthy merchant class. Their foreign rides were eloquently called “boneshakers.” The first boneshakers were mass-produced by the engineer and chariot-maker Pierre Michaux of Paris, who is credited with having invented the term “velocipede.”  In his homeland, boneshakers were known as les michaudines.  

A “boneshaker”

As legend has it, he was inspired by his son Ernest, who complained that his legs were too tired every time he rode the wooden draisienne, the first prototype of the modern bike. Michaux decided to improve the design and began by replacing the wooden frame with an iron one. Then an invention of his – a pedal drive on the front wheel – was added. Next there followed a cushioned seat and a rear wheel brake. The new design was good enough to become the first mass-produced bicycle.

The problem at that point was the exorbitant price: one bicycle cost between 600 and 700 roubles, and few people could afford the “machine” (to compare: a doctor earned 80 roubles a month on average at the time). By the late 1870s there were about 50 trendy biking fans in Moscow.

The early 1870s to the late 1880s was the era of “spiders,” bikes with very large front wheels. Their pedals and seat were mounted on the front wheel’s axis and, therefore, its diameter had to be enlarged to increase speed. The only natural constraint was the length of a rider’s legs and thus bikes had to conform to the rider’s size.

It was not easy to mount a spider bike. On the left was a footrest on which the rider had to step while grabbing the handlebars and pushing off with his right leg. With the bike under way, it was time to jump into the saddle and catch the pedals. But it was even harder to dismount. The rider had to feel for the footrest behind and then jump off. This was a trick few people could perform without falling. The spider bike had a front handbrake but it was more efficient to brake with the pedals because on an incline hand-braking could lead to the rider being thrown over the handlebars.

It was also impossible to ride a spider bike wearing a dress, and so the main purchasers were men and female circus performers, who wore tights.

The spider bike was followed by the “safe” bicycle, with wheels of the same size. The manufacturers invented the chain drive, thus dispensing with the huge front wheel. The “safety” bike was a prelude to modern bicycles.

A “safety bike”

The bicycle manufacturers

Russia’s first bicycle production company was launched by merchant Alexander Leitner at his factory in Riga in 1886. Originally a small workshop, where several workers assembled spider bikes, the plant grew in size with Leitner buying new equipment, moving the factory to a new building and hiring more workers. With the invention of the safety bike, he converted to producing that design. By 1896, the Leitner factory was turning out 15 bike models.

In 1893, Yury Meller, a Russian German, opened a factory, Dux, in Moscow, which started mass production of two-wheeled machines two years later.  

Meller, who had extensive connections in the West, bought his parts mostly in England and he manufactured several models – racing, roadsters, multi-seaters, and men’s, women’s and children’s bicycles. By 1900, the factory had its own design office and had hired over 100 employees who manufactured almost 1,000 bikes a year.

Women riding bicycles

In the early 20th century, Meller, who had a good eye for technical innovation, decided to expand his product range. Dux started producing railway handcars, automobiles and motorbikes. By 1913, Dux emerged as Russia’ largest aircraft-maker and major aircraft supplier to the Russian army during World War I, which began a year later. Apart from automobiles and bikes, its product range included airships, motor sleighs, hydroplanes, and airplanes. In 1918, Dux was nationalised and renamed State Aircraft Plant No. 1. It stopped producing bicycles in 1925.  

In the late 1890’s, other bicycle and part supplyer shops sprung up in Moscow. In the summer of 1897, Fedor Zhemlichka & Co. opened its Humber bike factory in the Yamskaya Sloboda area. It assembled bikes from parts manufactured by Humber, England, and it welded frames and painted them. The owner, Fedor Zhemlichka, was a well-known Moscow bicycle racer; logically, he added a bicycle track to the factory a year later where races were held and novices were taught to ride. Humber was shut down in November 1900, with Zhemlichka converting to car sales.  

In the early 20th century, Moscow had over 50 bike dealers, including major department stores, which made millions in profits, workshops, and small private outlets. One of these was Jean Block, a well-known trading house owned by the brothers Jean and Julius Block, whose tool and bench plant manufactured bikes between 1900 and 1910 using foreign-made parts. The plant was closed in 1917, as was the trading house.

A bike purchase certificate

Bicycle clubs and societies

The Russian Empire’s first bicycle company dates back to the spider bike era: 31 March 1884 saw the founding of the Moscow Society of Amateur Cyclists (MOVL) modeled after English aristocratic clubs, which meant that commoners were not admitted. Its founders were Jean and Julius Block, architect Vladimir Shukhov, and Colonel Andrei Firsov.

Another was the Moscow Club of Cyclists (MKV). Founded in 1888, it was more democratic and included members from the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia on its roll. Count Leo Tolstoy was an honorary MKV member.

The clubs organised collective outings and sports events and helped members to get bike plates and a city riding certificate, a document each biker was required to possess. There were also places of leisure where, for example, theatrical productions were presented. Bike societies fared on membership fees and contributions as well as made some money on their own: velodromes (another name for bicycle tracks) built by almost every association hosted paid bike races.

Russia’s first bike race was held at the Khodynskoye Polye racetrack on 24 July 1883. It was attended by 25,000 spectators, popularity matched only by imperial military parades. This was the first cycling competition in Russia, and the history of bicycling in Russia basically began at that point.

A period of infatuation with bicycling gave way to a slump in 1905-1910. There were almost no cycling societies left in Moscow and enthusiasts flocked to multi-sport clubs. In 1911, a number of bicyclists established the Moscow Society of Amateur Ice-Skaters and Cyclists that rekindled the interest in cycling in Russia. Between1912 and 1917, the society held several competitions both in Moscow and the Moscow region.

Thanks to enthusiasts, cycling races were included in the two Russian Olympic Games that were modeled on international events’ type. These were aimed at training athletes for international competitions and boosting the level of sports achievements at home.

Bycycles and the press

The priority facing the clubs and societies was to popularise cycling culture and do so, among other things, with the help of specialised magazines. There were almost no books on bicycling at that time and magazines emerged as the only source of information.

In 1892, Moscow publisher Stanislav Yanovsky  released the first issue of Bicycle and River Yacht Club, which was renamed twice during its lifetime, first as Cyclist and then as Cycling.  The magazine was published until 1896 as a weekly, 50 issues per year. People could either subscribe to Cycling (an annual subscription cost four roubles) or buy separate issues. All Moscow cycling societies issued magazines to members free of charge as part of their fees.

Cycling with articles on track-and-field, yachting and skating was soon superseded by a weekly called Cyclist. The magazine was published from early 1895 to mid-1904 and edited by Dmitry Golomzin and Abram Lipskerov. It had a satirical slant, with reports often presented in the form of feuilletons. Cyclist was distinguished by a showy design and a plethora of drawings: it had a bright red cover and blue type on a white background. Each issue contained news reports, both Moscow and national, correspondents’ letters, feuilletons and short stories that were not always about cycling, as well as technical and reference information on cycling clubs and societies.  

Cyclist magazine

In 1904, during the first Russian revolution, the cycling boom had fizzled out: the bicycle became an easy-to-get vehicle, races failed to attract as many spectators as in the past, the clubs’ revenues plummeted, and cycling information was now published in general sports magazines. Moscow had two major editions of this kind: the in-folio Russian Sports, famous for its photographs, and K Sportu!, a magazine with news reports and reviews dedicated to all sports. They were competitors, but to have the full picture, the majority of athletes and fans subscribed to both. The magazines were published until 1920 and 1917, respectively.   

Cycling magazines

Moscow riding grounds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, St Petersburg Highway (currently Leningradsky Prospekt) was the most popular cycling route, and boasted Russia’s first bike lane. The main points of attraction on the way were Petrovsky Park (the most popular area for collective rest and recreation in the city), Vsekhsvyatskoye Village, and a grove that went by the name of Serebryany Bor (not today’s Serebryany Bor but a place near the current Shchukinskaya metro station). This route included the Khodynsky cycling track as well.

Petrovsky Park had two cafes for bikers. The most popular of the two was Cyclist run by the Smirnov brothers, bikers who rode a specialised tandem bicycle.   

A non-system cycling track was built in Sokolniki by the Moscow Cycling Society. Moscow residents used it, too, but there were no races held there.

Bicycles in the Army

The military sought to adapt bikes to the Army’s needs the moment they appeared in Russia. The first experiments of this sort took place in 1888, and three years later, the high command issued an order “On the mandatory introduction of the bicycle to the organisation of the field infantry and fortress garrisons.” 

In June 1894, the Russian Army’s first detached bicycle unit was formed under Second Lieutenant Vladimir Smerdov, an avid bike enthusiast. At first the bikers served as messengers delivering important messages, but later they were used to transport weapons and rations. By the mid-1890s, it became clear that bicycles were a rapid mobile reserve that could be deployed on longer distances at low cost (no need to provide fodder for horses).

Initially, ordinary bikes were used for military needs, but soon it transpired that the Army needed specialty vehicles. The use was revolutionised by a French infantry captain, Henry Gerard, who invented the collapsible military bicycle, which he patented in 1895. Its frame design made it possible to fold the bike in half and carry it on a person’s back.

The Russian Army tested the Gerard bike in 1897 and immediately discovered its drawbacks: long folding process, displaced saddle, weak brakes and high overall weight. The Russian Army entered World War I with the French model, but in 1916 inventor Mikhail Shchipanov patented a collapsible military bicycle known as Combat Dux. The Dux factory was busy making aircraft so the entire design package, through coordination with the inventor, was handed over to the Leitner factory which had evacuated from Riga to Kharkov.

The Combat Dux didn’t have the drawbacks inherent in the Gerard bike: a rider’s weight was distributed evenly over the wheels; the machine was much lighter and could be collapsed within ten seconds with a lever. The Combat Dux became one of the best collapsible bikes in the world. Both Dux and the Gerard were used by the Bicycle Troops during World War I and the Civil War in Russia. Before it was nationalised, the Dux factory turned out 700 Combat Dux bikes. Today, only three of these bikes are known to survive, one of which is displayed at the bicycle exhibition at the Sadovoye Koltso Museum.   

Visitors can see the first Moscow bicycle models and gain insight into the history of cycling in Moscow at the exhibition, “Moscow’s Cycling History. The Bicycle in Pre-Revolutionary Moscow” at the Sadovoye Koltso Museum before 20 October.

Source: mos.ru

Latest Events


March 7

The Rhythm of My City

August 6November 19
If you continue to use our website, you are agreeing to accept the use of cookies on your device. Cookie files ensure the website’s efficiency and help us provide you with the most interesting and relevant information. Read more about cookie files.
Accept ccokies