Most of us remember the day the training wheels came off: learning to balance our weight on two tyres as we propelled ourselves forward, out of the driveway and onto the street. That shared experience was, for more than a hundred years, a very local story: bicycles were once almost exclusively manufactured, assembled and sold within an individual country, perhaps within a single region.
Take the UK, 50 years ago – when bottom brackets, cranksets, sprockets, handlebars, shifters, dustcaps and gussets might have all come from a single factory in Nottingham. They would often be sold in a shop nearby and ridden perhaps no further than a few miles from home.
Today, that picture is very, very different. The process of producing a typical bicycle has been divided up and shared out among workers and craftspeople from Asia to Europe. In doing so, this once small-scale trade has become a highly integrated feat of international collaboration.
The result is a global industry worth $45bn (£36bn), with more than 100 million bicycles produced in the world each year. And the bicycle industry confers benefits beyond isolated fields like transport or environmental policy: industrial design, employment, health and social policy all get a boost from bicycle production.
Bikes are used every day and on every inhabited continent, in the most affluent nations as well as developing countries. Even in today’s high-tech age, their production outpaces that of cars or computers. As pollution rises and the cost of fossil fuels continues to climb, cycling is often the most flexible and sustainable method of transport.
From aptly named “boneshakers”, to penny-farthings, to low-slung recumbent bikes, this centuries-old invention is, in many ways, the vehicle of the future.