It is claimed that the first bicycle was conceived by an apprentice of Leonardo Da Vinci. The sketch of a two-wheeled vehicle rumoured to be in Da Vinci’s twelve-volume Codex Atlanticus is now under lock and key in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. That the first idea for a bicycle arrived during the Italian Renaissance is fitting given Italy’s contribution to the history of cycling. The Italians are equally well regarded as shoemakers, or calzolai, and both the craft of shoes and bicycles are inextricably linked.
A famed polymath, Da Vinci’s sketch of Vitruvian Man mapped the proportions of the human anatomy with architectural precision. Indeed, it is the symmetry of the human body and its incredible range of movement that has allowed us to adapt to machines, none more intimately and with such enduring value as the bicycle.
The earliest physical incarnation of a bicycle is German inventor Karl von Drais’s ‘running machine’. Built in 1818, the Laufmaschine was propelled by a seated rider pushing his feet off the ground. By 1820, this primitive hobbyhorse design had spread to France and Britain with wheelwrights, blacksmiths and entrepreneurs realising the potential of ‘the horse that eats no hay’. Once engineers began to incorporate treadles or foot levers into two, three, even four-wheeled vehicles, it was soon discovered that these self-propelled machines could benefit from having the wheels driven by the feet more directly. At this point boots and town shoes were the norm for these “pushers and pedallers”.
By the 1860s, it was French-designed bicycles that were among the first to enjoy commercial success, with basic pedals and rotary cranks attached to the hub of the front wheel. This development enabled not just greater speed but the first organised races on two-wheeled, pedal-powered machines or vélocipedès. The British version, known as the high-wheeler (penny farthings) made cycling more like flying due to the height the large front wheels pitched riders to. That it often brought them crashing to earth meant the design, not to mention some of the riders, would be short-lived. The form of propulsion we know today, with chain drives turning the rear wheel via a crank and pedals, arrived in the 1880s and this ‘safety bicycle’, with its equally sized wheels, is essentially what we are still riding.
Pedal mechanisms have evolved as the materials and technologies available have in turn improved. Yet the basic requirement has always been the same – to hold the foot to the pedal. It was during the 1890s, the first true boom period of the bicycle, that both the clipless and magnetic pedal appeared. Each of these methods required shoe plates and/or slotted cleats, with fittings attached or built in to the sole. So while the upper had to be comfortable and lightweight, the sole needed to be more rigid. From the 1890s through to the 1980s, riders like Maurice Garin, Hugo Koblet and Jacques Anquetil wore low profile, lace-up shoes. Made of leather, these were characterised by long tongues, perforations, reinforced heels and flat soles. Most commonly, these shoes have been used with quill pedals, toe clips, cages, straps and slotted cleats. Traditionally, these shoes would have cork inner soles for comfort and durability but as technology developed, plastic soles and footbeds became increasingly common.
In 1970, the Cinelli M71 arrived. This new system used shoe plates that slid into grooves on the pedal but with levers located underneath the pedal, they were tricky to release. While this may sound dangerous, track riders have a history of drilling and bolting their shoes to their pedals. Road shoes and pedals only changed more radically and successfully in the 1980s. Incorporating technology used in ski bindings and developments made in running shoes, they increasingly used man-made materials, such as EVA which was highly effective for cushioning the foot.
It was in 1985 that French ski equipment company Look introduced their pédales automatiques, or PP65. They used plastic moulded cleats that clipped securely and released quickly and easily from the pedals; the one snag was that road shoes on the market at the time weren’t designed to accommodate this new cleat’s three-bolt fastening. Look’s solution was crude, providing a paper template to help the rider drill into the soles at the correct points. Bernard Hinault, captain of the La Vie Clare team sponsored by Look, used these new pedals to win his fifth Tour de France that same year. The 1980s also saw the emergence of new cycling shoe brands beyond Sidi and Adidas, offering new colours, textures and materials, such as kangaroo hide, nylon and nubuck.
By 1986, the pro peloton had latched on to this development and the days of the reliable leather toe straps were numbered. Replaced by plastic and alloy fastenings and pedals, the hazard of loose laces was banished as velcro closings became de rigueur. Road racers were now benefitting from greater power from their pedals, generating more direct push and pull thanks to a far stiffer platform. Riders today enjoy the spoils of these technological breakthroughs with the widespread use of carbon fibre and titanium. Yet the mark of a fine pair of road shoes is still, ultimately, the leather. From the first Victorian dandies padding along the footpaths of the English countryside, to the dynamic ‘man-machines’ of the early 21st century, the footwear of the road cyclist is just as important as the bicycle they are attached to.