Cycling in the Chattanooga area is a paradigm of our city’s vibrant outdoors culture. Commuters bike to work, families enjoy the ℹ️ Riverwalk, and urbanites are cashing in on the convenience of Bike Chattanooga’s transit system. As this year marks the milestone 200th anniversary of the bicycle, it’s interesting to reflect a moment on the history of the two-wheel phenomenon—from its rudimentary beginnings to modern roles as a means of mobility, recreation and adventure travel.
Jim Johnson, founder of Chattanooga-based BikeTours.com, who has cycled extensively in Europe provides insight on the history of the bike and the region of Southwest Germany in which it all began.
Necessity – The Mother of Invention
In 1817, inventor Karl von Drais presented an early version of the bicycle in Mannheim, Germany—what he called a laufmaschine—German for running machine. It gained the nickname “dandy horse”, because to ride it, one sat on a leather saddle atop a wooden frame with two wooden wheels. Unlike modern bikes, the laufmaschine had no pedals, chains or gears; riders would set in motion by running their feet along the ground. Drais soon obtained a patent for his invention, which later became known as the velocipede and was considered the first mode of transportation that did not require the use of an animal.
“It’s really amazing to think that the bicycle dates back two centuries,” said Johnson. “Although the bike was invented in Germany, what likely precipitated it was a devastating volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815, which spewed dense clouds of smoke and tainted the atmosphere over Germany and elsewhere in Europe for months. The lack of sun caused crops to die, which in turn caused millions of horses to die of starvation. Drais basically was looking for an alternative to ‘horsepower.’”
The laufmaschine, it turns out, was the forerunner of greater innovation and further advances in transportation in Southwest Germany. Owing to the designs of Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, the region is better known as birthplace of the automobile and home to two of the most iconic brands, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. (Volkswagen was founded in the lower Saxony region in 1937, as a company manufacturing the “people’s car.”) The history of motorized transport—beginning with the first motorized bicycle invented in 1885—is depicted at the impressive Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
Two wheels and a story
As founder of BikeTours.com, Johnson is no stranger to two-wheel treks. He was a freelance travel writer covering bike trips in Germany and Austria for many years and later worked as public relations director for one of Chattanooga’s large corporations, continuing to explore Europe by bike during vacations. Through many connections with small, local bike tour companies, which had put together his itineraries, Johnson established BikeTours.com in 2003. Over the past 10 years, the tour booking company has grown to represent more than 75 tour operators across Europe.
With a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in German Studies and language fluency, Johnson has a fondness for Germany travel. The idyllic Mosel Bike Path that meanders through Germany’s largest wine region was among the first routes that his company represented for bookings, and it remains one of his favorites.
Germany has many scenic cycling routes, according to Johnson, notably, the Neckar River Bike Path that runs through the beautiful, historic university city of Heidelberg, not far from Mannheim. Also a favorite is the segment of the Danube Bike Path, which follows the Danube waterway from its start at a spring near the Black Forest and continues alongside a stream that transforms into the mighty river. The Lake Constance Bike Path, which tours through the three countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is one of Europe’s most popular routes.
Peddle power in the Scenic City
Whether abroad or at home, Johnson is an active promoter of recreational cycling. He has been involved in a number of trail and greenway projects including the creation of Stringer’s Ridge Park. His efforts, along with the work of many local cycling enthusiasts, have helped foster a friendly community for biking in Chattanooga.
Johnson serves as a board member of Bike Walk Tennessee and is currently working on concepts and proposals that could connect the Riverwalk and South Chickamauga Greenway to the Chickamauga Battle Field to create a 55-mile loop though Chattanooga and Northwest Georgia. Other concepts include a North Shore Greenway (rail with trail) that would ultimately connect the North Shore and Red Bank to the North Chickamauga Greenway. Potentially, this route could extend via the CB Robinson Bridge across the Tennessee River to connect to the Riverwalk, creating a 20-mile loop.
Headquartered in north Chattanooga, BikeTours.com offers European tours for both leisure and experienced cyclists. Among countless bike touring companies, BikeTours. com differentiates itself with the mission to offer an authentic experience and an alternative to expensive, heavily marketed bicycle tours, without sacrificing quality. BikeTours.com does not operate tours; rather the company acts as a liaison, handling booking and all arrangements with established local operators that have developed tour routes with bike-friendly accommodations.
By representing European tour outfitters, Biketours.com offers a variety of guided or unguided tours, from budget to deluxe— with accommodations, luggage transfer, and support all pre-arranged. With more than 200 itineraries in Europe to choose from, BikeTours advisors help clients select a tour that best suits their cycling and travel objectives.
Discover Southwest Germany— where the story of the bike began
For visitors interested in delving into the history of the bike, one can ride the very route on which Karl von Drais tested his invention in Mannheim and visit his hometown of Karlsruhe. The two cities will celebrate the 200th anniversary with parades, exhibitions and events highlighting the actual anniversary of Drais’ maiden ride (June12,1817). Mannheim features an exhibit “2 wheels—200 years” in the city’s Technoseum, reflecting the history and technical development of the bicycle, as well as its tremendous impact on modern society.
Throughout the summer months, themed events continue in Germany’s southwest corner known as Baden-Württemberg, including a traveling roadshow featuring e-bikes. A grand nale sound and light show celebrating the genius of the inventor will be held in the courtyard of Mannheim’s castle on September 16, 2017.
With quaint villages, vineyards and riverside paths, Baden-Württenberg is a wonderful destination for biking. Bike routes exist for all levels of cycling ability—from gentle, vineyard-to-vineyard pedaling on the Württenberg Wine Route to more challenging Black Forest hills and mountain biking near Baiersbronn, a small town known for Michelin-star dining. The 100-kilometer Liebliches Taubertal, recently refurbished for this year’s bicentennial, is one of Germany’s historic biking routes with scenery of castles, monasteries and fortresses.
E-biking—considered the next frontier of biking—is being developed in the Black Forest and Stuttgart areas with new rental opportunities and free charging stations, making it easier to explore the hilly areas by bike. Though we’ve come a longway from Karl Drais’ original invention, the bicentennial serves a reminder of the important roles of the bicycle, as well as inspiration to get out and enjoy a ride.
For more on the 200th anniversary, visit monnem-bike.de/english/
Photography by Ann N. Yungmeyer and courtesy of biketours.com
Technical drawings from Technoseum “2 wheels–200 years”