Opinion: The future belongs to bicycles | Opinion | DW | 12.06.2017
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Opinion: The future belongs to bicycles

As the car industry boomed for decades, the bicycle's importance as a means of transport dwindled. But DW Sports' Joscha Weber is expecting a pedal power renaissance 200 years after the bike's invention.

Someone on a bicycle approaches me from behind. As a passionate cyclist, I immediately recognize the sound. The soft whirring of the chain signals the presence of a competitor closing in on me. Now, I'm riding uphill. I'm sweating and putting pressure on the pedals. As the sound grows louder, I feel my opponent drafting off me. Then, he overtakes me on my home turf, my mountain. To my surprise, he is not a trained professional, but instead, an elderly gentleman with white hair. He is sitting up straight, leisurely pedaling and not even sweating. Unlike me, he is not riding a racing bike; he is riding a mountain bike. And this particular bike has an electric motor attached to it. He greets me with a grin and rides on. My cyclist's pride can only take so much. I downshift, start riding out of the saddle, go into full sprint mode and chase him. I overtake him and am the first one to reach the mountaintop. And then I gasp for breath. Curse those e-bikes! Curse technology! 

E-bikes and pedelecs, another variation of motorized bicycles, have rejuvenated the old bicycle. Small electric motors provide 250 to 500 watts of additional pedal power. That means a retiree can ride up a mountain as fast as someone like me, who covers 12,000 kilometers a year using my own legs. It is no wonder that some 1.5 million e-bikes are sold each year in the European Union alone. The number has risen tenfold over the past decade. The bicycle, a vehicle that prosperous societies look at as a relic of a time before cars, is back again. Now, 200 years after Karl Drais rode through the German city of Mannheim on his strange-looking machine, the bicycle is still an important means of transportation. Some statistics even show it is the most widely used means of transportation in the world. And there is good reason for its popularity to continue to soar.

Weber Joscha Kommentarbild App

Joscha Weber heads DW's sports department

Bicycles represent a zeitgeist

The bicycle has continued to evolve ever since its origins in Karl Drais' workshop. Over the years, the two-wheeled machine has adapted to social preferences and needs. It has gone through many transformations: It has been a flashy new invention with a giant front wheel, a military transporter, an off-road adventurer, an aerodynamic high-speed racer and now, a motorized, multipurpose vehicle that carries people or goods. Charles Darwin would have had fun analyzing the bicycle's various evolutionary phases.

Legend has it that the the bicycle was invented in response to a sociohistorical problem. A volcanic eruption in 1815 in what is present-day Indonesia led to a global climate disaster. As a result of the ensuing crop failure and famine in the winter, people started eating horse meat, causing a drastic decline in the number of horses and thus, a loss of an important means of transportation. Drais' invention soon filled the gap.

History may be about to repeat itself. A depletion of fossil fuels, high exhaust emissions, the consequences of climate change and a lack of space in large cities will give rise to a renaissance of cycling. Bicycles need little room to operate; the necessary infrastructure is much cheaper compared to what is required for cars. Bicycles also satisfy a basic human need for individual mobility. If you commute by car, you have probably noticed that only one person usually occupies a vehicle. Many commuters are already switching to the more economical two-wheeler and the trend is on the up. Two-thirds of car drivers in Germany can see themselves riding their bikes more often. So bicycles symbolize the past and the future at the same time. And thanks to e-bikes, they are now all rather fast - even if that is an idea I need to get used to.

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