In 1885, engineer JK Starley did bicycles a big favor by inventing the “safety bike,” which looks pretty much like the two-wheelers we see on the streets today. Prior to that, people (mostly men) had to ride around on the easily-tipped-over “ordinary” bicycle with its outlandishly large front wheel that made it nearly impossible for women in their late Victorian wardrobe to even hoist themselves onto the contraptions, much less ride them. How the first “ordinary” race for women happened in 1868, I’m really not sure.
Starley’s safety bike opened up the leisure sport to women like never before. Some brave few had tooled around on ordinaries and tricycles were also having a moment, but the mass-produced safety bike sparked the bicycle craze of the 1890s that got both upper- and middle-class men and women alike peddling around. Moralizing prudes at the time, however, were scandalized at the sight of women bearing their ankles and riding astride such a contraption. One turn-of-the-century French “expert” warned that the contact between the bicycle seat and a woman’s (clothed) vagina would ruin her “feminine organs of matrimonial necessity.” (Bikes: Spoiling Feminine Organs Since 1885.) Instead of fighting against the sporting trend, some companies tried to hop aboard the handlebars. The American Corset Company, for instance, offered customers $100 in bicycling insurance with the purchase of a bicycle corset.
In part to due to this social panic, the Starley company stepped in again in 1889 with the second bicycle specially designed for ladies. David V. Herlihy notes in “Bicycle: The History” that in 1888, the Smith National Cycle Company came out with the Ladies’ Dart Bicycle, but it couldn’t keep up with demand, and Stanley quickly overtook the ladybike market. The Starley model came with an adorable wicker basket chock-full of chocolates and tampons (just in case!) as well as an emergency modesty poncho. Just kidding! But the name of said ladybike is no joke: Psycho Ladies Bicycle.
What was so “psycho” about the bike? Perhaps that it was psychotically fun to ride, even in 25 pounds of Victorian undergarments. What made the bike for the gals was its step-through frame. Basically, the frame sat low enough that women wouldn’t have to hike their skirts up to ride, thus putting their oh-so-titillating ankles on display. And while the notion of the Psycho Ladies Bicycle is easy to laugh at these days, it helped broaden biking to more women, so many, in fact, that in 1889 American Athlete magazine reported that “cycling for ladies is rapidly gaining ground.” Which is pretty incredible, considering that though it wasn’t appropriate for women to flash any ankle skin, riding something marketed as “psycho” was less bad. Oh, Victorians!