The first bike ride ever: doing it 200 years later (and getting lost)

The first bike ride ever: doing it 200 years later (and getting lost)

A relatively simple task: find the place where the first bike ride was done on 12th June 1817, trace it on a map and do it again, exactly 200 years later. Take pictures and come back with a nice story to tell…Not so simple, I found out.


Symmetric, as any city should be if you want to be pretty boring, but anyway majestic

I arrived in Mannheim by luck, in between work meetings in Germany and a global cycling event and Netherlands. Some weeks before coming, I found out that Baron Karl von Drais, the inventor of the “walking machine” that has been defined as the precursor of the bicycle, had made his first ride 200 years exactly before the days when I would be on my trip. “This is my chance to repeat History”, I thought.


The first ever bike ride — highlighted in orange.

I started my visit by going to the Technomuseum where they have a temporary exhibition on the bicycle’s history. They had luckily also included a map from the nineteenth century with a highlighted route of the first bicycle ride. This was going to be easier than I expected! I took a picture and then read (ok, I google-translated) the accompanying text of the map which gave names of the places Drais started from (Block M1, house 8) and arrived (some horse-related place down the river) and indicated that the ride was 14 kms long (almost 9 miles). Now the only thing I had to do was hop on a bike, ride those streets and roads and make History.


The first ever bicycle — or walking machine, as the author named it.

Not so fast… I didn’t have a bicycle, which was basically the first thing I should have solved when coming here. Luckily, the people at Nextbike provide a bikesharing service in Mannheim and I was able to register and rent a bike later.


A plaque conmemorating von Drais’s achievements (and yours truly taking the photo).

I arrived at Von Drais’s house at M1, 8. Apart from a small plaque indicating his having lived there, nothing out of the ordinary was there. But three things did catch my eye, all of which were no more than 50 meters away from Drais’s house and to my mind summarize the current state of cycling policies in the world:


A parked bike without a wheel: it had been robbed.


A White Bicycle conmemorating the traffic death of a cyclist.


A “counterflow for bikes” street — yes, the only thing that gave me hope.

With that in mind, I started my journey... no, wait: I had a few epiphanies right then: nine miles? Seriously? Riding a piece of wood with wheels? Was this guy crazy? And… how the hell will I get where he went if the roads he used are — in total certainty — no longer there (Autobahns, rather, had criss-crossed the country some decades later)? Ok, it shouldn’t be a big issue… I took my cellphone and looked at maps to see how I could go. It looked easy, despite the fact that cities’ names had changed and the horse place (Drais’s destination 200 years ago) was nowhere to be found.

Of course, once I had left the city a few miles after I started my trip, I was indeed riding a public bicycle on an Autobahn — bad idea. Disgruntled Germans shouted incomprehensibly long words at me (“it’s their language”, I thought, just long words for anything) and then I noticed they were actually pointing at a nice greenway next to the road. I got on and thought I’d just continue onwards for the remaining trip and arrive, with leg pain but insurmountable glory in my mind, to the oh-so-important place where the first bicycle would begin changing history slowly but surely.


I was so lost…

Nope. The greenway stopped, and I had to start riding inside German woods, trails, unpaved roads and got really, truly, almost inevitably lost. No people in sight, just old trains and new trains and railroad tracks and trees….


… so very lost.

Eventually, after having considered crying loudly until some good German would come to my rescue (or just dying there and being found weeks later thanks to the bike’s GPS and my not having returned it), I just decided I’d ask my cellphone where I should go and followed some long and winding roads until I would arrive.

That worked pretty well. I finally found some actual roads again, and a few greenways and bikeways that got me to where I wanted to go. Some 90 minutes after I had started my trip, I had finished the 9-mile ride and was… somewhere.


I have arrived… somewhere.

I confess I have really no idea if I arrived at the same place where von Drais showed his wooden horse to others riding their actual horses. I don’t really care if I got there, but I did a 9-mile ride that started from his home, went straight and out of his city, then took a left turn and got to the river. I sat on a bench, reflected about life, death, and why I got such a short haircut. After this very deep 12-second reflection, I got up and started my way back.

I had already started to think that it was really bad that Germany did not have a nice network of greenways or bikeways to criss-cross the country (as they do with their Autobahns), that they had forgotten their history and the importance of bicycles. I was ready to denounce this and go all the way back through the woods and railroads that had been on my way coming here, but then I saw it:


Ja, Mannheim, herr Pardo. Straight-ahead (also some other places with Long names)

It turns out they did have a greenway all the way to Mannheim… I had somehow missed this very important detail in my thorough review of the place’s roads and my maps and cellphone and whatnot. Yay, let’s ride.


Oh… good afternoon, dear sir. Nice day for a bike ride with almost no clothes…

It was very nice. No cars on sight, no old railroads or woods or horrible trails. I didn’t cry nor wait for my impending death. I just rode all the way to Mannheim alongside a very varied population (some fully dressed, some not so) and got back. I had finally and triumphantly finished the first-ever bicycle ride (or something close to that). I had repeated, and made, History.


My ride, according to my phone (the southern stretch is the “getting lost” one, then back on the nice greenway)

So who cares about all of this? I hope someone does. We have had a beautiful invention for 200 years now and we still keep finding ways to say it’s worthless or not really realistic to think of the bicycle as a true mode of transportation. But we should, we must, we can think of bicycles that way. Cities can integrate bicycles without killing their riders, and we could get more serious in preventing bike theft. We can also use creative and simple solutions (like bike-counterflow lanes in certain streets) and increase bicycle mode share. We can welcome that mode of transport to complement (and sometimes replace) other modes of transport. The bicycle will not save the planet by itself, but we sure as hell won’t save the planet without it.


Thank you Mr Benz.

Another very sad thing to think about: Mannheim did do a nice and small plaque for the inventor of the bicycle and put a temporary exhibition… but it also did a full and machine-sized car for Mr Carl Benz, who didn’t really live there for more than a few years, and a complete floor of its museum dedicated to the automobile…


Author: Carlos Felipe Pardo (Despacio)

This article was originally published by on June 11th, 2017.


Some photos of Mannheim here:

Mannheim June 2017
In conmemoration of 200 years of the

Full details of my bike ride (via Strava) here:

Baron von Drais's /world's first bicycle ride - 200 years later - Carlosfelipe Pardo's 30.0 km bike…
The inventor of the bicycle (Karl von Drais) rode 14 kms from his home in Mannheim to a nearby horse track on 12th June…

More Information on Carlos Pardo's activities:

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