THE ongoing debate (OK, make that furious row) about the experimental closure of Bishopthorpe Road to cars illustrates just how touchy we are about the right to use our public roads. There's an important freedom at stake - the freedom to go where we want, how we want, when we want.

These days, that is a freedom that we associate mainly (though not all of us) with the motor car. But 150 years ago it was another form of transport that gave ordinary people that freedom to travel for the first time where and how they wanted: the bicycle.

In the last 100 years or so, the bike has been supplanted by the car as the transport of choice for most people. Bikes and cars (and the people who ride or drive them) have an increasingly fractious relationship - presumably because they’re both trying to use the same space (the roads) but at very different speeds.

During lockdown, with fewer cars out on the roads, the bike really came into its own again. As lockdown eases, cars are now beginning to reclaim the roads once more. But bikes are here to stay, too. And it is worth celebrating just how revolutionary they once were - and how much they transformed the lives of ordinary people.

The very first machine deserving the name bicycle seems to have been a two-wheeled contraption developed in 1817 by a German baron named Karl von Drais. The 'velocipede' or 'hobby-horse' had no chain, breaks or pedals. Instead, you stood or sat astride it and drove it forward with your feet on the ground.

In the 1860s a French bicycle was developed that used rotary cranks and pedals mounted to the front wheel hub. Pedalling made it easier for riders to go faster, but the rough ride that resulted earned the bike the name the 'Boneshaker'.

Then came the 'penny farthing': the much bigger wheel in front meant it could go faster, and the addition tom later models of ball bearings, solid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames made the bike lighter and the ride smoother. Being so tall at the front, however, it was unstable and difficult to get onto.

The 'safety bicycle' of the 1880s and 1890s, featuring a steerable front wheel, equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel, addressed these problems. And when John Dunlop developed the pneumatic bicycle tire in 1888 the template for the modern bike had been set.

Bikes quickly became hugely popular - among the fashionable set, amongst poorer working people and, crucially, with women, giving them unprecedented freedom to get around. In York, by the turn of the last century, there were cycling clubs galore. But bikes weren't just for leisurely, genteel rides out to see the countryside with your cycling club friends: they were also important tools. Photographs of bicycles chained up outside the terraced houses of the poor illustrated just how important they were to working people.

We have chosen a selection of photographs from Explore York's wonderful digital archive of images showing the early days of bicycling in York. The pictures show:

- The Lawrence Street Sunday School Cycling Club in about 1890

- Members of Clifton Cycling Club outside St Peters School in 1906

- Members of the Layerthorpe Cycling Club - who came from what was then one of York's poorest districts - in the 1900s

- A woman with her bicycle on the bridge over Tang Hall Beck in about 1890

- A woman cycling along Hull Road in about 1890

- A bicycle in Calvert's Yard off Tanner Row in about 1933

- A bicycle outside a house in Dennis Street, off Walmgate, in about 1933

Stephen Lewis

The photos on these pages all come from Explore York’s redesigned digital archive of historic images,