Bicycles are the fantasy hero’s friend

One thing that became rapidly obvious looking at a day’s travel time is just how good bicycles are. It ran against my assumptions about horses being an obviously ‘better’ form of transport on the grounds that the horse is doing a lot of work for you. That assumption doesn’t play out for several reasons.

Firstly, from what I’m told, riding a horse is itself quite tiring. A slower horse trained to have a more comfortable gait were used in the past but by their nature they didn’t travel very quickly. The net effect is there are limits to how far you can comfortably travel by horse.

The horse itself has limits on how far it will travel in a day. Horse based distance transport has historically required systems for a regular change of horses. The same limitation applies to coaches. They can go quicker and travel further if there are regular horse changes. Horse drawn wagons heading off over long distances without places to change horses (e.g. 19th century American wagon trains of settlers) went slowly – basically walking speed.

On foot humans and horses are surprisingly well matched and even more so for longer distances. I was sort of aware of this famous (and slightly silly) race in Wales which is a competition between horses and people (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon ). Over a distance of 35 km (22 miles) the horse usually wins but the times (just over 2 hours usually) are comparable between human and horse.

Humans are quite good at going long distances by foot and over an extended period. When Tolkien sets his main part of adventurers off on foot, it’s not a stupid choice. People can walk great distances and if you don’t have access to a regular change of horses, walking is probably the most reliable way of getting from A to B. A testament to that is the vast network of foot roads established by the Incas up and down the spine of South America. Donkey’s or mules for carrying gear make sense but riding has limitations.

The bicycle though takes that human advantage of bipedalism and puts into work by pedalling. Range and speed increase markedly. I freely confess that my numbers are far from perfect but modern bikes appear to easily match ye olden times horse travel and may exceed it.

The major obstacle to have your party of adventurers hop on a bike to cycle their way to Castle Macguffin is simple: the non-existence of bicycles until the industrial age. I’ll come back to that. What else is there?

Bikes certainly operate a lot better on smooth, level, well maintained roads. Horses (and walking) is less impacted by terrain. However, so long as there is something road-like, a modern bike can cope with rougher roads and dirt paths. What the impact is on distance, speed and fatigue, I don’t know because a lot depends on the terrain.

Carrying gear is an issue as well but I’ve seen bikes with trailers and all sorts of bag carrying schemes (eg https://road.cc/content/buyers-guide/195494-beginners-guide-cycling-luggage-how-carry-stuff-your-bike ). A pack animal can carry more but a cyclist can carry at least as much as a walker and more if they have good equipment.

So the hard limitation is technology. A post-apocalypse is surely perfect for cyclist heroes. There are roads, abandoned bike shops and supermarkets to loot on your way thus saving you the effort of carrying a lot of gear.

A bicycle looks out of place in high fantasy and adding one might seem comical but what are the actual limits? Ancient roads in magically good condition are not uncommon in fantasy (relics of the lost civilisation). Amazingly advanced metal work is practically de rigueur for fantasy. Tolkien’s mithril (super light and strong and non-brittle) would be a perfect material for a bike if it wasn’t for the fact that it is so valuable that you’d need a very, very good bike lock to stop your steed being stolen.

Highly skillful metal workers and cunning but simple mechanism are also hardly forbidden by the standards of high fantasy. It’s aesthetically weird for a magical dwarven smith to craft a bicycle but there’s really nothing there that is out of keeping with the kind of exceptional technology that appears.

However, ‘exceptional technology’ is insufficient. A sustained bike trip needs people along the way who can fix a bent spoke or a twisted wheel. Rubber tyres is a level of material technology that is really out of keeping to a fantasy setting.

And yet…how much of a stretch is it to wave a magical pretext for bicycles to exist in your fantasy world? None at all if we can have sentient harps or walking statues or rings of invisibility. What prevents our fantasy heroes from cycling to Mount Horrible is that bikes just scream “modern” in a way that our fake medieval setting won’t accept.

[Note 1: I am not a cyclist and my bike riding capacity would be best described as ‘marginal’. If I fall through a wardrobe to Narnia, then I’m walking]

[Note 2: I’ve been trying to think of fantasy examples of bike riding and I can think of examples with modern world collides with magical worlds but even then not many. I vaguely recall the kids in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books riding bikes around Cheshire at some point. Any other examples?]

[Note 3: I should have mentioned Steampunk fantasy obviously. Bicycles fit perfectly into that setting.]


61 thoughts on “Bicycles are the fantasy hero’s friend

      1. The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey also has bicycles.

        Both those books are vaguely steampunky — The Grand Dark is set in a magical, vague parallel to Weimar Germany, with airships.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. The first bikes were wooden. Wouldn’t need someone to handle bent spokes or twisted wheels then. You could also use different materials than rubber to coat the wheels and you don’t need an airfilled hose. As an example:

    https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5021-258/Wooden-Push-Bicycle

    It wouldn’t be that far out in fantasy to have a hard and light kind of wood. The only advanced mechanic is the gears and the break.

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    1. Good point. I don’t know far you could go on a wooden pushbike though. As you say, some metal for the gears and pedal system makes the bike more feasible and affordable for a less modern society.

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      1. Hans-Erhard Lessing did 13 km in less than an hour in 1817 on a wooden bike with iron shod wheels, with brake, but no pedals.

        Kirkpatrick Macmillan made the first wooden bike with pedals. He did 14 miles in less than an hour. His first long trip was 68 miles in two days. But that was delayed because he was arrested in the worlds first documented bike accident.

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      1. I was going to link to the Classics Illustrated version that was my introduction to the story, but to my surprise, Archive has the older version of the title. In many ways, I like this artist at least as much as Jack Sparling, the competent but usually uninspired journeyman who drew the version I read in the 1960s. Anyway:

        https://archive.org/details/ClassicsIllustrated024AConnecticutYankeeInKingArthursCourt

        Sparling, I have to add, took full advantage of the scenic potential of fifty knights on bicycles, and showed it in a big, enthusiastic panel. This Jack, however, let a speech balloon have it all, and the visual of the knights is a postage-stamp sized agglomeration of little dots at the back of the panel.

        One hates to see such a thing at this level of play. I never have seen Der Bingle’s version, though I think I recall setting a timer for it fifteen years ago or so.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ps: When downloading a comic book or magazine file from Archive, the .RAR type files generally look a lot better than the over-compressed .PDF ones. As a general rule, the bigger files look better, and that’s usually the .RAR or .CB* (CB-something: I think there are two other letters it can be, but my brain’s laughing at me again).

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      3. Precisely! I thought of both letters at different times, but lacked certainty because of some phantom third letter… or digit… or perhaps a small fruit bat..

        Liked by 3 people

      4. The whole text is available here https://www.gutenberg.org/files/86/86-h/86-h.htm

        “They finished blindfolding him, they led him under the rope. I couldn’t shake off that clinging impotence. But when I saw them put the noose around his neck, then everything let go in me and I made a spring to the rescue—and as I made it I shot one more glance abroad—by George! here they came, a-tilting!—five hundred mailed and belted knights on bicycles!

        The grandest sight that ever was seen. Lord, how the plumes streamed, how the sun flamed and flashed from the endless procession of webby wheels! ”

        (I don’t think the bikes turned up in the movie – which I have seen, but remember only vaguely).

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  2. You’re being very Europe-centric here, Camestros. We white folk forget that the ancient cultures were inventing and using wonderful machines back before year 0 on our Christian dominated calendars.

    So you don’t need steampunk or an industrial setting. You can have a medieval setting and bicycles. Bicycles are mechanical, not industrial. They don’t need steam or electric power, so there’s no reason they can’t be invented in an alternate world that has not yet reached an industrial age. The earliest forms of bicycles were made entirely out of wood, including the wheels. Metal — brass mainly — was added to bits of it, mainly joints, and then to the wheels. Cartwrights were instrumental in developing and improving bicycles. So you can have a medieval bicycle that is wooden in frame and with a combination of wooden and metal wheels, using the abilities of blacksmiths and cartwrights of medieval vintage.

    The operating system could be pedals and cranks, which were quickly developed in the early forms of bicycles. Cranks were invented by the Chinese in the Han dynasty, hundreds and hundreds of years before the invention of the bicycle. Cranks were used in agriculture, mainly for milling, thread and textile making, and then in carpentry. And cranks were used with carts eventually. Compound cranks were used on paddle boats and war carriages in the 1300’s.

    Gears were invented in China in the B.C. times, and the Romans also developed gears in the early parts of their empire. The Arabs invented segmented gears in the 1200’s. Worm gears (meshing) were invented in India during the medieval period. And of course metal chains were made early on with smithing. So you can actually have bicycles with gears and chains if you wanted to develop it that far in a world that is at medieval levels.

    Wood, metal and wood & metal wheels are boneshakers — fairly rough on the rider over long distances, given that roads were not paved. Rubber (from its rub out eraser properties) latex is a natural product and was first used by indigenous tribes in the Mesoamerica period, hundreds and hundreds of years before the British Empire and the industrial age. They used it for balls, containers, tools and waterproofing. Latex eventually started being used in Europe in the 1730’s, several decades before the start of the Industrial Age. So, if your medieval world has rubber trees or other plants that have latex sap, it’s perfectly reasonable to have them figure out how to coat their wood or wood/metal wheels with a rim of sticky thick latex that cushions the ride. No industrialization needed — they just have to collect, boil and apply the stuff.

    Types of guns were invented by the Chinese in the 10th century and refined. The Mongols had guns and spread them across continents. Southeast Asia developed guns in the 1300’s and the earliest guns for Europe for sieges were in the 1300’s. So you can have a medieval setting and have guns and cannons — which many fantasy writers have dabbled with. Glass lenses were invented by the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Chinese, and eyeglasses were invented in the 1200’s by the Italians — medieval. Underfloor central heating — medieval period. Cast iron was invented by the Chinese in the B.C. era and blast furnaces were invented in the medieval time period. And on and on.

    So if you want bicycles, you can have bicycles. We’re not bound by the exact order that Earth’s history developed and humans were constantly tinkering with machines and the components for machines.

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    1. The other Europe-centric, medieval-centric notion is in horse management. Look at the cultures which maintained vast herds–Bedouins, Mongols and Native Americans come to mind quickly for me (note: I live in the Nimiipuu–Nez Perce–homeland, a people considered to be one of the premier Native American horse cultures, so I’m a bit aware of their particular management styles). Not all horse cultures used supplemental grains to feed beyond forage (grain is not optimal horse food), nor was chain mail necessarily the preferred form of armor. If your fantasy setting is more along the lines of the steppes or arid plains (equine natural evolutionary and optimal setting) instead of Europe (not optimal), you’re not going to have riding horses limited only to the nobility and being something that belongs only to the rich. You’ll have vast herds that need to be moved frequently for grazing, and guarded against raiders, and adequate forage is going to be your concern.

      The other thing about bikes? If you lack roads or trails, it’s gonna be problematic. How many here have actually ridden bikes off road? Or seen what bikes can do to trails? Or understand the sophistication that goes into developing an off road bike that isn’t going to hurt or kill you? Yeah, modern bikes go off road. But beyond big knobby tires, these bikes also have sophisticated shock absorbing systems built into the frame–and even then they do break pretty darn easily (I had a student involved in mountain bike racing at one time, and the stuff involved is pretty intense). Bike frames made of wood or of iron/steel may not be able to hold up to off-road use, and they’re going to be pretty heavy if the rider ends up having to carry them over an obstacle. Keep in mind that modern mountain bikes are made of exotic alloys that are going to require some pretty sophisticated blast furnace usage (for example, titanium requires vacuum casting) for strength, light weight, and durability.

      And then there’s the question of tires. Remember that in the early era of automobiles, tire blowouts were pretty frequent–same for bikes. We know from carriage and wagon technology that wooden and steel wheels require regular maintenance and are a pretty rough ride. Anyone using bicycles in a fantasy is going to need to carry the materials needed to maintain tires–and be able to handle a rough ride.

      The mud factor alone during the wet season is going to be an issue. Bogging down in mudholes, getting muddy and dirty more than you would with a horse (ridden horses are going to raise the rider above the mud, and there’s plenty of stories out there about wagons getting stuck in mudholes even on roads during the wet season), all those are going to be considerations. Plus if you are striking out cross-country, the horse is going to be more versatile at handling rugged terrain. And in deep snow, neither horse nor bike is going to be as effective as snowshoes or skis.

      Bicycles in fantasy would make much more sense in fairly developed settings with stone roads. Logistically, I can see issues if a military force is using them other than for specific tasks (again, road limitations akin to those with wagons–how are you hauling supplies? bedding? etc?), especially going cross-country (with horses and mules you can use pack animals). But for scouting along roads–yeah.

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      1. I was wondering about the possibility of a Roman-type culture using dandy-horses or kick scooters (or even skateboards) for couriers. Perhaps if they had access to asphalt.

        But horseback with regular changes of horse is going to be faster.

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      2. I remember back in the 1980s reading a piece by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould speculating as to why there were no wheeled organisms (at the macroscopic level) in nature. He came to the conclusion that it was because it was too hard to create a neural connection across a rotating interface. It never seemed to occur to him that there isn’t much impetus to evolve a wheel unless you’ve previously evolved roads.

        I’ve done a fair bit of mountain biking, and I’ve seen people ride over (and off) some pretty crazy stuff – but, as you note, those are modern, lightweight bikes with shocks and suspensions and fat, yielding tires. And even then, calling them ‘mountain bikes’ is a bit of a misnomer – they are really trail bikes. Without a trail that is maintained at least semi-regularly, rideability becomes an issue really fast.

        In addition to mud and snow (as you note), soft dirt or sand are also terrible to slog through on a bike. And they’re really no good in forests, either, (or for that matter, tall grass, like the prairies of the American West) unless you have a trail to ride on.

        Although I must confess, my reaction to the shot in The Two Towers when you see the valley that Edoras sits in is always “That looks like a great place to go mountain biking.”

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      3. Joyce Reynolds-Ward:

        “If your fantasy setting is more along the lines of the steppes or arid plains (equine natural evolutionary and optimal setting) instead of Europe (not optimal), you’re not going to have riding horses limited only to the nobility and being something that belongs only to the rich.”

        Very good points at a wider cultural entry point — though worth noting that herds weren’t necessarily owned by the whole tribe caring for them and instead sometimes were owned by the chieftains — wealthy rulers. Wealth in some of those cultures was also measured in horses and other livestock, including for dowries/bride prices. A horse could be worth more than a lot of other things in those cultures.

        But horses can be bred (mass produced to an extent,) while bicycles have to be made of many parts. On the other hand, bicycles can’t be wiped out by slaughter or disease. So you could develop a pre-industrial fantasy society that has a lot of bicycles or only a set for select groups. The key thing is that the making of at least some bikes is feasible with pre-industrial technology levels, even without magical means and certainly with them.

        While bikes were ridden over non-road, rough ground in the early stages of their development, it’s certainly true that bicycles would be mainly limited to roads, although flat dirt roads would work as well as stone as long as you weren’t dealing with heavy rains. In steppe areas where land is flat for a long time, they might be ideal on roads. That does limit them for travel, in comparison to a walking person or a horse or other pack animal, though bicycles could be hauled over hilly terrain by being carried or carried on types of wagons/conveyances. Bicycles essentially would serve as a kind of cart, with the limits that carts have. Bicycles would be less maneuverable and much more vulnerable to attack than a person on foot or on a horse, but they would — on roads — be faster than a person on foot. Bicycles also might make good guards to trains of carts/wagons on roads.

        There is a difference between a rubber coating that is vulcanized rubber and inflated rubber tires. Hand pumps were medieval era and inflated tires were invented around 1845, the start of the industrial age, so you could conceivably have inflated tires, especially by magic. But you don’t have to have them and it’s likely it would be a long time before they were developed. You could just have thick, vulcanized rubber coating on the wooden/metal tires as cushioning. So you wouldn’t have to worry about punctures in the tires letting out air. You would have to worry about the rubber coating cracking off the tire periodically and be able to glue/melt replacement coating on the road.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s possible to imagine a fantasy society, with a pre-industrial technology level, that have all the parts needed to bicycles. But the combination of
    – poor roads
    – low efficiency, when parts are hand-made rather than machined with high precision
    – high cost, if everything’s made by hand and/or magic
    – high weight
    means that I have a hard time imagining bicycles actually being a useful means of transportation.

    A modern bike chain is very efficient – there’s very little power loss. A chain made by hand in a smithy will be considerably less efficient. Early bicycles had the pedals attached directly to the wheel, because useful and efficient chains and gearing was not available. The concept of transmitting power with a chain existed, but chains where not good enough – and cheap enough – to be used in a bike until the late 19th century.

    We can handwave that with magical dwarven smiths – but then we run into this problem:
    “Tolkien’s mithril (super light and strong and non-brittle) would be a perfect material for a bike if it wasn’t for the fact that it is so valuable that you’d need a very, very good bike lock to stop your steed being stolen.”

    I.e.: If these fantasy bike is made in super-special material and/or is made by magical smiths, they become rare and super expensive – meaning you no longer have bikes but A Bike. And then the question is how this singular bike be developed – if there’s only one you can no longer have a development where inventors make increasingly more useful bicycles over time.

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    1. Very true but if we have a whole order of monastic knights dedicated to cycling to battle then we can have bikes that are rare but which are state of the art within the bounds of the setting

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      1. Yes, bikes as tools for a warrior caste is a reasonable middle ground between bikes as a mass-produced commodity and A Bike as a singular artifact.

        We can also adjust the equation here not by finding ways to overcome the obstacles of making a useful bicycle, but also by reducing the competition – i.e. make horse riding less attractive. There’s some real world precedent for this: There’s a theory that the scarcity of oats for horses in 1816, due to a colder climate after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, was one of the things that inspired Karl Drais to research horseless transport and invent his “draisine” – an important early step in the invention of modern bicycles. So while pre-industrial bicycles will have various efficiency problems that makes them unlikely to outclass horses, we can simply say that this order of monastic knights exists in a world without horses.

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      2. A horse plague could have devastated the horse population. A horse zombie plague would be even worse or demonic horse plague that turns horses evil, then the bike-knights have a specific purpose apprehending horse demons

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      3. A world without horses isn’t even implausible: remember, horses became extinct in their original habitat about ten thousand years ago. So your fantasy world could either be based on pre-Columbian North America, or be a fairly plausible alternate world in which equines had died out without ever having spread past the Americas.

        I suspect there’s quite a bit of space for alternate histories in there: what are the effects of having no donkeys, no horses, and therefore no mules; does actual history contain war camels?

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      4. I was expecting to see Camp Verde, Texas in there, probably because that’s the place near my grandparents’ old place where they experimented with camels in 1860. It was mentioned in at least one class I took in grade school (6th grade, circa 1967, northern Colorado). I have photos of the building, but have never gone inside that I can recall, so I don’t know if it’s a general store (likely enough) or what.

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    2. When bicycles were first invented, the roads were poor and they also used the bikes on non-road ground, they were expensive to make, they weighed a lot and the parts were hand-made and mainly again assembled by hand with wood. They were at first just pushed with the feet and then you could go fast downhill (like a sled.) Then they added pedals and cranks — totally doable. A medieval bike with pedals, wood and metal could have been assembled. (And metal chains weren’t added to bicycles until late in the 1800’s, fifty years after bikes had been invented and were being used.)

      Bicycles would be rare and attractive to steal (as well as vulnerable to attack.) So were horses, which were owned by those with money, the nobles, who often measured their wealth in horses. Chariots were rare and expensive and hard to make. Suits of armor and armor for horses were also incredibly expensive, heavy weight, requiring much time to hand work, valuable to steal and reserved for the well off or those sponsored by the well off, but they still made hundreds of them for the elite.

      Including chain mail with hundreds of tiny metal links hand made with incredible precision in multiple cultures. Add magic to make it even more effective and you could have chains on the bicycles. And you could have vulcanized rubber outer tires because vulcanization was initially done to rubber with sulfer as a chemical reaction — totally reasonable for medieval alchemy/chemistry. Mass production isn’t required to have the squad of bike knights.

      You can even have them have discovered ways to extract aluminum or an aluminum like metal from alum using a chemical or chemical/magical extraction process — difficult to get large quantities, expensive, but more lightweight for some of the bicycle parts. It’s an alternate world — much science could be done at an earlier stage that doesn’t include steam or electricity and doesn’t even require magic. They invented the stationary harbor crane in the medieval period and every manner of cart. And before that they built pyramids, both in Egypt and the South American jungle, so simple bicycles aren’t that much of a reach.

      Also, fantasy fans are highly tolerant if you want to play around and have robots (Lamentation,) dragon air support (Tremaire,) or airships (Goblin Emperor.) Bicycles are feasible without the use of magic or imaginary tech and very easy with some of it. Someone could have come up with them in the late middle ages, so you could have a world in which this occurs.

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  4. From what I understand the invention of vulcanised rubber was really key to the take off of bicycles in the 19th century. Bikes without pneumatic tires were immensely uncomfortable (Kat mentioned ‘boneshakers’ above). Raw rubber is too soft and sticky to be useful for this application. Vulcanisation is often cited as one of those ‘discovered after a lab accident’ scientific breakthroughs, but the ‘accident’ came after five years of constant work trying to perfect the process and a long career as a rubber chemist on the part of Goodyear. It’s not really something you could discover by accident with a lower level of technology or scientific understanding.

    I think, if you wanted a fantasy bicycle you would have to posit some lightweight but strong material for the frame and some kind of magic tyre.

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  5. Um. Equine fact correction. Gaited horses are not trained to gait, they’re born to it (though training can improve it). And as any trail rider will tell you, the gaited horse’s traveling gait (whether foxtrot, singlefoot, running walk, tolt, whatever) is MUCH faster than a non-gaited horse can walk or even trot, to the degree that very few non-gaited horses can keep up with a gaited horse. And then there’s the speed rackers (a favorite of the redneck South) who are smooth-gaited but are ripping along at 25 mph (many are descended from Standardbred harness horses whose preferred gait is a pace rather than a trot).

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  6. I wonder if tar would be a good substitute for rubber on wooden wheels? Also, the middle ages had lots of wheeled machines for pottery, grinding, water movement, etc. that made use of levers pumped by hand or foot, so I’ve been trying to imagine a bike you could row rather than pedal. My mental picture works better with a three-wheeled recumbent bike rather than a two-wheeler, but you never know.

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  7. It’s not genre (though it’s from a primordial genre author) but you might want to check out H.G. Wells’s comic novel The Wheels of Chance – it’s not one of his best, true, but it gives a real sense of how much of a social revolution widespread cycling was, in the late nineteenth century. Seriously, it was a quantum leap in mass transportation, and brought significant social change in its wake. Wells even touches on the feminist aspects – reading this one got me to look up information on the “Rational Dress” movement, which was a notable forerunner of the Suffragettes and, ultimately, Women’s Liberation.

    It’s worth considering, because a fantasy setting with readily available bikes will be a very different animal from one without. Enhanced physical mobility for the peasant classes is going to translate, to some extent, into enhanced social mobility as well. If nothing else, imagine Robin Hood and his Merry Men on BMXs….

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  8. Vicki:

    “I suspect there’s quite a bit of space for alternate histories in there: what are the effects of having no donkeys, no horses, and therefore no mules; does actual history contain war camels?”

    A world without horses would be enormously different than ours when one considers the vast impact of the steppe (mounted) warriors who had a vast impact on Eurasian history.

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  9. Okay, if chains are rare/ out of reach, how about a belt drive? Early industry used leather belts to drive machinery, and there could be, maybe, a sort of ‘stepped spool’ of different diameters to change speeds. My two cents.

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