Northern Ireland isn’t a place that you would automatically associate with cycling history. But on May 9th when the GIRO starts in Belfast it will roll past a place that changed cycling forever. That place is now called Lavinia Square of the Ormeau Road, but back on May 18th 1889 it was called the North of Ireland Cricket Club Grounds and was the meet-up for a series of bike races. On that day Mr. “Willie” Hume of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club entered a race on a bike equipped for the first time with tires filled with air. Willie was the first to purchase the “Safety” bicycle fitted with the newly patented pneumatic tires made by Dunlop. The added advantage of this new technology became immediately evident as it took a below average rider who had never won a race and propelled him to the top spot on the podium, in every race he entered.
Up to this point Penny Farthings and solid rubber tires were the only real choice for riding and were obviously somewhat limiting. This new product by Dunlop not only changed the sport of bike racing for ever, but also bikes and wheel design in general. And despite the introduction of tubeless technology, just like the original “Double Triangle” in frame design, air inside a rubber tube is still the standard. Unfortunately the site of this game changing moment is not commemorated in any way, but a local organization The Northern Ireland Cycling Initiative is trying to correct that before the eyes of the cycling world fall on Belfast in May.
John Boyd Dunlop a resident of Belfast commemorated on a local bank note
The downside of this story is that the Northern Ireland government is so wrapped up in where to hang their flags and just basic tribalism that they are not doing anything to celebrate this global historic moment. If you are there for the GIRO start it might be worth checking it out closer to the time as local riders are hopefully trying to re-stage the race Penny-farthings, tweed racing kit and all. It certainly make a change from skin-suits, power meters and aero helmets.