About 125 years ago, Northern Ireland was the innovative centre of the cycling world and it can be argued that one of the most important inventions of our time was proven by a little-known Belfast cyclist along the route of Stage 1 of the Giro d’Italia.
The story goes that back in 1889, Scottish vet and part-time inventor John Boyd Dunlop, who had moved to Downpatrick in 1867, first introduced the pneumatic tyre in Belfast and it not only transformed the world of cycling, it evolved to our present day mode of transport .
The Ayrshire-born inventor had tinkered with the idea that instead of a solid rubber tyre which was used in the old penny farthings, with a sleek version the racing bikes of its day, he would use an inflatable tube of sheet rubber attached to the wheel.
He then took things a stage further by building a ‘safety bike’ which incorporated a chain driven device rather than pedals that were attached to one of the wheels.
After testing his idea at his home on his son’s bike, he then took things a stage further when he demonstrated his invention to an audience of curious on-lookers at the Cherryvale Sports Ground at the top of the Ravenhill Road.
It was then that the diminutive Willie Hume from Templemore Avenue in east Belfast entered the arena. He was a 27-year-old cyclist of above average racing ability and at the time was captain of the Belfast Cruiser’s Cycling Club.
He was due to entered a series of big bike races in Belfast in May, 1889 which were being held at the once famous North of Ireland rugby and cricket ground at the bottom of the Ormeau Road.
Unfortunately, that ground which hosted some very famous sporting occasions is now a housing development.
In March 1989, Hume was the first member of the public to purchase one of Dunlop’s safety roadster bikes with its pneumatic tyres.
He paid about a fiver and low and behold, proceeded to win all four races in a canter. Hume, who was not fancied to do particularly well in the races, became famous overnight, and Dunlop’s invention got the headlines.
The following month, Hume decided to have a go at an even bigger event in Liverpool where all the top English racers would be competing. Again, he stole the glory winning three of the four races.
At that event was English entrepreneur and paper manufacturer Harvey du Cros who was so impressed that after much negotiating he and Dunlop, who had a veterinary practice in May Street in Belfast, formed the first pneumatic tyre company.
Dunlop’s original pneumatic tyre saw the rolled inflated tube, glued on to the frame of the wheel, so whenever there was a puncture, it took a long time to repair.
This is where the Michelin brothers André and Édouard further enhanced Dunlop’s tyre.
The brothers ran a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne region of France, right in the heart of a famous rugby region. One day, a cyclist who was running on one of Dunlop’s tyre’s needed to fix a puncture.
The tyre was glued to the rim, and it took over three hours to remove and repair the tyre, which then needed to be left overnight to dry.
It unfortunately was a failure, so the brothers worked relentlessly on creating their own version of the tyre, and in 1891, they had invented the first removable pneumatic tyre which was used by Charles Terront to win the world’s first long distance cycle race, the 1891 Paris–Brest–Paris.
So when the Stage One of the Giro d’Italia Team Time Trial whizzes past University Street on Friday evening, you can look across the road and imagine Willie Hume winning on Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre 125 years ago, and how it changed the world of racing.