For most of human history, there were no bicycles, and much more suffering. Even after our big breakthrough with the wheel, we just sort of slouched around for a few millennia, trudging through the days on foot or cooperating animals. The Industrial Revolution brought its share of transportation breakthroughs, but even as spirited inventors obsessed over the idea of a human-powered two-wheeled vehicle — the "elusive mechanical horse," as one historian put it — we remained no closer to discovering the elemental joy of cycling.

Things began to change in 1819, when a German baron named Karl von Drais introduced the draisine. The "dandy horse," as it soon came to be known, vaguely resembled the concept of a bicycle, but was really more of a running machine — a rich person crotch-crunching contraption great for coasting down a hill but not much else. It would take another fifty years before an actual pedal-bicycle appeared in Paris, under somewhat mysterious circumstances (the identity of the Frenchman responsible is a matter of fierce debate, even today.)

But when the humble bicycle finally arrived in the United States in 1867, its transformational impact was felt almost immediately. This was especially true in New York City, where dozens of cycling race tracks sprung up seemingly overnight, and thousands of riders took to the parks and eventually the streets to hone their craft. Suffragists like Susan B. Anthony encouraged women to embrace the bike as a means of self-reliance, even as critics warned that such activities were immodest. Concluded one observer: "Velocipede mania is rapidly spreading in this city, and attacks young and old alike."

By the late 19th century, New York had become the epicenter of bicycle manufacturing, the Times was running a (tragically defunct) weekly column entitled "Gossip of the Cyclers" — Blind Item, 1896: Sentiment Favoring Brakes Growing Everywhere — and discussions were under way to build a bike path above Manhattan. Then the automobile came along, effectively kneecapping the cycling boom and more or less sealing the deal on planetary extinction.

In any case, this winding pre-history of the bicycle in New York City, and what happened next, is the subject of a fascinating new exhibit opening tomorrow at the Museum of the City of New York. The first of its kind installation — Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History — traces the meteoric rise of the bicycle as a tool for recreation, transportation, and personal liberation, while examining the "complex, creative, and often contentious relationship between New York City and the bicycle."

Housed atop a mock velodrome, the exhibition features more than a dozen vintage bikes, a virtual reality cycling video game, and plenty of neat artifacts, including early cycling "costumes" worn by female riders and the badges once required to pass through Central Park. And there is a much-appreciated focus on the activist battles waged by past cyclists — oft-forgotten victories like the bike messenger uprising of 1987, in which thousands of delivery cyclists protested and successfully sued Mayor Ed Koch for attempting to ban bikes in Midtown during business hours.

(There is also an excellent photograph of Koch riding down Sixth Avenue; the story there, according to co-curator Donald Albrecht, being that Koch did not really know how to ride a bike, and had to practice outside Gracie Mansion ahead of the photo-op for a new protected bike lane, which he promptly ripped out within a month.)

Aside from the beautiful bikes and impressive ephemera, the exhibit offers an instructive, if somewhat depressing, window into the inexhaustible stream of bad faith efforts to thwart the city's cyclists over the years. "It shows that nothing is new, that these debates — where you can ride, who can ride, etc. — have been going on since the 19th century," said Albrecht.

At the same time, the curator added: "The actual debate is over. There may be battles over particular bike lanes, but the bicycle's role in the city's transportation mix will not be going away."

Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History runs from March 14th through October 6th at the Museum of the City of New York, located at 1220 Fifth Ave at 103rd Street.