We measured the metabolic cost (C) and mechanical work of riding historic bicycles at different speeds: these bicycles included the Hobby Horse (1820s), the Boneshaker (1860s), the High Wheeler (1870s), the Rover (1880s), the Safety (1890s) and a modern bicycle (1980s) as a mean of comparison. The rolling resistance and air resistance of each vehicle were assessed. The mechanical internal work (W(INT)) was measured from three-dimensional motion analysis of the Hobby Horse and modern bicycle moving on a treadmill at different speeds. The equation obtained from the modern bicycle data was applied to the other vehicles. We found the following results. (i) Apart from the Rover, which was introduced for safety reasons, every newly invented bicycle improved metabolic economy. (ii) The rolling resistance decreased with subsequent designs while the frontal area and, hence, aerodynamic drag was fairly constant (except for the High Wheeler). (iii) The saddle-assisted body weight relief (which was inaugurated by the Hobby Horse) was responsible for most of the reduction in metabolic cost compared with walking or running. Further reductions in C were due to decreases in stride/pedalling frequency and, hence, W(INT) at the same speeds. (iv) The introduction of gear ratios allowed the use of pedalling frequencies that optimize the power/contraction velocity properties of the propulsive muscles. As a consequence, net mechanical efficiency (the ratio between the total mechanical work and C) was almost constant (0.273 +/- 0.015s.d.) for all bicycle designs, despite the increase in cruising speed. In the period from 1820 to 1890, improved design of bicycles increased the metabolically equivalent speed by threefold compared with walking at an average pace of ca. + 0.5 ms(-1) per decade [corrected]. The speed gain was the result of concurrent technological advancements in wheeled, human-powered vehicles and of 'smart' adaptation of the same actuator (the muscle) to different operational conditions.