It was 80 years ago today… Cycling Scientists on Acid

Weird Musical History 10 Bike Psych

On the 19 April 1943 chemist Albert Hofmann became the first person in history to give themselves a dose of a newly synthesised mind-altering drug. When things got too weird in his laboratory, he went on a psychedelic bicycle ride home through the mother of all bad trips. This is the story of how eighty years ago a Swiss chemist gave birth to what he called his ‘problem child’ – LSD.

After studying chemistry at the University of Zurich, Albert Hofmann started work as a research chemist for a company called Sandoz in Basel Switzerland. He spent many years synthesising various compounds that might have medicinal use, one of which was modelled on ergot, a fungus parasitic on rye. In 1938, he produced the 25th such compound – Lysergic Acid Diethylamide or LSD-25 for short. It was thought that the drug may have uses in obstetrics and could stimulate the respiratory system or the circulation.

Albert Hofmann – Father of LSD

The compound was tested on animals – particularly for its effect on the uterus – and it was noticed that the animals seemed rather restless when under the influence of the drug. At the time, it seemed there was nothing particularly interesting about the chemical, so it was forgotten about for five years.

A Peculiar Presentiment

However, Hofmann had a ‘peculiar presentiment’ that LSD-25 had other properties that might have been missed. He took the unusual step of returning to it and produced some more of the compound in the Spring of 1943. In the final stages of production, he began to feel odd. In his original notes he wrote the following:

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

He assumed that some of the chemical must have entered his bloodstream somehow, perhaps through a small cut in his skin. But, being a scientist, he couldn’t be sure that it was LSD-25 that had produced these effects rather than something else, so he decided to the test the hypothesis by deliberately dosing himself with the drug.


On April 19 Hofmann gave himself what he mistakenly thought was a small dose of the drug, 250 milligrams. This was the first time anyone had purposefully ingested LSD. Within an hour he began to feel dizzy and anxious. He started experiencing visual distortion and a strange desire to laugh. Soon, though, the trip began to feel threatening.

By this time Hofmann was struggling to speak intelligibly but managed to ask the lab assistant (who knew about the experiment) to escort him home. War time restrictions meant no cars were available, so they rode home on bicycles. Cycling home along that Swiss road off his head on acid, Hofmann said that ‘everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror.’

Tabs of LSD commemorating Hofmann’s psychedelic bike ride

Hofmann was afraid he had been fatally poisoned by the drug he’d taken, so when they got home he asked the lab assistant to call a doctor and then bring some milk from a neighbour. He hoped that the milk would help to counteract the poison until the doctor arrived.

The chemist lay down on the sofa. This is how he described the experience on reaching home:

My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness.

His neighbour brought him some milk, but Hofmann saw her as an evil witch wearing a coloured mask. He drank two litres of milk over the evening. He feared that he was either going insane or dying. In his own words:

Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa.

As he lay there on the sofa waiting for the doctor to arrive, he became aware that he was dying without being able to take leave of his wife and family who were away for the day. Like Dr Frankenstein, he came to a terrible realisation:

Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this Iysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.

The doctor arrived and Hofmann told him he had fatally poisoned himself. The doctor checked his pulse, breathing and blood pressure. All were normal. The only odd symptom the doctor noted was that Hofmann’s pupils were extremely dilated.

Exploding in Coloured Fountains

As the trip mellowed, Hofmann’s terror started to change to gratitude as he realised he was neither going mad nor dying. He started to relax and enjoy the phantasmagorical coloured patterns he could see with his eyes closed. This is how he described it:

Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.

Hofmann’s wife had been contacted and she was told her husband was having some kind of breakdown. She rushed home, but he had by then recovered.

The following day, he felt physically tired, but also full of ‘a sensation of well-being and renewed life’.[i]

Although Hofmann continued his experiments with his ‘problem child’, he lowered the dose and hopefully avoided bicycles.

Albert Hofmann died in 2008 aged 102.

It was eighty years ago today…

Educational psychologist Thomas B. Roberts wanted to commemorate Hofmann’s discovery and came up with the idea of an annual celebration on 19 April – Bicycle Day. The day celebrates Hofmann’s Acid-fuelled bike ride home on the day of his first deliberate ingestion of the drug. Hofmann himself was not too happy about the bike ride being central to the celebration. The bike ride to him was a minor detail. It was the molecule that should be celebrated. Roberts disagreed. The image of a scientist cycling through a terrifying psychedelic nightmare was much more engaging, and he’s right.[ii] Psychedelic communities celebrate Hofmann’s psychedelic bike ride every day on 19 April, and 2023 marks the eightieth anniversary of that day in 1943.

Perhaps because of Hofmann’s bike ride, bicycles have been a recurring theme in English psychedelic pop music, so in honour of the eightieth anniversary of Hoffman’s trip, here are my top three psychedelic songs about bicycles…

Top Three Bike Psych Songs

3. ‘Bike’ by Pink Floyd

Like many of a certain age I first discovered Pink Floyd’s psychedelic period through a cheapo compilation called Relics released on the ubiquitous budget label Music for Pleasure. The LP’s closer, taken from their first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, bounces us into the first verse without bothering with an introduction:

I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like

It’s got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good

I’d give it to you if I could but I borrowed it…

Relics – Cheapo compilation of early Floyd

The irregular verses go on to tell of a homeless mouse called Gerald and a clan of gingerbread men before disintegrating into a cacophony of daft noises that could well be the creaking gears and madly spinning wheels on Hofmann’s original bicycle trip.

I much prefer the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd to the ponderous prog of later years, so ‘Bike’ earns its place in my Top Three Bike Psych Songs

2. ‘My White Bicycle’ by Tomorrow

Tomorrow’s psychedelic anthem was recorded at Abbey Road studios at the same time the Beatles were working on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Supposedly inspired by a Dutch bike sharing scheme in which white bicycles were distributed for free use around Amsterdam, the song rides in on classic psychedelic staples – backwards guitar and cymbals – before the lysergic cyclist proceeds to knock over rubbish bins while avoiding policemen.

Tomorrow’s debut featuring ‘My White Bicycle’

This should have been a hit for Tomorrow, but it wasn’t to be. It’s still a Bike Psych classic, to such an extent that it was covered both by Nazareth and Neil from the Young Ones, and nearly made it to the top spot…

1. ‘Bike Ride to the Moon’ by the Dukes of Stratosphear

The Dukes of Stratosphear were, of course, XTC in disguise who released the mini album 25 O’clock as a kind of psychedelic April Fool’s Day joke in 1985. It kind of backfired as it went on to outsell the albums XTC put out under their own name around the same time.

Dukes of Stratosphear (aka XTC) 25 O’ Clock featuring ‘Bike Ride to the Moon’

The song combines elements of Tomorrow and Barrett’s Floyd with sped up gnome like backing vocals, backwards effects and daft noises as the cyclist heads to the moon with a pot of tea to get some cheese for his auntie. His trip ends in failure as a sharp sputnik gives him a cosmic flat tyre, and he forgot to pack his puncture repair kit.

Despite being from the 80s psychedelic revival, this affectionate pastiche of 60s pop psych cliches earns its yellow vest as the top of the bike psych pops.

Don’t forget, if you’re on your bike, wear white. Evening all… and Happy Bike Day.

[i] Albert Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child (McGraw-Hill, 1980) pp.4-14


Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: