Cycling is a promising solution to unsustainable urban transport systems. However, prevailing bicycle network development follows a slow and piecewise process, without taking into account the structural complexity of transportation networks. Here we explore systematically the topological limitations of urban bicycle network development. For 62 cities we study different variations of growing a synthetic bicycle network between an arbitrary set of points routed on the urban street network. We find initially decreasing returns on investment until a critical threshold, posing fundamental consequences to sustainable urban planning: Cities must invest into bicycle networks with the right growth strategy, and persistently, to surpass a critical mass. We also find pronounced overlaps of synthetically grown networks in cities with well-developed existing bicycle networks, showing that our model reflects reality. Growing networks from scratch makes our approach a generally applicable starting point for sustainable urban bicycle network planning with minimal data requirements.