Story of the Week

Posted: 09.05.2017
Before cars, there were bicycles
By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection

 

 

Before the American public witnessed early automobiles filling the country’s highways and byways, the invention of the bicycle was considered a groundbreaking innovation in mobility. And soon after mass production of bicycles began in America during the early 19th century, there came bicycle racing.

In 1893, the first organized body for bicycle racing was founded as the International Cycling Association, or ICA. The group was founded by Henry Sturmey who was also the co-founder of Sturmey-Archer, a manufacturing company that primarily makes bicycles hubs and gears and is still in business today. In Chicago that same year, a world championship race took place with many fans from other states who competed for the winning title. Later, the ICA was replaced by the Union Cyclist International, or UCI, which was founded on April 14, 1900. Even from those early days, bicycle racing has endured as a popular sport for many enthusiasts in America and especially abroad in countries like France and Belgium.


In 1875, Columbia Bicycle became the first American manufactured cycle produced at the Weed Sewing Machine Company factory in Hartford, Conn. The first bicycle race was documented on May 31, 1868 at the park of Saint-Cloud, Paris. An Englishman by the name of James Moore won the race using a bicycle with solid rubber tires. In 1895, the late Iganatz Schwinn along with Adolph Arnold together formed Arnold Schwinn & Company to manufacture great looking bikes. Later, Albert Pope had purchased 75 small bicycle production companies to form the American Bicycle Company.

Bicycle racing was also enhanced in the late 19th century with the invention of the pneumatic tire which marked a significant technological development in bicycle manufacturing. The first recorded bicycle race using pneumatic tires took place in 1889. It was also about that time when bicycle designers started implementing new safety features which brought bicycle racing to a new level of competition.


Later, bicycle racing on a banked wooden track became a popular spectator sport, which many people thoroughly had enjoyed. Bicyclists also started to compete in endurance racing events which could last up to six days - it also should be noted that the first Tour de France took place in May of 1903.

The races were held at Madison Square Garden with an oval board track measuring 10 laps to the mile. A wooden fence was placed around the rim to prevent bicyclists from going over the top and out into the crowd of spectators. On opening day of the 1897 race, 10,000 spectators had packed the Garden as the racers mounted bicycles.


The rules at the time were very simple: The winner was the person who covered the most miles in the time allotted. The cyclists had to ride a minimum of 1,350 miles to qualify for any type of prize money. These endurance races were enjoyed by many dedicated fans who would stay in the grandstands for days watching their favorite cyclists.

With the advent of bicycle mobility and racing, women also took the sport as a progressive and liberating movement. Bicycles were often incorporated into advertisements portraying the latest fashion designs.

In 1896, the late Susan B. Anthony said this about women cyclists, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else has in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”


As the years progressed, bicycle riding would continue to be seen as a culturally freeing movement for women in America. In 1958, Elsy Jacobs became the first woman UCI Road World Champion which happened to be the inaugural race for that event.

In conclusion, by 1920, bicycle usage for adults began to decline with automobiles becoming more common for many American families. Children bicycles were becoming very popular and were introduced just after WWI by many great manufacturers such as Sears Roebuck, Hudson's and many other great stores as well. Today a growing number of bicycle enthusiasts and collectors still keep the early days of bicycle racing history and heritage alive.

 

 



 For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. (Bibliography: Smith, A. Robert “A social history of the Bicycle its early life and times in American” 1972; The Bicycling World and Motorcycle review February 18, 1913 New York.)

If you would like to contribute an article for the MotorCities newsletter, email info@motorcities.org or call 313-259-3425. 

 

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