- Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycle State by Gant, Jesse J. and Nicholas J. Hoffman
Jesse L. Gant and Nicholas J. Hoffman approach the history of cycling with the academic rigor it deserves. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Wheel Fever embodies an approach that adversely affects much recent academic inquiry: its authors’ emphasis on race, class, and gender often overrides their evidence. They unfairly criticize white male cyclists for discouraging women, laborers, and people of color from cycling. Here’s their thesis: “Bicycling in the United States emerged out of a profoundly inegalitarian culture fueled by elitism and exclusion” (p. 199).
Though devoted to the history of cycling in Wisconsin, Gant and Hoffman apply their argument to the whole nation, but they sometimes ignore facts contradicting their thesis. Emphasizing inequality, they neglect that black cyclists raced against whites in the 1880s. An African-American cyclist named John W.C. Rierton, for example, had a reputation for great speed in the Midwest. Instead, Gant and Hoffman emphasize the prejudice against black cyclists. After discussing race discrimination in Chicago, they admit, “It is hard to say how all of this played out in nearby Wisconsin” (p. 88). Nineteenth-century Wisconsin had a tiny black population: Gant and Hoffman’s recurring discussion of attitudes toward African-American cycling seems out of proportion to their ostensible subject.
The discussion of female cycling follows suit. Arguing that men discouraged women from cycling, the authors ignore the tricycle, which many women rode in the 1880s. Sometimes Gant and Hoffman let slip information undermining their thesis. While arguing that women had few opportunities to ride, they note, in passing, that The Pneumatic, a monthly cycling magazine published in Milwaukee, featured a “Ladies Department.” In places, the authors seem naive. Discussing a women’s bicycle race, they appear surprised to learn that few spectators attended. Social conditions, they argue, prevented women from bicycle touring: “Unlike the hostility female and nonwhite long-distance riders often encountered on America’s roads, men like Lenz could easily make money by striking out on these heroic and manly voyages alone” (p. 92). Their comparison with Frank Lenz is nonsensical. Talk about meeting with hostility: Lenz was murdered!
Though Gant and Hoffman supply considerable information culled from Wisconsin papers to relate the local history of cycling, they depend on David Herlihy’s Bicycle: The History (2004) for general information. By no means is Herlihy’s the final word on the subject. The story of the safety bicycle, for example, is more nuanced than Herlihy admits. Gant and Hoffman reprint a photograph of an Oshkosh man posed with a bicycle, which they call “a unique lever-driven high-wheel” (p. 40). The bicycle depicted is a high-wheeled safety, which riders of the 1880s accepted more easily than the chain-driven safety. There is nothing unique about it: several manufacturers marketed similar machines. [End Page 509]
Wheel Fever is beautifully illustrated. Perhaps it contains too many illustrations. The authors need not have raided Harper’s Weekly and the Library of Congress. They found many unfamiliar images in Wisconsin archives; the renowned national illustrations detract from their local discoveries. Omitting some images could have freed up space to discuss more obscure ones. A photograph from the Racine velodrome depicts three burly riders on an unusual three-seater track cycle with a diminutive solo rider behind them. Both bikes have huge chainrings. The solo rider was obviously using the trio to pace him to a new speed record. Who was the rider? What record was he trying to set? Did he succeed? There’s a story behind the photograph, which the authors fail to tell.
Gant and Hoffman see Wheel Fever as a model for other state cycling histories. The problem with writing a state history of cycling is the absence of drama. How can you tell a story that is chronologically and geographically comprehensive yet still dramatic? The bicycle racing chapter in...