- Pedaling Toward Modernity
Setting off from his Connecticut home in 1886 on a cross-country ride, cyclist George B. Thayer filled his knapsack, a holdover from his service in the Union Army, with the bare necessities for several months on the road: a warm coat, extra clothing, spare parts, a rain suit, a first-aid kit. But no cargo proved more valuable than a list he had compiled of members of the League of American Wheelman (LAW), a national association of bicycling clubs formed in 1880 to “ascertain, defend, and protect the rights of wheelmen” (Friss, p. 50). Throughout Thayer’s journey, he relied on his fellow wheelmen for comradeship, hospitality, supplies, and advice. As he traversed the continent on his ordinary bicycle—a Columbia Expert model with a huge front wheel, no chain, and solid rubber tires—Thayer overcame many obstacles and suffered numerous spills; to coast downhill on a high-wheeler, cyclists removed their feet from the pedals and swung them dangerously over the handlebars. Still, Thayer told a reporter that no challenge—not climbing Pike’s Peak or navigating the busy streets of Chicago—had proved so formidable as the amazed attention his presence inspired, the “gaping crowds in country towns and rural dogs that want to test the quality of his socks” (Hayes, p. 60).
Within a decade, bicycles would become a familiar presence on American streets, the passion of thousands, a nuisance to many others, a symbol at once of modern, mechanical civilization and of the desire to escape the onslaught of modernity. New technology—the advent of the “safety bicycle” with its chain drive, multiple gears, pneumatic tires, and lightweight frames supporting [End Page 472] two equal-sized wheels—and the growth of a domestic bicycle industry made cycling affordable for a mass public. Indeed, between 1890 and 1900, the number of American manufacturers grew more than ten-fold. Diverse cross-sections of urban America embraced the pastime: upwardly mobile young men who took up cycling as a recreational extension of their refined social backgrounds, “New Women” seeking the “gratification of being one’s own master or mistress” (Friss, p. 164), immigrant factory workers commuting across the city, delivery boys, doctors on house calls, itinerant preachers, and so forth. The LAW, a fledging group of 3,000 hobbyists when Thayer climbed atop his high-wheeler, claimed more than 100,000 paying members in 1896, and the nation’s leading publications devoted thousands of pages of copy to cycling stories and advertisements. Roughly twenty percent of New York City’s 1.5 million residents owned bicycles. The machines became so popular that municipalities across the country adopted a series of ordinances, guaranteeing cyclists access to the roads, regulating their use, financing road improvements, and constructing sidepaths dedicated for cycling. By century’s end, the U.S. Census added a special report on bicycles, concluding that, “it is safe to say that few articles have created so great a revolution in social condition as the bicycle.”1
Writing in August 1896, Joseph B. Bishop asked whether the cycling boom represented just another passing fad. “It is quite the custom to speak of bicycling as a ‘craze,’ and there has been much speculation as to whether it would prove permanent or would pass away like other ‘crazes’ after a brief period of feverish popularity,” conceded the New York Evening Post reporter and confidanté of Theodore Roosevelt. Cycling “has been compared to the passion of a few years ago for roller-skating, and prophets have not been lacking who were confident that within five years it would run its course, leaving behind it the wrecks of innumerable bicycle factories and...