...in 1882, seven men took over 12 hours to cover the distance from Worcester to Boston in the nation's first 100-mile bicycle race. Boston was becoming the bicycle capital of America. Pedestrians strolling in Copley Square had to be wary of young men speeding by on "high wheelers." The city was home to the nation's first bicycle club, first race, first indoor riding rinks, and first mass-produced bicycle Albert Pope's "Columbia." By 1882 Pope's company was the world's largest bicycle maker. Within a few years, the bike went from being a rich man's plaything to a relatively affordable means of transportation. The car would soon replace it on the road, and the bicycle would become an essential part of American childhood.
Although some historians believe there are bicycles depicted in Egyptian tomb drawings or Pompeii frescoes, the ancestor of today's bicycle was most likely a "walking machine" created by a French aristocrat in the 1790s. Intended primarily as a courtly amusement, the "hobby horse" created by Count Mede de Sivrac was propelled by the feet, in a sort of gliding walk. Within two decades, a German nobleman realized that if he made the front wheel steerable, he could use the contraption to travel around his vast estate. When he took several of his "Draisiennes" to Paris in 1818, he started a craze.
It was only in the 1860s that the addition of pedals, rubber wheels, and lightweight metal in place of wood made the "walking machines" maneuverable enough to be used as human-powered transportation, a type of "mechanical horse." The early models were called velocipedes (literally "fast foot"). The high-wheel variety was popular because it maximized the distance the bike could travel with each turn of the pedal. It gave a rough ride, particularly over cobblestone or rutted roads, but it moved at a thrilling speed.
The first time American entrepreneur Albert Pope laid eyes on the newly named "bicycle" was at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. He immediately saw that bicycling could be more than an enjoyable pastime. It could be a new form of transportation that would appeal to a mass market. Pope decided he would be the first to produce bicycles in the U.S.
He returned home to Boston, imported bicycles for study and sale, and hired a local mechanic to build a prototype. After shrewdly buying up outstanding patents, he contracted with a struggling sewing machine company to start producing bicycles. The result was the Columbia, America's first commercially-produced, self-propelled vehicle. The Columbia would make Albert Pope a household name. In 1878 he sold 50; only two years later, he sold 12,000 and had back orders for another 2,500.
But Pope was not just a manufacturer; he was a brilliant salesmen, and he promoted cycling with all the zeal of a newly converted evangelist. In 1878 the brand new Boston Bicycle Club had sponsored the nation's first bicycle race. The next year, Pope was a moving force and a competitor in the highly publicized "Wheel Around the Hub," a two-day event that took 40 socially prominent men on a 100-mile ride around Boston and the South Shore.
Pope also launched a weekly newspaper and two cycling magazines. In 1880 he helped establish the League of American Wheelmen to act as a central racing authority. When the League's held its second annual meeting in Boston in 1881, thousands of spectators cheered as 800 members cycled down Commonwealth Avenue. A year later, Pope's "Expert Columbia" model became the first bicycle ridden across the U.S; the 3,700-mile, 103-day trip concluded in Boston.
With Pope's success came rivals. Springfield, well known for its skilled mechanics and expertise with metallurgy, became a center for the testing, production, and racing of bicycles. In 1882 the Bicycle Club of Springfield hosted the first of what would become an annual meet. The event was soon drawing more than 20,000 spectators and an international field of racers to the Hampden Park racetrack.
Most of the young men who could afford the $300 that the first bicycles cost more than three months' pay for the average laborer were from the elite Ivy League and Brahmin set. Many of these riders ended their outings at the Massachusetts Bicycle Club's elegantly furnished clubhouse on Newbury Street. Other cycling clubs followed suit, opening lavish clubhouses, introducing club uniforms, holding social events, and developing mottos and chants.
Cycling was not without its detractors, who viewed the new machine as a menace and wanted it banned from parks and public roads. Realizing that the new sport needed advocates as well as promoters, Pope organized the Wheelman Club to fight for cyclists' rights. Declaring American roads "the worst in the civilized world," he financed courses at M.I.T for road engineers and lobbied the state to set up a highway commission. He even paid to have a stretch of Columbus Avenue paved in his campaign for better road surfaces.
Pope's promotional efforts were not entirely successful. The bicycle was a potent agent of social change, never more so than when ridden by women. Critics claimed that cycling threatened female modesty, encouraged improper, unchaperoned liaisons with men, and even endangered women's ability to bear children. Many women defied the critics and enthusiastically embraced everything about cycling from the clothing worn to the exercise it afforded. The biggest benefit was the independence and mobility that cycling made possible. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony declared that "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."
One remarkably talented man used competitive cycling to help break the color barrier in sports. Major Taylor, an African-American who moved from his native Indiana to Massachusetts to compete in what he hoped would be a more racially tolerant climate, found that even here he had to overcome what the Globe called "systemic bigotry, gang tactics, and even death threats from other racers." Although as he wrote in his autobiography, Taylor "was not always given a square deal or anything like it," in 1899 he became the second black athlete in any sport to win a world title. Taylor retired from competitive cycling in 1910; when he died in 1932, his fame and fortune gone, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. Largely unknown today, Taylor was once the country's most famous athlete, hailed throughout the world. In 2006 his adopted hometown of Worcester renamed a major downtown roadway "Major Taylor Blvd." in honor of the man cycling fans called the "Worcester Whirlwind."
By the time Albert Pope died in 1909, his company, now located in Westfield, MA., was producing cycles that ordinary people could afford and that made life easier for letter carriers, policemen, firemen, messengers, country doctors, and soldiers. As the new century approached, so did the end of cycling's golden age. The mechanical advances achieved by bicycle manufacturers and the roads improvements that cyclists had demanded paved the way, literally, for a machine that would soon eclipse the two-wheeler. The Springfield men who introduced the nation's first gasoline-powered automobile had learned their trade making bicycles.
Colonel Albert Pope and His American Dream Machine, by Stephen B. Goddard (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000).
Bicycle:The History, by David V. Herlihy (Yale University Press, 2004).
"After a century, Worcester Whirlwind" honored," in the Boston Globe, July 24, 2006.