• NorCal’s Forgotten Cycling Past

    by  • October 25, 2012 • norcal scene

    By Chris H-D

    Ed Note: Chris contacted us with an ambitious ideo to chronicle and revive some of the strong rich cycling history that oozes out of NorCal.  Books like “Hearts of Lions” explore some of the recent past but Chris is looking back even further at the elemental roots of cycling which played it’s part in early NorCal development. Chris Harland-Dunaway grew up in the town of Moraga and now lives in Palo Alto.  He is a recent UC Davis grad and Norcal racer. 

    Riders in our area often regard the rich history of European cycling jealously. It is as though American racing started in the 1960’s as a copy of Euro culture, but the sentiment that Californians lack a history of tough riders on primitive bikes could not be more untrue. San Francisco and the greater Bay Area were the site of a cycling revolution in the late 1880’s and 1890’s. Our history predates the beginning of the Tour of Flanders, Tour de France, Milan-San Remo, and coincides with the beginnings of Paris-Roubaix in 1896. Chronologically speaking, cycling in Northern California developed hand-in-hand with Europe, even though fascination with the sport over there became more popular and fervent in the long run. Nonetheless, the grandeur of this period in Northern California’s cycling history has largely been forgotten.


    In the 1890’s in Norcal, a rider was not a “cyclist’, they were called a wheelman. Wheelmen did not “crush fools” like today, but they would “scorch” them on a “silent steed”. Penny-farthing bicycles, named after the drastic difference in size between the front wheel and the rear wheel – (which roughly resembled the difference between a penny coin and a farthing coin in England), were very popular throughout the 1880’s. There are photographs of 100+ people on penny-farthing group rides in the South Bay, rolling across the damp rutted roads of the baylands.

    Rides such as these became more numerous and frequent with aid from the The League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.),and it’s local Northern California chapter. Free meals at hotels and a night’s rest were available to all cyclists who were members. On a ride from the Bay Area to Napa, stops at the Park Hotel in Alameda, the Palace Hotel in Benicia, and the Napa Hotel, were all free options. The local chapter also put together a “State Championship of the California Division” every year. In 1887, the race was held in Santa Cruz with 200 riders showing up to the starting line, all mounted on penny-farthings. In many ways, the championships of 1887 were a precursor to what would become the Pepsi Classic, or as it is known today, the Santa Cruz Cycling Classic. Overall, L.A.W.’s organization provided an enormous club infrastructure that spanned the entire United States; they dictated track and road racing , hosted races, advised proper riding etiquette, and created route maps for touring riders, and pushed for higher quality roads, which would later be usurped by the mass production of cars.

    The emergence of the “safety” bicycle in the 1890’s (a bicycle with two wheels of equal size like ours today) enabled racing, touring, and the recreational use of bicycles to take off. Unlike the penny-farthing, the safety bike did not front flip onto the ground whenever rough roads and large gravel overwhelmed the rider’s power. Not only did L.A.W. membership in S.F. expand dramatically during this time to more than 1,000 registered riders, their list dwarfed the rosters of many other cities. Most impressively, in 1897, the L.A.W. transferred 82 riders nationwide to professional class — 66 were from the Bay Area! It was during this time that there was a proliferation of bike manufacturers in San Francisco and nearby Oakland, similar to how the Bay Area is a hub of cycling industry now. They ran advertisements in the local cycling clubs’ programs that featured the endorsements of local riders. Alongside an advert for Viticultural Restaurant and Cafe on Pine St, there appeared a picture of local “scorcher” Bob Long, while on the adjacent page, a picture of Columbia Bicycles’ famous Eddie Bald was displayed with a note about his recent world record set on a track in San Jose.

    So many people began to ride the “silent steed” in the Bay Area that cyclists wielded substantial political power. The ultimate example of this development was the “Great Demonstration” of 1896 in which 5,000 costumed and uniformed riders rode through the streets of San Francisco protesting the sorry state of roads throughout the city. There were 100,000 spectators swarming the edges of the streets enjoying and participating in the giant spectacle and politicians’ response to the riders’ demands for better roads was nearly instantaneous.

    Old pictures of racers show them standing proudly with brilliant up-turned handlebar mustaches, their bicycles beside them, and a slew of medals pinned across their chest. Winning races garnered respect and race result pages yellowed by over 100 years of sitting in library archives show that race prizes were very lucrative as well. One result page lists the following: 1st place – Cleveland Bicycle value $105, 2nd place – Unset Diamond value $40, 3rd place – Order for Furnishing Goods value $25. Another said: 1st place – Diamond Stud value $50, 2nd place – Overcoat value $25, 3rd place – Cuff Buttons value $15.

    So with the prizes, the prestige, and the fun of racing in the nascent years of bicycles in the Bay Area, why are there zero old races that connect us back to this exciting time? Next week, I will a look at a famed NorCal race that began in 1895, before other legendary European races like Paris-Roubaix. It was the Bay Area’s first popular road race, yet never became the monument to Norcal cycling, and cycling worldwide, that it could have been… Haywards Road Race.



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