Riding The Cycling Craze

September 1, 2006 by Jeffrey S. Murray

PHOTO: HOWARD MORTON BROWN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C002624

PHOTO: HOWARD MORTON BROWN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C002624

An 1800s bicycle owner in Ottawa.

“If this craze for bicycle riding continues much longer our livery stable men will have to close down,” warned the editorial in the Fort Macleod Gazette in the early 1890s. “The young man and his best girl,” continued the editor, “…will shortly have no use whatsoever for…a horse and buggy, and consequently the livery industry will receive a death blow.”

The southern Alberta town was in the midst of the cycling craze that was sweeping across North America and Europe. By the time it peaked in the mid-1890s, factories that previously turned out agricultural machinery had retooled to make bicycles and all the accessories that went with them. Other merchants were forced to close as middle-class Canadians shifted their spending patterns to the business of cycling. These were the same people who regularly realigned their weekends to take jaunts into the suburbs or plan elaborate holidays into the country.

By the time the fad ended in the early 1900s, cycling had permeated all levels of society and transformed the way Canadians did business, the way they dressed and the way they courted and spent their leisure time. Indeed, it could be said that the 1890s were marked by two classes of Canadians: those who cycled and those who didn’t.

The first bicycles, which arrived in Canada around the time of Confederation, were unwieldy machines. They consisted of little more than two iron-tired wooden wheels held together by a wooden frame. The fork securing the front wheel had handlebars to permit steering and pedals mounted directly on the axle to provide locomotion, something like a modern-day kid’s tricycle. The rider sat in a leather saddle fastened to the frame and supported by a steel spring. The contraption was not very effective in absorbing bumps, and so it earned the nickname Boneshaker. Costing a king’s ransom, the machine was definitely not for everyone: it took the skill of a high-wire trapeze artist to balance and the legs of a football player to move its 150-pound frame.

The first breakthrough in cycling technology occurred about 20 years later, in the mid-1880s. Using newly invented tubular steel, manufacturers in Britain completely redesigned the frame so that the rider sat directly over a large front wheel, which measured from 40 to 60 inches, depending on the length of the rider’s legs. A much smaller trailer wheel at the back added stability. The pedals and handlebars were still part of the front axle but the rider now sat directly over them. Because of its resemblance to two popular British coins, the bicycle was called the penny farthing, and for people of our generation, it is probably the single most easily recognized icon of the late-19th century.

Weighing just 30 to 60 pounds, riders of the penny farthing could really pick up speed and “scorch” their way around town. The solid rubber tires were a big improvement in producing a machine that could be raced, but the price of the wheels sometimes equalled the rest of the bicycle, which for an industrial worker averaged about half-a-year’s wages.

Perched high above the maddening crowd, riders of the penny farthing were somewhat disadvantaged. A slight lapse in attention or an encounter with a small rock could easily send the rider into a header over the handlebars. As well, the rubber tires might be more comfortable but they had a natural tendency to twist off their rims when rounding corners, leaving the rider in a tangled mess of bent tubing. “Get a bicycle,” mused Mark Twain in one of his short stories, “You will not regret it, if you live.” Despite the dangers, the penny farthing was the perfect article of conspicuous consumption–the ideal rich man’s indulgence.

The early 1890s saw the second major advancement in cycling technology roll onto Canada’s streets. This new version, the so-called ‘safety bicycle,’ looked not much unlike its modern-day equivalent. It had two wheels of the same size, a pedal-driven endless chain running over sprocket gears, and a saddle mounted near the centre of the frame. This last improvement considerably reduced the risk of headers. Only a few other changes remained: pneumatic tires and ball-bearing wheels to reduce vibration and wear, a coaster brake, and lighter steel tubing, all of which quickly followed in the 1890s and made it possible for the bicycle to be ridden by almost anyone–male or female, young or old, heavy or thin.

Farm prices may be falling and unemployment at record highs, but for urban middle-class Canadians, the ring-a-ling of the bicycle bell was a lure few could resist. Its enticing chime was a siren call to a grand and glorious debauchery of speed and freedom, the likes of which Canadians had never seen.

Most Canadians who bought a cycle during the boom years did not ride it to the office. The owners were, for the most part, city dwellers who had access to public transit. They bought bicycles because of the added mobility they offered away from the transit lines–mobility that was previously only offered by the horse and carriage.

In the city, horses were expensive and difficult to look after even for the more affluent; the purchase of a good horse, buggy and harness could easily exceed the cost of a dozen bicycles. Besides its economic advantages, the wheel had other benefits. It is “never tired, never eats, drinks or sleeps; will not run away, and does not kick or bite,” wrote one Victorian enthusiast of the cycle.

These steel steeds, when combined with the growing rail network that linked Canada’s cities, opened up the prospects of easy rural travel. Of course, bicycle riding required a degree of physical effort, but for a nation that was facing increased mechanization and the sedentary lifestyle that the Victorian era brought, a little activity was not a bad thing.

People also bought bicycles because just by owning one meant you would be seen as a progressive member of society with a positive outlook for the future and all its possibilities. Owning one also meant instant acceptance in a local cycling club; provided the owner could also come up with the required membership fee, which like the cycle itself, could be very expensive. At $100 to $150, the annual membership fee to the League of American Wheelman, one of the more influential clubs in North America and one to which a number of Canadians belonged, was the equivalent of a new bicycle. The high fees charged by the clubs guaranteed a degree of exclusivity: of the eight board members in the Edmonton Bicycle Club between 1893 and 1895, for example, two were lawyers, two were doctors, one a real estate agent, one a merchant, one a bank manager, and another was a clerk in the Hudson’s Bay Company store.

The exclusive nature of the clubs was further reinforced by some of the extracurricular activities the members were expected to support financially. The 106 members of the Hamilton Bicycle Club, for example, purchased a hotel in Niagara Falls and another in St. Catharines so their members would be assured of overnight accommodation when running tours to these regions.

The eight Toronto clubs, with membership in the 500-600 range, built a racetrack with a high-quality clay, cinder, and brick surface in prestigious Rosedale. The track allowed the clubs to host the 1892 annual meet of the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association. These types of outdoor events drew large crowds and produced many competitors. The Dunlop Trophy Race, launched in 1894, ran for more than 30 years. In 1899, Montreal proudly hosted the World Cycling Championships.

The Athenaeum Club in Toronto built a grand storage facility capable of accommodating 1,000 cycles so club members would have a place to winter their two-wheeled stallions. Toronto’s Wanderers Bicycle Club and the Montreal Bicycle Club were not to be outdone. They built gymnasiums and billiard rooms as part of their clubhouses, which enabled members to keep fit in the off-season. Such activities emphasized the maleness of cycling; they also underlined the necessity of having a healthy pocketbook.

The elite clubs sometimes worked to the benefit of all cyclists across the country. With their commercial, financial and political connections, the Ontario clubs were able to persuade the provincial government into recognizing the bicycle as a vehicle. Much to the chagrin of teamsters and farmers, this move gave cyclists full access to all roads even if some counties and municipalities had previously passed bylaws to the contrary. The cyclists were also able to successfully lobby the federal government into forcing the railways to carry their machines not as freight but as baggage, which meant they travelled with their owners for free.

In the early years of the cycling craze, the high-wheelers often wore military-style uniforms when out on their group tours of the countryside. With standard bearers leading the procession, and with club buglers noisily announcing their cavalry-like manoeuvres, the wheelmen made every effort to be as visible as possible to the small towns they paraded through. Riding machines that were far beyond the means of most rural folk, it is no wonder some residents resented such intrusions into their daily lives.

A census of cyclists taken one Sunday afternoon in 1896 by the Toronto Evening Star newspaper found that, of the 6,000 people who left the city for the country that day, nearly one third were girls and young ladies. Cycling may have started out as a men’s activity, but once the safety bicycle appeared on the market, the sport quickly gained acceptance among the fairer sex–a move applauded by a lot of women and some physicians because it made dress reform a necessity.

Corsets did not completely disappear with cycling but they did become less restrictive. Cycling fashion demanded shorter skirts or women ran the risk of entangling their garments in the chain. The more daring and politically liberated female cyclists used pantaloons or bloomers–a garb that had an unfortunate association with prostitutes and caused quite a sensation when introduced to Canadian streets.

Lady teachers in Toronto were thought to be setting a bad example for their pupils by riding to work in bloomers. Much of the criticism came from women themselves. “No girl over 39 should be allowed to wheel,” wrote Kit Coleman, the women’s page editor of the Toronto Mail newspaper. The famous British author Marie Corelli was even stronger in her denouncement of female cycling: “I do not ride a bicycle…and entirely abhor bicycle riding for women…. Womanhood is utterly destroyed by the sight of perspiring, red-faced, lank-haired objects, working their legs treadmill fashion in mere feminine vulgarities.”

For puritan Toronto, cyclists were the first large group to escape the confines of the inner city for the “shade, sweet odours and quiet” of the city’s extensive suburban parks. The pleasure of a Sunday outing, however, was really only available to “able-bodied strong men and healthy women…who in finances and in health are able to possess and ride a bicycle,” as one reporter for a Toronto magazine found out. The parks were open but with the city’s streetcars shutdown out of respect for the Sabbath access was really only available to cyclists. The other six days of the week, when public transit was operational to the suburbs, most working-class residents were too busy with their families and jobs to take advantage of the parks.

Cyclists were also the first large group to begin making frequent trips into the countryside. City people may have visited small-town Canada in the past, but it would have been from the confinement of a railway car. Astride their own private machines, the two-wheelers were now free to travel beyond rail corridors; the direction, pace and stops were all self-selected. More importantly, their companionship would be of their own choosing. For young couples, a country tour removed them from the prying eyes of nosey neighbours; for cross-country wheelmen, there were no more objectionable passengers.

Although cyclists might desire the freedom of an open road, they did not want to travel haphazardly. Danger and discomfort were definitely not part of the agenda. City newspapers, guidebooks and club magazines carried detailed articles on the best routes out of the city. They described how to avoid routes that were too hilly, pinpointed the places where the road conditions were poor, identified the intersections where to turn (it would take another 20 years for road signs to make an appearance) and named the places with the best repair shops, accommodation and meals. They also highlighted the towns with a rail service that could carry cyclists back to their home base. The guides met most cyclists’ needs by insulating them from nature’s uncertainties. With such tools in hand, it was possible for two-wheeled adventurers to whisk their way through the countryside without interacting with locals who were not above deliberately giving wrong directions to rich city dudes.

Despite having fallen on hard times, the livery men in Fort Macleod were optimistic that things would return to normal once the cycling craze was over. “It is not likely that the time will ever come when a monarch will offer his kingdom for a bicycle, as did King Richard once…,” proclaimed the Macleod Gazette in their support. As far as the editor and his business friends were concerned, the horse would always be the king of the road. “There is no pleasure in caressing a bicycle…. The good creature is yet the pride of all nations,” the newspaper editor confidently reminded everyone. And to some extent, he was correct. Like every other consumer fad, interest in the bicycle did eventually wane. By the early 1900s, the efficiencies of mass production had reduced the cost of a standard safety bicycle to about $30-$40, one third of its original selling price.

With such a profusion of working-class cyclists now hitting the road, the sport no longer had the quality of distinction and style that more affluent riders had so admired. But the trend setters were not trading in their bicycles for horses. By 1905 they had found a new toy; one that was on the cutting edge of fashion and technology and would really catch the attention of friends, neighbours and family: the automobile.

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