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The Great Bicycle Craze
If its day was brief, it raised the hem, leveled the classes, and widened a generation’s horizons
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Every rider who had any get-up to him wanted his bicycle stripped of all nonessentials, to make it as light as the wheels used by racers. Mudguards, chain guard, hand brake—anything at all that added an ounce of weight, was banned. It was considered bad form to keep a tool bag attached at the rear of the seat, even though a pump or tire repair kit might be needed. No one was supposed to take precaution beyond carrying a small adjustable wrench in the hip pocket.
The one extra that every he-man was glad to have was a pair of toe clips. These, bolted to the pedals to keep the feet from slipping off, didn’t add much weight, and racers used them!
If a rider was old enough to wear long trousers (boys wore knee pants then until they were fourteen or fifteen), he carried a pair of what looked like sections of a clock spring to clasp around the lower part of his trousers and thus keep them from being caught between chain and sprocket. More and more businessmen were wearing baggy knickerbockers and sweaters, “cyclist clothes,” wearing them even at store or office. This made for greater informality in everyday affairs, which was thought desirable. Everything had been stiff and conventional long enough.
The great number who rode bent over aimed also to emulate racers in their speed. Nearly every young man rode as fast as he could and might go tearing along at the rate of ten or twelve miles an hour, or even faster, scaring horses and dogs and alarming pedestrians. Those still compelled to go on foot shook their heads and said it was getting risky to try to cross the street.
No one had less patience with fast riding than dogs. What puzzled them was the silence of a bicycle. Here was a strange contraption suddenly coming by without any sound of warning, and it was hard to estimate its speed. Dogs made common cause and ran out to bark at all cyclists and sometimes to bite at a rider’s leg. This created a demand for a handy means of protection, and a company in Toledo advertised a device that became popular. Called a Ki-yi gun, it was similar in size and appearance to a small syringe. By pressing a metal clasp you could release and squirt a little diluted ammonia. It was interesting to observe the astonished look that came to a dog’s face.
A fast or reckless rider was not called a speeder. “Scorcher” was the word invariably used. Even after fast riding and racing on city streets had died down, whenever a rider got into trouble with the police, for any reason at all, the newspapers were likely to report that he was arrested for scorching. The word lasted for three or four years.
No one was even sure at first how to pronounce the word bicycle. Many insisted that it should be bi-sighcle rather than bi-sick-le. A few clung to the sigh for some time, but bi-sick-le prevailed, simply because most people seemed to prefer it that way.
Nearly all bicycle riders in the 1890’s aimed to keep any conversation confined to the subject of wheels. This was especially true in the smaller towns where there wasn’t much else to talk about. If a man met someone he hadn’t seen for a while, the first question he asked him was apt to be what make of wheel he rode. The next question you asked a person, after finding out what make he rode, was what gear he used. The higher the gear the farther you went with each revolution of the pedals, but the harder it was to climb a hill.
Another question always asked of anyone with a new wheel was: How much does she weigh? It the weight was more than 24 pounds at the very most, then you knew that the owner was not a true sport, or else he had been imposed upon by a dealer. Didn’t he want to be a fast rider? If not, what ailed him? He should know that even for just riding around, 21 pounds was heavy enough. It may be added that when tandems came in, in ’95, they too were of surprisingly light weight, only about forty pounds.
Newspaper editorials frequently said that nearly everyone rode too last to enjoy the beauties of nature. This was not so true after girls began to ride. A young man and a girl would seek a quiet lane and perhaps pause by a brook to sit and give thought to how wonderful nature can be.
If a bicycle was left leaning against a building or standing at the curb, it was not easy for anyone walking by to resist the temptation to stop and examine it. Someone was almost sure to pick it up to try to get an idea of its weight, to spin the pedals, to observe if the wheels wobbled—indicating that a spoke or two needed tightening—and to tap the steel tubing of the frame with the fingernails. The purpose ol this tapping was to note the sound. If it did not have the right ring, that meant that it was not true seamless tubing, but had been made from a flat strip of steel rolled to form a tube and brazed along the seam.
Ordinarily, no one objected to having his wheel picked up and examined. The owner might even feel complimented by the show of polite interest. But if the inspection led to adverse comments, then there was sure to be an argument, sometimes with threats. Bicycle slang was coming into use, and the way to make a man mad was to say that his wheel was a gaspipe machine.