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Highwheel Harvard

The primitive “boneshaker” bicycle, with pedals attached directly to the front hub and wheels of similar diameter, made its Harvard debut in the winter of 1868-69, against the backdrop of an extraordinary nationwide craze. Although proponents of this inviting little vehicle heralded the arrival of a “new era of road travel,” the 70-pound contraption proved woefully impractical and soon vanished from the American scene, amidst general dissatisfaction and debilitating patent wars.

"The Bicycle Fiend in the Park," from the New York Illustrated Times of October 4, 1879, realizes early fears that the high bicycle would prove a public nuisance.
Courtesy of David Herlihy and the Harvard College Library

Across the Atlantic, however, English engineers gradually fashioned the smooth-rolling and majestic high-wheeler, shedding half the original weight. This fleet machine, with a dangerous propensity to catapult riders over the handlebars, relinquished the dream of a "people’s nag" in favor of a privileged young man’s article of amusement. But what a frill it was. A cyclist could cover more than a hundred miles in a single day over the roughest rural roads. "I have passed some of the happiest hours of my life on my bicycle," affirmed one British enthusiast in 1873. By the following year, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford boasted cycling clubs. The inaugural road race between the two campuses — covering 85 miles — attracted hundreds of cheering bystanders. It was only a matter of time before the bicycle, in its revamped form, made its way back to the other Cambridge.

By early 1878, several Boston businessmen were importing the “fearfully and wonderfully made” English high mounts, prompting the formation of the Boston Bicycle Club. And that spring, the Harvard College Athletic Association hosted the country’s first amateur races in Boston’s Beacon Park. The winner, C.A. Parker of the class of 1880, covered three miles in about 12.5 minutes. “If Harvard, Yale, or Columbia would induce bicycle riding,” predicted the Boston Globe, "before two years hundreds of collegians would be seen mounted and competing in this branch of athletic sport, and bicycle contests would create just as much interest as the recent foot-ball match between Princeton and Yale."

Once again, Harvard cyclists took the lead. In the spring of 1879, a dozen students formed the country’s first collegiate cycling club. Its uniform consisted of a "gray jacket, cap, and knickerbockers," leaving to individual discretion "the color of stockings" — an apparent concession to lax dressers. The membership regularly staged competitive 10-mile jaunts into the countryside to sleepy towns like Lexington. Departures were staggered according to skill level in a practice known as a "hare and hounds" run. Before long, reported the Globe, the shiny "steeds of steel" were to be found "reposing in the entries of all the principal dormitories." By the close of the inaugural year, club membership had reached 65 — and there were just 90 bicycles campus-wide.

By the mid 1880s, the annual Five Mile Championship pitting the champion cyclists of Harvard and Yale drew thousands of spectators. These were often seesaw affairs, with the winner prevailing by a mere fraction of a wheel. But the sport never lost its elitist character. By the close of that decade, a new and more democratic vehicle had arrived — the modern-style "safety" bicycle, complete with two small wheels of equal size and a chain drive. Following the timely introduction of the pneumatic tire, a veritable worldwide boom exploded. Cycling was no longer confined to a handful of elite male athletes, but became a wildly popular sport attracting men and women of all ages and backgrounds. At last, the bicycle made good on its original promise to provide practical transportation as well as good exercise.

~David V. Herlihy

 

The decorous, indeed solemn, Harvard Bicycle Club in 1885.
Harvard University Archives

David V. Herlihy ’80, an historian and freelance writer (and alumnus of the Harvard Cycling Club), is the author of Bicycle: The History, a comprehensive and profusely illustrated account, just published by Yale University Press. He lives in Hull, Massachusetts.