Juston Anderson boasts that he can teach someone to ride a high-wheeled bike in two minutes — even though they may be sitting 5 feet above the pavement.
“When you start to ride, everyone grabs onto the handles for dear life,” said Anderson, whose 19th-century bike collection forms the backbone of the fledgling Cycling Museum of Minnesota.
“I tell them to relax their hands and the bike will keep you upright. It’s like riding an enormous gyroscope.”
Now the hipster generation will get a close-up of the swan-necked high-wheelers on which their great-grandparents set the stage for the nation’s first bike craze. The cycling museum is presenting a sampling of its antique cycles in a guest exhibit focused on 1880s biking in Minneapolis that opens Tuesday at the Hennepin History Museum.
Hit the exhibit on the right day, and you might even get a chance to mount a high-wheeler. But it requires a certain dexterity.
“I didn’t even get my leg up and over,” admitted Jack Kabruk, a Hennepin curator.
Back in the Gilded Age, these long-spoked bikes were the playthings of the rich, or maybe the upper-middle class. They demanded leisure time and energy that working stiffs toiling 12-hour days at manual labor couldn’t spare. Plus, high-wheels were expensive, several thousand dollars in today’s money.
Riding conditions were difficult. Roads at best were brick or cobblestoned, and muddy or dusty at worst. Cyclists dodged easily frightened horses, streetcars and pedestrians. But the payoff was speed in the era before bike chains.
High-wheel bikes were direct-drive, much like today’s fixed-gear bikes. One turn of the pedals attached to a wheel 60 inches in diameter could propel a rider more than 15 feet. But a rider had to be tall enough for his feet to reach the bottom of that pedal stroke.
The ride was trickier for women. With their flapping skirts posing a safety risk near the spinning spokes, they began adapting to clothing such as bloomers or even pants but risked the jeers of passersby. That was atop the opprobrium attached to cycling, especially racing, by those who argued that the strain risked permanent damage to feminine organs.
If it was such a struggle, why would anyone want to do it? Try it once, Anderson suggested, and you’ll wonder why everyone doesn’t want to do it.
“The thing about it that is so unique is how quiet it is,” he said. “It doesn’t say that in any book I’ve read. There’s no gears and chains and sprockets rattling. The wind’s just blowing in your hair. You’re up high and you get to have more of a bird’s eye view. There’s nothing else like it.”
A hotbed of cycling
When riders weren’t atop their machines, they were treated royally. The Minneapolis Bicycle Club recruited members by boasting of upholstery, rugs and billiards tables at its clubhouse, according to exhibit curator Kate Cravens, a cycling museum volunteer.
The exhibit she organized on cycling in Minneapolis in the 1880s focuses on how bike technology improved, as well as cycling culture, riding clubs and the city’s emergence as a hotbed of high-wheel racing.
“There were a number of records that were set right here in Minneapolis,” Cravens said.
The relatively short-lived high-wheeler marks a shift in bike development. After the Civil War, blacksmiths began building two-wheel velocipedes that introduced pedals but were known for the harshness of the ride on their wooden, iron-rimmed wheels.
High wheels improved the ride. Besides covering ground more quickly in one turn of the pedals, their heavily spoked wheels and solid rubber tires absorbed more shock. The big wheels also negotiated rough terrain more smoothly.
But they offered risks to go with the thrill of speed, especially if the humongous wheel hit an obstacle or the rider sat too far forward.
“It doesn’t take much for you to go over the handlebars and take what they call a header,” said Anderson. “Once you’ve done a header, you’ll realize it hurts.”
Heading downhill was particularly tricky. Riders lifted their feet off the swiftly spinning pedals, positioning their legs outside the handlebars so they could leap clear if they were thrown. The spoon-shaped brake that was the only means of slowing down had the effectiveness of riding into a light wind, said Anderson, a leader in the state chapter of the Wheelmen, a group of antique bike collectors who ride, restore and remind the public about cycling history. He’s on the board of the cycling museum, which has a collection of mostly loaned cycles.
Minneapolis became a stop on the endurance race circuit, Cravens said. It specialized in a six-day contest, with competitors riding for a specified time each day, the winner being the one who amassed the most miles. They raced at long-vanished places such as Armory Hall, where the TCF Building now stands downtown, or the rink at Washington and 10th avenues N., where cyclists circled roller skaters under the gaze of spectators.
Shorter races were conducted at state or local fairgrounds or on Lake Harriet’s carriage road. “Tens of thousands watched at the fairgrounds,” Cravens said.
Clubs whose members rode with ties and uniforms decked in the clubs’ colors would lead rides outside the city limits, sometimes venturing up the Minnesota River Valley. Nighttime parades were lit by oil lanterns.
End of an era
The big-wheel bike would not make it to the turn of the century, though, its existence doomed by introduction of the pneumatic tire on equal-sized wheels connected to the familiar double-diamond frame we recognize today.
“It really changed the world,” Anderson said. “In 1893 nobody wanted a high-wheel bike.” The new bikes were safer and cheaper as local manufacturers began to compete with those on the East Coast and in Europe.
The exhibit is something of a coming-out for the cycling museum, which was formally organized in 2014 after years of talk. Its collection has been exposed mostly through a temporary exhibition above a Central Avenue bike shop and occasional open houses at its Loring Park location.
It’s searching for permanent museum space, according to board president Pat Geraghty, the owner of an Austin, Minn., bike shop for 43 years and an engineer by training. “We want it to be a first-class museum as well as an advocacy organization for cycling in Minnesota,” he said.