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'Wheels Through Time' Offers Glimpse Back at Bicycling

The term "scorcher" took on new meaning at Bloomington's David Davis Mansion Saturday.

While the heat index again crossed over 105 degrees, many attending the 3rd annual Wheels Through Time: A Historic Bike Show learned "scorchers" were people who menaced communities in the 1890s by riding their bikes aggressively at high speeds. 

Dozens of bikes from three different centuries were on display, and two presentations were given. One centered on new technologies and social acceptance of bikes since their introduction as "velocipedes" around 1817, and the other focused on the history of women and cycling in Illinois. 

"The bicycle truly was a force for social change," said Christopher Sweet, a bike historian at Illinois Wesleyan University, who discussed the role women played in bicycle pioneering and how female bike riding impacted society. 

"Bikes were so popular (in the late 19th century) that they had the ability and power to change social norms. It changed what people wore, it changed the idea of what women could do, that they could ride and not be injured," he said. 

Christopher Sweet, IWU bike historian

Prior to that, Sweet said women were perceived as too dainty to ride bicycles, sitting side-saddle to limit the chance of injury from falling forward off of the high wheel bicycles that were popular at the time. But in the 1890s, women such as Tillie Anderson changed perceptions. The Swedish immigrant landed in Chicago and won most races in which she competed, many challenged by talented male riders. In 1896, famed women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony proclaimed bicycling did "more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."

Sweet said the popularity of bicycling helped pave the way for the automobile, which was in its infancy during the 20th century's first decade. 

"In one sense, it was literal. (Bikes) worked on brick streets and early asphalt pavements," he said. "And the technology of manufacturing bicycles was directly related to cars. Things like ball-bearings were manufactured for bicycles. Pinion steering was a bicycle development. So were pneumatic tires. Many of the early car prototypes just used bicycle parts."

Bike Crash Ahead

Most of these developments occurred prior to an extreme dip in bicycling popularity around 1900, according to Sweet. Thomas Burr, associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Illinois State University, said many scholars blame the advent of the trolley system for the cultural "bike crash." Burr said it's likely deeper than that. 

"It's social class, I think," said Burr. "It was imitation. Poor people and those of color began riding bikes and middle-class people said, 'Uh, I don't think so anymore.'"

Burr said bike sales plummeted so deeply, that after World War I, manufacturers dramatically shifted their marketing. 

"They changed their focus to children and that was the beginning of the toy bike era," Burr said. He said more and more bikes were designed like motorcycles to appeal to the youth market. Later, the stingray model with banana seats and high handlebars were "in." The children's bike trend remains today, while more and more adults got back on bikes during the advent of the 10-speed in the 1960s. 

But Burr said a major shift occurred in the 1970s. 

"That is what historians refer to as the great American bicycle boom," he said. "It really got more intense in the 80s, and I really do think American Greg LeMonde's great successes in the Tour de France helped boost bike racing and touring, along with ecological and health concerns that were part of it also, but it's very complex."

High-Wheeler and Alternate Propulsion

New to this year's show was a collection of bikes from Peoria's Wheels O' Time Museum. Board Chair Jim Baldwin said the museum has about 50 cars, and a Rock Island locomotive, along with four or five train cars and a tractor collection in addition to several dozen bicycles. Among the bicycles on display at the Davis Mansion was the American Star. It's an early 20th century bike with a small front wheel and a large back wheel, which is opposite of the high-wheelers generally built before it.

Credit Willis Kern / WGLT
The American Star

"It has an up and down motion of the pedals and a friction drive with a leather belting around the hub on either side," said museum volunteer Ron Anderson, highlighting how the antique does not use a conventional pedal system for forward motion. Baldwin said it was invented as an alternative to the accident-prone front high-wheelers.

"People used to tip over. Whenever they'd hit something, they'd take a header. It could go up to 20 miles an hour and in the front is a unique carbide lamp," said Baldwin. The lamp produced light from a reaction of calcium carbide with water. 

"It wasn't particularly successful, for whatever reason," said Anderson. 

Also on display is the museum's 1930s-era Ingo-bike. It features an elliptical rear wheel and to propel it, you move your body up and down. According to an accompanying promotional flyer, Ingo-bikes were popular among Hollywood stars, who would use them during down times while filming. 

And, at this year's event was the high-wheel bike displayed by The Wheelmen, a club based near Antioch, Illinois, for enthusiasts of the earliest kinds of bicycles. State Captain Paul Schmidt stood near a 12-year old exact reproduction of an 1885 Victor high-wheeler. It sports about a 12-inch diameter back wheel and a 50-inch front wheel. 

"It has a built in peg right above the back wheel which allows you to mount it without standing next to a fence post," said Schmidt. "Because the back wheel is so small, it gives you an ideal position to put that peg so you can get your toe up on it and while standing on the ground. And once you stand up on that, then you're high enough to slide into the saddle," Schmidt said. 

His Victor high-wheeler sports wavy handlebars with spade-type grips. 

"Originally, they made the handlebars straight across but that meant the handlebar had to be taller because when you're riding it, your legs come up so high, you'd hit the bar with your knees. So they arched the bar up like a mustache shape, but that made your arms to high and was uncomfortable, so they curved it back down again so you could have your arms straight and still have the middle higher to clear your knees," Schmidt added. He said the bike is easy to ride because it's incredibly balanced. 

"The trick is getting on and getting off, and getting on is as simple as believing you can do it," Schmidt said. 

Appealing Pedaling

The Victor high-wheeler caught the eye of Jino Stanley of Bloomington. 

"It looks nice and has that antique feel. This event helps us understand how bicycles have evolved to this age," he said.

Credit Willis Kern / WGLT
Jino Stanley of Bloomington

Stanley moved to central Illinois almost four years ago from India. He said the popularity of biking there has ebbed and flowed, but right now is down. 

"People are going for the high-end bikes, but not to the extent they were in the early 80s or 90s. When I was a child, it was the dream of every child to have a bike by age seven or eight. Now, it's changed some, but more people are riding for exercise," Stanley added. 

As for the future, it appears electric bikes are gaining popularity. Burr said the so-called e-bikes are the rage in east Asia.

"You do the work most of the time, but you get that electric assist. I think it's very appealing to people. They're not really well known here," he said.

Burr said the history of bicycling is filled with unexpected twists, which makes it difficult to predict what is the next hot thing. 

"E-bikes may take off tremendously in this country, or they may never. I couldn't honestly predict."

Full Wheels Through Time Segment

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Willis is a Bloomington, IL, native. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he finished third in the "Radio Speaking" division of the state speech contest, the only year he competed.