The Beginning of the Modern-Day Louisville Bicycle Club
by Joe Ward — Semi-Official Club Historian
History can teach us. I have learned in studying the history of bicycling in Louisville, for example, that if nobody writes it down, everybody who remembers it dies, and people have to guess at what happened. When I began cycling in Louisville in 1977, club members showed me the Wheelmen’s bench, but nobody knew where it came from. The dedication seemed to indicate it had been built in the 1890s, in memory of a man named Ruff. But nobody I could find knew who he was, or why he deserved a bench. I looked in all kinds of archives and found only a brief mention in an old magazine. Ruff had left some money to the Kentucky Division of the League of American Wheelmen in 1896. By luck, I eventually found that Ruff was a well-known Kentucky cyclist in the ’90s, who once rode his bike to Yellowstone Park and who made what was then considered a fortune — estimated at $25,000 to $40,000 — inventing such things as cyclometers. He died in 1896 at 69 without an heir, and left at least some of it to the league. Grateful members, to whom Ruff was known as “Pap,” built the bench and an elaborate gravestone in Owingsville, and, we can hope, drank the rest.
It occurred to me as I was tracking that information down, that I didn’t know where the club itself came from. So I went to Gil Morris, who people said would know if anybody did. He gave me this account of its founding and progress, with corroboration from Bob Pluckebaum:
The name “Louisville Wheelmen” was first applied to a club, so far as anybody knows, in 1957. Gil says the idea that the club was formed in 1897, as it says on our patch, was a “romanticization” of the facts, contributed by Wallace Spradling, who was president some years after the founding. Those of us who knew Sprad can believe that. We might possibly stretch our origins back to 1940, when Gil, then 13, rode his new bike past Howard Jefferies’ bike shop, in part of what is now Highland Cyclery. Gil, for those who don’t know, is proprietor of Highland. Jefferies gave Gil a job, and tried to make a racer of him. “It was hopeless,” Gil says. But Gil did get so he liked riding out Dixie Highway to Elizabethtown and beyond, and on virtually all of the rides we now do regularly in the club.
But he did that alone through World War II and into the late ’40s. Then he married, bought into the shop, and started having kids. He didn’t ride much until the mid-to-late ’50s. Then he met Eddie Smith. He doesn’t know whatever became of Eddie, but the two of them started riding together. They sometimes practiced on a track at Goldsmith School in the Hikes Point area. Bob Pluckebaum lived near the school, and he “leaned over the fence” one day and asked what was going on. Soon, he was in Gil’s shop buying a bicycle. The threesome met a man named Larry Routt, now of Cincinnati, who bought a bike and proceeded immediately on a ride to Taylorsville with the growing band. “Nearly died,” Gil says. The foursome bumped into “two guys from the Ford plant” on Fern Valley Road. Gil can remember little of them, but they started coming along on weekend rides.
Pluckebaum got the idea that they should schedule rides, Gil said, so they sat down one day and planned out a year’s worth — a ride schedule that Gil says looked much like a year’s club ride schedule does now. Except in those days, they would ride two weekends and then take one off, to appease wives. They also stopped riding in cold weather, and started again in the spring. They began posting the schedule in Gil’s shop, and they put “Louisville Wheelmen” at the top because they thought it needed a name. Pluckebaum took on the presidency, though Gil claims to have done most of the work. He began keeping track of people who would ride, and he’d send them postcards with upcoming rides on them. “I started writing them all by hand,” he said. “It got up to about 100 cards. I eventually got a stamp, so I just had to fill in the dates.” He thinks the first list went up in the shop in 1957 or 1958. Pluckebaum couldn’t remember for sure either, but they know they were riding in 1957.
And the rest is history. In 1959 they drove up to Brownstown, Ind., and plotted out a Leaf Festival ride up around Brown County State Park. A guy from Bloomington named Hartley Alley came along and eventually decided Bloomington needed its own ride. Gil helped him lay it out. The Indianapolis club (CIBA) took it over after Bloomington ran it two years, and last year it had 7,000 riders. It’s the Hilly Hundred, which started in 1967. The Leaf Festival ride continues.
Our Old Kentucky Home ride got its start 10 years after that, when the Courier-Journal sponsored a trip at the suggestion of John Moisan-Thomas who was then a bicycles coordinator in the state transportation department. Thomas lived in Lexington, and a good deal of the planning was done by people who didn’t know the roads that well, including yours truly. Louisville wheelmen complained about that, and the newspaper decided not to do it again, even though it drew nearly 300 riders. But Stewart Prather, then club president, and his wife Deborah, planned a better route the next year, and the rest is history. Stewart claims the C-J ride had nothing to do with the club ride, but I know better. Stewart says they were scouting the century route when they turned up a road so steep it killed the motor on the Volkswagen they were driving. We know and love the grade now as Pottershop Road, the first in a bad series of hills about 5 miles before the end of the OKHT century.
Our Fourth of July Ride from the Wheelmen’s bench to Elizabethtown had its modern beginning in 1977 or 1978, according to Dave Spitler, who started it. He came across an old description of a trip to E’town and back in the 1890s and decided it should be preserved. The Fourth was chosen because it gets light early and affords the best chance of getting to E’town and back before Dixie Highway gets crowded.
But Gil says old Jefferies remembered doing rides from the Wheelmen’s bench from the ’90s up to World War I or so, when about 30 people would ride out from there. Jefferies is mentioned in racing stories from the ’90s. So there is some continuity there. But more about that, and about such events as the 10,000-bike 1897 ride to Iroquois Park, later.
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last updated: 12 March 2001