Bicycling in Louisville
by Joe Ward
BICYCLING. Bicycles have been widely used in the Louisville area for sport, exercise, recreation, transportation, and law enforcement for well over a century. At the end of 1997 the general-membership Louisville Bicycle Club had six hundred members. A smaller, more specialized mountain bike club — the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association — had about 175 Louisville members. Many cyclists ride without affiliating with either group. Police bicycle patrols, absent since automobiles became practical early in the century, appeared on the streets again in 1992 and soon proved effective for enlarging the area that could be covered by foot patrols, for making arrests in alleys and parking garages, and for patrolling large crowds. More than fifty units were in use by police in 1998, and numerous others were used by private security forces.
But the heyday of cycling, for social status and visibility, was in the 1890s, when people from every social level in Louisville — as elsewhere in America and Europe — made it a fundamental of popular culture for several years. The annual convention and racing meeting of the League of American Wheelmen, a national cycling political and social organization, drew thirty thousand members to Louisville in 1896, according to Louisville newspapers. The gathering dominated the front pages of the Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times for three days. The next year, ten thousand cyclists — by a count reported in the Louisville Times — participated in a bicycle parade from Broadway down Third St. and out Southern Pkwy. to Iroquois Park. On a July day in 1897, a Courier-Journal reporter counted 2,836 people riding bicycles to work through the intersection of Fourth and Walnut (Muhammad Ali Blvd.) Streets in three hours commencing at 5:30 a.m.
The bicycle has its origins in France in the 1790s, in adult versions of the child's hobby horse — essentially the body of a horse with two wheels. Baron Karl von Drais improved on that Celeriferes in 1817 by making the front wheel steerable, though riders still propelled the Draisienne by pushing on the ground, first with one foot and then the other. Kirkpatrick Macmillan, working in Courthill, Scotland, between 1839 and 1842, added pedals and levers to drive the back wheel. But his idea did not catch on until the bicycle chain was invented in the 1870s.
Instead, a progression of heavy, wooden-spoked two-wheelers called "Boneshakers," driven by cranks on the front wheel like modern children's tricycles, sparked a cycling craze in Europe and America in the 1860s. English engineers looking for speed and comfort enlarged the front wheel — so that each revolution, and thus pedal stroke, would carry the rider farther — and traded wooden spokes and frame for lighter ones of metal, softening the ride. They produced what was later called the Penny-Farthing, or Ordinary bicycle, which could easily be ridden long distances, and sent cyclists through the countryside in the 1870s and 1880s. After engineering achieved the fine tolerances that made chains possible, gearing replaced the high front wheel and made bicycles safe enough for the masses, causing an explosion of sales in the 1890s. Except for gearing systems, the bicycle of that decade remained essentially unchanged into the 1980s, when new experimentation — much of it in connection with mountain bikes — led to suspension systems and some radical new frame and wheel designs.
Cycling was well established in Louisville by the time Karl Kron, a New York City cyclist at work on his Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle, visited in 1880 and reported on area roads in use by cyclists. A national cycling magazine called Outing and the Wheelman, in its February 1884 issue, gave two Louisvillians — Henry Schimpler and Orville M. Anderson — credit for the first United States century ride, or a hundred miles within twenty-four hours, riding to Frankfort and back in December 1880.
By 1890 bicycle stories were staples in the society and sports sections of the Courier-Journal, and at least one club — the Louisville Cycling Club — had its own clubhouse at 716 Second St., between Chestnut St. and Broadway. In 1897 there were many clubs, and the west side of Fourth St. between then Walnut and Chestnut Streets had so many bike shops it was called Bicycle Row. Women rode as well as men, and thousands cycled together in the evenings on the Southern Pkwy. The Courier-Journal reported a mysterious rider called Scorchy Kate who dressed in black and zipped up and down the streets anonymously.
CHARLES P. WEAVER, running for MAYOR in the fall of 1897, estimated there were twenty thousand cyclists in the city, and he courted their vote by promising to pave a section of Broadway. He won. The 1898 Kentucky General Assembly passed a law ordering that bicycles be carried on trains free as luggage. Gov. William O. Bradley (1895-99), supporting the railroads, vetoed it. Another law governing cyclists in Louisville was passed in 1894. The ordinance was passed at the urging of the Board of Public Safety. Wishing to make sidewalks safer for pedestrians, the law compelled bicycle riders to use the streets and have bells and lanterns attached to the bikes.
Bicycle racing was a popular sport at the time. Organized and spontaneous races were held at fairgrounds, on trotting and dirt tracks, and occasionally indoors, where bicycle riders would race on the outside of a roller-skating rink. The first official bicycle race was held at Beacon Park in Boston on May 24, 1878. Louisville had its own bicycle races at the Southern Exposition in the 1880s, and a one-third-mile racing track with twin-spired grandstand was at Fontaine Ferry Park in the 1890s.
Cycling activity dropped sharply after 1898 as the fad wore off. But Howard Jefferis, who had owned one of the Bicycle Row shops, told a young employee in the 1940s that a Louisville group — thirty or more — still did regular weekend rides as late as World War I. That employee, Gil Morris, later bought Jefferis's shop and began leading new riders on some of the old routes in the 1950s. In 1957 he and others formed the Louisville Wheelmen, which changed its name to Louisville Bicycle Club in 1996. The club eventually developed a full riding schedule, with several rides each weekend and some on weekdays. Club members teach cycling skills, and the club's annual invitational ride to Bardstown and back in September — the Old Kentucky Home Tour — draws seven hundred riders. The club helped city parks officials restore a stone bench at the head of Southern Pkwy. that had been built in 1897 in memory of A.D. Ruff, a noted cyclist who had left money to the Kentucky Division of the League of American Wheelmen.
See Andrew Ritchie, King of the Road: An Illustrated History of Cycling (London 1975); James E. Starrs, ed., The Literary Cyclist: Great Bicycling Scenes in Literature (New York 1997); Karl Kron, Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle (New York 1887); Orville W. Lawson, "First Century Run," Southern Cycler (Oct. 10, 1896); the Louisville Free Public Library has daily articles about cycling from about 1885 through 1898).
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Web posted: 11 March 2001
last updated: 13 March 2001