When Bicycles Ruled the City: The Golden Age of Aan Francisco Cycling by Henry Kingman

"Cars suck!" according to the top-tube stickers on many SFBC members' bicycles. "Question internal combustion." "My other car isn't one either." Cyclists with such stickers may be interested to know that there was a time in San Francisco, albeit a brief one, when bicycles reigned supreme.

It was 36 years after The Mechanics Institute Pavilion at what is now Union Square began offering amusement rides on a fleet of about 100 velocipedes (bicycles without drivetrains). It was about four years before the first wave of external- and internal-combustion automobiles would roar onto the scene. It was 1896, the year that 65,000 San Franciscans, or half the population of California, rode a "wheel," as they were called.

"Jazz madness of today is a mild phase compared to that dementia," historical writer Idwal Jones would later observe in a 1925 Examiner article. "In the vicinity of the Panhandle entrance, along Stanyan and Fulton, over 100 bicycle shops sprang up."

From the Wasp, circa 1896
The 1896 Crocker Directory of San Francisco corroborates the explosion. Listed are 44 bicycle dealers, 33 rental agencies, 34 repairers, 36 manufacturer's agents, 18 bicycle supply shops and 6 riding schools. Quite a change from 1883, when Osborne & Alexander, at 638 Market Street, took out the first "bicycle shop" listing in the directory.

The San Francisco paper of largest circulation in the "Gay 90s" was a light and humorous newsweekly called the Wasp. It printed mainly jokes and cartoons, many of which in 1896 targeted cyclists and their scandalous attire.

Bicycles of that day were not the challenging high-wheelers that Mark Twain wrote so humorously about struggling to ride. In King of the Road, a chronicle of bicycle evolution, Andrew Ritchie writes, "By 1895 the bicycle as we know it had arrived and come to stayÉ The basic design of a good, strong, efficient bicycle has not been improved on since the eighteen-nineties. The ergonomic principles which were worked out after so much effort and such persistence by a few pioneering manufacturers like the Starleys, William Hillman, Thomas Humber, Dan Rudge and others have been proved to be fundamentally satisfactory."

While cycling was faddish in 1896, and many San Franciscan cyclers were clearly bandwagon jumpers, others used their steeds for much more than short jaunts around the park. Jones writes, "Families were taking 200-mile trips on bicycles, an infant on the handlebars of father's bicycle."

In 1894, a bicycle messenger service between Fresno and San Francisco was set up during the A.R.U.-Pullman strike. Philatelic types have documented the short-lived service well, as its stamps, first thought to be hoaxes, have gained extraordinary value.

Riding 100 miles in one day, or a "Century," gave the more athletic cyclers a way to prove that their range had grown larger than that of any horseback rider. One popular club ride was the 50-mile jaunt to San Jose, where riders took the train back, at least until the railroad ignited a huge uproar by establishing a 25-cent tariff on bicycles.

Touring reached such popularity that for 1896, Geo. W. Blum brought out an 80-page edition of The Cyclers' Guide and Road Book of California. It includes ads for shops, hotels, and restaurants along with itineraries for trips to Yosemite (223 miles), Red Bluff (227 miles) and even Los Angeles (451.75 miles). It also includes "Seven Sectional Maps showing all available Roads for Cyclers from Chico to San Diego."

The guide lists hundreds of inns throughout the state offering substantial discounts to cyclers. Many probably needed to court cycler custom, having been established along popular stage coach lines and then left high and dry as railroad lines went in. Cyclers were likely instrumental in keeping many such inns alive, and also in fighting to maintain the roads that served them. According to Ritchie, England's turnpike system would have disappeared completely after the advent of the railroads if not for the Cyclist's Touring Club and its Good Roads Movement. In the United States, the League of American Wheelman and its 30,000 members as of 1895 pursued similar goals.

On July 25, 1896, a Good Roads Rally in San Francisco drew more than 5,000 cyclists who paraded down Market Street in front of 100,000 spectators, in what some have since styled the first-ever Critical Mass. An excellent illustration of this "Great Bicycle Parade" appears in a history of the Olympic Club published in 1970. Is it purely a fantastic coincidence that the infamous Critical Mass ride of July 25, 1997, occurred 101 years to the day after the great Rally of 1896?

The Olympic Club was one of 16 cycling clubs listed in the 1896 Cyclers' Guide. Most had clubhouses, often with separate ladies' and gentlemen's parlors. Some, like the Bay City Wheelmen at 441 Golden Gate Avenue, fielded nationally and even internationally successful racing teams. Others, such as the Camera Club Cyclists at 819 Market Street, were dedicated to gentler pursuits (if you can call lugging the cameras of that era up steep dirt roads on a one-speed gentle).

So crazy was 1896 for cycling that the California Theatre even brought Louise Harrison's farce on the cycling life "The Bicycle Girl" to town for a popular one-week engagement, with the famous "Jolly Nellie McHenry" in the starring role. The playbill can be found at the San Francisco public library.

Yet San Francisco, from Gold Rush to Dot-bombs, has always been a boom and bust town, and the height of cycling popularity appears to have been short-lived. Writes Jones of the Examiner, "By 1898 there were three old ladies in San Francisco still cycling." The first automobile shops appeared in the Crocker Directory in 1900, and a 1905 article entitled "World's Awheel Again" told of a different sensation changing San Francisco transportation: "The automobile has established itself in public favor, and its utility is now beyond question."

Will San Francisco ever again see a cycling renaissance to compare with that of the Gay 90s? Only time will tell, but I'm guessing it's about as likely as finding gold once more in them thar hills. Or the NASDAQ rebounding. Or D.H. McDonnell, alias "Arion," once more "riding his illuminated bicycle over a live trolley wire, 100 feet above the Lake at the Chutes every evening" (as advertised in the Wasp).

Then again I never could have imagined thousands of Critical Massers riding up Market Street in the Slacker '90s. Strange things do happen. (fade to black, as background music plays "Watched my ships come in... then I watched 'em roll away again...)

Henry Kingman has ridden and toured around California for 14 years, and along with SFBC co-founder Darryl Skrabak, co-founded the California Millennium Ride (www.milly.org), the only logical answer to the California Centuries of the 1890s