In the 1890s a bicycle was just another form of entertainment and recreation. Why is it important to understand how people in the 1890s got interested in bicycles?
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Wheeling Around with the Bicycle

When the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence in 1876, a bicycle appeared on display at the Centennial Exposition. It had one large, high front wheel and a smaller back wheel. Fifteen years later during the 1890’s a bicycle craze swept the nation. By that time bicycles had been redesigned with two wheels of the same size and pneumatic (inflated with air) tires.

A Club is Born

The League of American Wheelmen was organized to help popularize bicycle riding. Because the League wanted more people to ride bicycles, it encouraged races all over the country. Women could be members, but were barred from racing competition. In 1895 the League had many active members in Iowa. Some of the League members claimed that Iowa had more people riding bicycles than any state west of the Mississippi River!

Bloomers and Bicycles

Cycling even influenced women’s fashions. Because of the way a bicycle was built and used, women had to wear shorter skirts than they had worn before. Some daring women even wore baggy trousers called bloomers. However, Scribner's Magazine predicted in 1896 that most women would not permanently change their clothing styles: "The bicycle has not put too many women in trousers—nothing will do that in this country—but it has given all women practical liberty to wear trousers if they want to."

Cyclists also worked to improve Iowa’s roads and streets as well as those in the rest of the nation. At that time roads were seldom paved. To have an enjoyable ride, cyclists needed smooth roads without ruts and holes.

Iowa is Home to One of the Biggest Rides

Over the years bicycling has become a very popular sport in Iowa. Probably the most publicized bicycling event is the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The week-long event draws riders from all over the world to travel from one end of the state to the other. Different routes are planned each year. The first RAGBRAI took place in 1973 when two Des Moines Register reporters challenged each other to ride across the state. Donald Kaul and John Karras, along with 300 bicyclists, started in Sioux City. A total of 114 riders completed the trip that first year to Davenport. As the event became more well known and the number of participants soared, the planners limited the number of riders to 8,500. Reporters from national magazines and television shows have participated in the event. Television documentaries have been produced about the ride.

The state of Iowa has many miles of trails dedicated to cycling. The Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation are two organizations that maintain and promote trails across the state. Hundreds of Iowans belong to a variety of cycling clubs. They range from a tandem riders' group called "Paired Iowans Going Somewhere" (PIGS) to Team Skunk, whose motto is "Motto? We don’t need no stinkin' motto."

When the first bicycle craze swept the country in the 1890s a lasting tradition of bicycling was born in Iowa. The sport has evolved over the years. The gear and equipment has changed. The riders today know more about safety and conditioning than the early riders did. The roads are definitely in better condition. And women riders don't hesitate for a minute to wear a form of "trousers." One thing that hasn't changed is the enthusiasm shown by the riders.

Sources:

  • Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. http://www.ragbrai.org/
Adapted from original article written by Angelita Reyes in The Goldfinch 4, No. 1 (September 1982). Iowa City: State Historical Society.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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