An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887

An American Cycling Odyessey, 1887 by Kevin J. HayesKevin J. Hayes
University of Nebraska Press ($28)

by Doug Nufer

George Nellis (1865-1948) rode a bicycle from New York state to San Francisco in 1887. He covered 3369 miles in 72 days, setting an imprecise but impressive transcontinental cycling record. He rode about ten hours and wrote up to three hours a day, partly paying his way by mailing dispatches to his hometown newspapers and a national cycling magazine. Using these articles and other accounts of that trip, Kevin Hayes tells Nellis's story in a way that makes sense of this fantastic journey, but the more we learn of this feat, the more fantastic it seems.

To begin with, consider the bicycle: a 52-inch, high-wheeled Columbia Expert, with tubular steel frame, hard rubber tires, direct drive (i.e., the pedals spun when you coasted), and a seat mounted next to the handlebars. Hayes compares the gear ratio of the high wheeler to second gear on a touring bike—sensible for transcontinental riding, as was Nellis's loaded bike weight of 42 pounds—but when he describes the posture that expert riders went into when going downhill, slinging legs over the handlebars, 19th-century cycling seems like a sport for circus performers. And, while airless tires made flats a thing of the future, it's truly amazing that Nellis had no mechanical breakdowns. As for physical mishaps, high wheelers were notorious for throwing their riders. The 21-year-old Nellis had his share of "headers" (he wore a helmet, we learn late in the book), but suffered no serious injuries.

Then there were the roads. As he got farther west, these deteriorated. At best, none were as smooth as today's pavement; for the most part, surfaces were gravel, sand, or dirt. Rain quickly turned the unpaved route to mud, so that the cyclist didn't so much ride as, in the parlance of the time, "push a bicycle" along. To find the best routes, Nellis relied on tips which often went nowhere, leading him to haul his bike over to the railroad tracks and then hobble over the ties for miles to the next town.

When he arrived in town or any farm along the way, Nellis could usually count on the hospitality of strangers. Sometimes he paid for room and board and often he found himself the honored guest of the city or local bicycle club, whose members enjoyed facilities as lavish as any private club. As Hayes points out, at $125, the Columbia Expert cost about what the average factory worker made in three months. In other words, the clubby wheelmen of 19th-century America were not factory workers, a class distinction Nellis drives home by using the royal we in his dispatches for publication. Hayes highlights an exceptional occasion when Nellis meets a farmer (i.e., someone who works hard for a living and not for, as the farmer notes, self-aggrandizement) who suffers the gentleman cyclist to sleep in the barn, refuses to feed him, and makes him take water from the animal trough.

For today's bikers, what's strangest about this trip may not be anything Nellis did or encountered, but what was absent: cars (the gentle wheelmen of that era did, however, complain about traffic when horse-powered vehicles got in their way). He was also spared wars, although some locals kidded Nellis about being attacked by Indians if he took a certain route. He did shoot and kill a coyote that licked his face when he was trying to sleep, however, and was chased by a bull.

As well as Hayes evokes the culture of changing frontier, his version of Nellis's story lacks some particulars that today's long distance riders may crave. There's a fine drawing of the bicycle and plenty of background on how it was made, distributed, and popularized, but not enough information on Nellis's bike nor on the nitty-gritty aspects of his trip. How did the brakes work, how did he make do with a single suit of (wool?) clothes, and how did he keep from dying of thirst in his long crossings of territory without rivers?

Nellis's general accounts for newspaper readers and insider low-downs for bikers perhaps omitted these mundane details, either because the details would clutter his stylish travelogue or his readers were familiar with what we may find strange. A bibliography at the end of An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887 can direct readers who want more, but, to be perfectly unfair to Hayes and his publisher, I wonder whether a more apt revue of this gargantuan accomplishment wouldn't have been a reprinting of all of Nellis's articles, complete with a longer critical analysis by Hayes as well as some articles about Nellis by his contemporaries. What Hayes has done, however, is muster information from a fascinating range of sources in order to tell a remarkable story.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003