Introduction
Early Bicycles
Bicycle Touring
Cycling in Fiction
Women Awheel
Cycling Music
 
Credits

 

Bicycle Touring

Even before the bicycle had become a practical means of transportation, people dreamed about the possibility of traveling long distances under their own power. In 1842, thirty-year-old Kirkpatrick McMillan, the man often credited as the inventor of the modern pedal-driven bicycle, took what was perhaps the first bicycle tour, traveling over rough roads on a wooden-wheeled contraption from his home in rural Scotland to Glasgow and back, a distance of nearly 140 miles. By the 1860s, bicycles had been fitted with rubber tires. Despite the fact that these early tires were solid and still made for a bumpy ride, they were very durable and could not be punctured, and many of the great rides of the nineteenth century were made on solid-tired bicycles. It was not until John Dunlop (another Scot) invented the air-filled pneumatic tire in 1889, however, that bicycle touring really began to take off. Although more and more roads became paved as the nineteenth century progressed, cobblestone streets and rocky dirt tracks still predominated both in Europe and America until well into the twentieth century. Air-filled tires made traveling over rough roads much less jarring, and cyclists soon discovered that they could travel in comfort to many places they had not been able to reach before.
J. and E. Pennell, Two Pilgrims' Progress (1886)
J. and E. Pennell, Two Pilgrim's Progress (1886)
Illustrator Joseph Pennell and his wife Elizabeth, a journalist, traveled from London to Rome on their honeymoon in 1885 on a tandem tricycle. The newlyweds found that the Italians were either fascinated or terrified by the sight of the couple coasting around the Tuscan countryside. "Just beyond Montelupo, when a tedious up-grade brought us to a broad plateau, a cart suddenly came out a little way in front of us from a side road. A man was driving, and on the seat behind, and facing us, were two nuns, who wore wide straw hats which flapped slowly up and down with the motion of the cart. When they saw us, the younger of the two covered her face with her hands, as if she thought us a device of the Devil." The couple later encountered an enthusiastic young Italian cyclist who told them, "I have what you call the wheel fever." "We were fellow cyclers," the Pennells wrote, "and that was enough. He was at once our friend."
Long-distance touring may have started in Europe, but Americans wasted no time in joining in on the fun. Touring clubs soon became popular, with members often setting off on two- to three-day excursions. One of the great feats in the history of cycling came in 1884 when twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Stevens of Laramie, Wyoming, rode from San Francisco to Boston. Stevens, English by birth, went on to ride around the world and published an account of his travels in Around the World on a Bicycle (2 vols., 1887-88). Yale's Karl Kron may not have racked up as many miles as Stevens did, but he traveled more in the United States, favoring the East Coast, the Ohio Valley, and the bluegrass region of Kentucky. His colorful Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle (1887) is still in print. George B. Thayer's account of his ride in 1886 from Connecticut to California and back is less well known today. Thayer admitted that his goal was never to break any records. He thought nothing of hopping on a train whenever his legs were tired or the landscape monotonous, but his amusing descriptions of life in rural America make his account worth reading.
"I have spoken of the hogs and pigs that are seen all along the roadside through Ohio and Indiana. The numerous sheep that are feeding along the highways show some sense by simply turning to one side to let me pass, and often bleating after me as I leave them behind as if they were sorry to have me go; but the pigs will start up and run along ahead, scaring all the others... until a drove of a dozen or fifteen are bobbing along and running into each other in their foolish attempt to get out of the way. Then they will all suddenly stop, stand perfectly still, and let me pass without flinching." –George B. Thayer, Pedal and Path Across the Continent (1886)
Like the great seafarers of earlier centuries, cyclists could not resist the temptation to ride around the world. Setting out in July 1896, John Foster Fraser and a friend spent the next two years wheeling their way across Europe, the Middle East, China, Japan, and the United States, racking up 19,237 miles by the trip's end. "We were stoned by Mohammedans because they alleged we were Christians, and we were pelted with mud in China because the Celestials were certain we were devils. We slept in wet clothes, subsisted on eggs, went hungry, and were enforced teetotalers. We had small-pox, fever, and other ailments... We never shaved for five months, and only occasionally washed." A staunch imperialist, Fraser went on to become a prolific travel writer and journalist, and was knighted in 1917 for his services to the British Empire during World War I.
Round the World on a Wheel (1899)
J. Foster Fraser, Round the World on a Wheel (1899)

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