21 March 2014

From Pedals To Motors And Back In Detroit

Today everyone thinks of Portland as the cycling capital of the United States.  That is, everyone except us New Yorkers because, well, we know that the Big Apple is the capital of everything.

Anyway, we may have the nation's oldest bike lane in continuous use (the one in Brooklyn that runs along Ocean Parkway from Prospect Park Southwest to the ocean) and Portland can lay claim to the world's first handknitted granola guard that is compatible with Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo.  However, the American city with the richest cycling tradition may be the one people least expect.

Shinola is now crafting some beautiful and useful two-wheelers.  However, contrary to what some people believe, they are not the first bicycle manufacturer in Detroit.  They are at least 130 years too late to make such a claim (which, to be fair, they never did):  John Shire was listed as a bicycle maker--Detroit's first--in the city's 1878 business directory.  The previous year, he was listed as a carriage-maker; the following year, he would patent his improvements on the velocipede designed to make it more comfortable on the city's brick-paved streets.

From Hometown History Tours

 Shire's trajectory mirrored Detroit's industrial history:  Before it became the nation's (and the world's) motor mecca, "the D" was the North American center of carriage making, and would become one of the major hubs of the nascent bicycle industry.  In fact, some of the early automakers--including Henry Ford himself--started off by building or fixing bikes.

Henry Ford

In the 1890's and the early part of the 2Oth Century, the city on the banks of the Detroit River (the city's name is the French word for "strait")  was a port of call, if you will, for racers and other cyclists from all over the world.  It was estimated that 80 percent of the city's population rode the heavy but delicate two-wheeled vehicles, some of which snapped in half on the brick-paved streets and potholed lanes.  

There are several reasons why cycling of all kinds was so popular. One is that, in part because of its location, it attracted people from many different places--including cities and countries that had cycling traditions.  Another is that Detroit is one of the flattest major cities in America.  And, finally, even though it had become the fourth-largest city in the US by 1900, it was still pretty compact, much like downtown Manhattan or many European capitals.  So, most people didn't have to ride very far to get to work or school, or simply to get out.

What makes the history of cycling in Detroit so interesting,though, is how vigorous the city's two-wheeled scene remained even as the people (except for children) in the rest of the United Stats largely abandoned bikes in favor of the automobiles that were being produced, ironically, in Detroit.  Through most of the 20th Century--even during the "Dark Ages" of the 1950's--the Detroit News carried announcements of the Wolverine Wheelmen's rides.  Until World War II, the only American six-day race more popular than the one held in New York (at Madison Square Garden) was Detroit's. Even after it--and most other competitive cycling in the US--disappeared during World War II, criteriums and track races maintained active participation and loyal followings.  

Among those active in the Detroit cycling scene was Gene Porteusi, who opened the Cycle Sport shop on Michigan Avenue near Livernois.  At the time, it was one of the few stores anywhere in the US that carried the best racing bikes and components, most of which were imported from Europe.   His Cyclo-Pedia was also one of the first, if not the first, mail-order catalogue devoted to such goods.

But Detroit's greatest contributions to the history of American cycling may have come during the 1970's:  in another irony, during the auto industry's last "golden age" in that city.  In a previous post, I mentioned Nancy Burghart, who utterly dominated women's racing during the 1960's.  As great as she was, it took the exploits of two other racers, both from the Detroit area, to bring women's cycling (and women's sports generally) to prominence--and to establish American women as the best in that field.

In the mid- and late- 1970's, one of the most interesting rivalries developed between Sue Novara and Sheila Young.  Both were track racers and both, interestingly, came into the sport after distinguishing themselves as speed skaters. (Young won Olympic gold for the 500 meter race in the 1976 Innsbruck games.) And, as it happened, both called the Detroit area home.

Sue Novara in 1976

Cycling helped to make Detroit one of the world's great industrial centers and maintain the fabric of its life through many decades.  Perhaps people pedaling two wheels can help to bring about a renaissance of the city David Byrne counts as one of his favorites for a bike ride.


1 comment:

  1. A bit behind in this comment, but I must say a very informative and interesting post. Do you know if Sue Novara had any connection with REI and their line of bikes?