02 November 2018

Keep Moving--On A Divvy, Manta-Ray or Featherstone

Some motorists see us as invaders, or as over-indulged, when we "take" "their" roadway and parking spaces simply by exercising the rights we have--let alone when bike lanes are built. 

Others, though, simply are baffled by us.  They are unaccustomed to seeing us, mainly because few, if any, Americans living today can recall a time when bicycles and cyclists were major presences in their cities or towns.  They certainly can't recall a time when bicycles were important parts of their community's culture and economy.

In some places, such a time really wasn't so long ago.  Detroit, Boston, New York and a few other cities had vibrant, if small, cycling communities during the "Dark Ages" of US bicycling:  roughly the two decades or so following World War II.  Also, a few colleges and universities, including Princeton and the US Military Academy (West Point) had very competitive cycling teams.

There are, however, a few more communities in which bicycles as well as bicycling were an important part of the history and culture, and even the economy.  One such place was Shelby, Ohio.  So was a much larger city about 500 kilometers west:  Chicago.

Mention the "Windy City" and, in regards to cycling, a certain name enters people's minds.  Hint: It starts with an "S".  If you grew up in the US, there's a good chance you rode--or had--one of their bikes. And, if you became an active rider or simply an enthusiast, you might have bought one of their top-of-the line bikes.

I'm talking, of course, about Schwinn, which manufactured bikes on the city's West Side for nearly a century.  But in 1900, it was just one of 30 bicycle manufacturers making its wares along Lake Street!  Perhaps not surprisingly, the "Second City" was also home to one of the most intense racing scenes, and vibrant cycle cultures, to be found anywhere in the US, or even the world.

While much of the current bicycle culture in American cities began with young, educated and affluent people--and is frankly consumeristic--Chicago's cycling culture thrived, then survived to the degree that it did, largely because of its industrial, working-class roots and immigrant (particularly German) communities.  This story is  one that the Chicago Design Museum tells with "Keep Moving:  Designing Chicago's Bicycle Culture," an exhibit it recently opened.

The Museum places a Divvy (from the city's bike-share program) alongside a Schwinn Manta-Ray and an 1891 Featherstone-- believed to be the first US bike offered with pneumatic tires--and other bikes that were made, or had some other significant connection to, Chicago.  There is also memorabilia related to the bikes, including material from Carter Harrison's successful campaign to become the city's mayor.

So why is Carter Harrison's important in the story of cycling in Chicago?  Well, to demonstrate his athletic bona fides, he wore his Century pin--signifying that he'd done a 100-mile bike ride--on his chest while riding his single-speed bike.  

And to think that a certain presidential candidate ridiculed a Secretary of State for falling off his bicycle! Hmm...Would El Cheeto Grande have won Harrison's election?

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