track cycling

American Dreams. American bicycle industry at the beginning of the 20th century

10min reading time   by Alasdair Fotheringham on 03 March 2023
In spring 2022, the KOERS collection was expanded to include six striking historic racing bikes dating from around 1900. What makes them special is that they were not made in Europe, but the United States. They thus symbolise a period in which American society was enamoured of the bicycle. Thanks to the cooperation of (then) cycling team Lotto-Soudal, these collector's items were transported from southern Spain to Roeselare.

There are various reasons why these six old bikes, all made by manufacturers based on the other side of the Atlantic and spanning a period from between 1893 and 1912, are so interesting. Probably the most important is that all six of these bikes are tangible remains of an era when cycling was very briefly at a peak of social and sporting popularity in the United States that it has never reached again. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible for cycling to do so.

In what was a once-in-history occasion, for a series of historical, economic, technological and social reasons, during that time, the planets truly aligned for North American cycling. Socially, cycling’s golden age in the USA lasted much less than a decade, from 1890 through to 1896, after which it went into rapid decline. However, as a sport in North America, cycling’s popularity, particularly on the track, endured until well into the 1930s - despite both steadily losing ground to other disciplines like baseball.

Perhaps the most staggering thing about the rise of interest in the USA in cycling as both a social and sporting activity was the speed with which it grew.

Perhaps the most staggering thing about the rise of interest in the USA in cycling as both a social and sporting activity was the speed with which it grew. Using manufacturing estimates it’s been calculated that while in 1890 roughly just one US citizen in 650 had ridden a bike, by 1896 that total had increased by 2,300 percent - about one in 27.

Given most of these new bike owners were located in the more densely populated north-east of the USA and the industrial areas of the mid-West, it was uneven growth. But it also meant that in certain parts of the USA, cycling's increase in popularity was even more notable.


At this point it has to be mentioned that one of these bikes on exhibition, the Cleveland, is US-made, but by a company which had expanded across the border, eventually, to become one of Canadian’s best-loved bike companies, the CCM. Nor was it just in Canada where American bikes dominated the local scene.

A Cleveland, very similar in design to the one acquired by KOERS, was used to win the 1901 Bordeaux-Paris race, one of the toughest of the time. The Racycle was considered one of the top models of the time and was sold not just in the USA, but also in Europe - in France, Germany, England and as one of the photos we have demonstrates, here in Flanders.

Many factors combined to give US cycling such a huge boost. In terms of design, the biggest, perhaps, was the rapid development of the safety bike in the 1880s. As fans of the history of cycling technology will know, this was a key shift in the trend of designs away from the penny farthing and other high-wheel variants that had dominated cycling’s origins to the more practical (and safer) ‘diamond’ frames. Give or take the odd ‘intruder’, this change was so important that the diamond-shaped frame is still the standard format of most modern road bikes.

Development in one key area of a bike’s design helped in another: in the early 1890s, thanks to rapidly improving tyre quality and a drop in the number of punctures, the need for very strong, heavy frames plummeted, and almost overnight the weight of an average bike dropped by nearly a third, from 15 kilos to around 11.

Bikes were therefore lighter, easier to handle - to give one example, the 1890s Dayton bike boasts adjustable handlebars with around a dozen different positions - more comfortable and (as a result of the drop in raw materials used) cheaper. Then as bike companies multiplied across the most densely populated central industrial belt of States, mass production fomented even faster developments in technological advances.

That flooding of the market further helped the drop in price, and rise in the number of purchasers, particularly when combined with massive advertising campaigns for bikes in another area of American society that was booming commercially at the time: the print media, particularly the ‘coffee table’ magazine and broadsheet newspaper industry.

Individual freedom and racism

Yet another key to understanding the popularity of bikes is that they preceded the mass production of the automobile, albeit only a few years. Bikes have long been seen as a symbol of individual freedom and North American culture’s veneration for the individual over the collective has long been a part of its history.

In the 1890s and 1900s, top writers like Theodore Dreiser (‘Sister Carrie’, ‘An American Tragedy’), Henry Fleming (‘The Red Badge of Courage’), Jack London (‘The Call of the Wild’), and Richard Wright (‘Native Son’) all challenged the strictures of society in their novels as a way of reaffirming human aspirations. Bicycles, and the new path to freedom they offered, were another means to that end.

Bikes have long been seen as a symbol of individual freedom and North American culture’s veneration for the individual over the collective has long been a part of its history.

Success breeds success and commercial interest breeds commercial interest, to the point where the bike even became a political football - and benefited from that. According to an article by Michael Taylor, published in 2008, the American pro-cycling lobby was extensively involved in the 1896 presidential election campaign for the Republican Party candidate, William McKinley. Taylor discoverd taht during McKinleys run for office dozens or perhaps even hundreds of pro-McKinley cycling clubs sprang up.

‘They held parades, handed out buttons, and gave speeches all over battleground states like Michigan and Ohio,” Taylor said. “In the meantime, the Republicans began using images of bicycles in their materials, capitalizing further on the craze.” And at least for the elections, it worked too: McKinley won.

While only men could vote in the USA at the time (and that situation would not change until 1920), cycling was also proving very popular among North American women, who saw its opportunities for increased, independent mobility, as a useful tool in their ongoing battle for emancipation. But that very success brought cycling criticism from the more traditional elements of American society, too.

For one thing, conservative-minded citizens frowned on 1890s US women wearing bloomers to ride bikes, which were apparently too similar to men’s trousers. However, what really irked the conservatives was the greater freedom of travel that bikes potentially brought women, which could encourage (heaven forbid) a more liberal female attitude to relationships and the family.

The association between laxer morality and bike riding reached a point where according to Michael Taylor “The Women’s Rescue League of Boston even claimed that, following the closing of brothels, prostitutes were riding bikes to reach their clients.” A ‘link’ between immorality and two-wheeled transport was therefore clearly established. A significant number of the USA’s religious authorities were equally disapproving of bike riding, given cycling’s popularity as a Sunday pastime did no favours to their already declining church attendance numbers.

Finally, cycling also fell foul of another key element of American Society - racism.

Finally, cycling also fell foul of another key element of American society - racism. In 1897, for example, cycling was the first sport in the USA to have an all-integrated team, thanks to its inclusion of Major Taylor, the first black North American World Champion in any sport in a squad of sprinters based in Boston. But while Massachusetts was notably more openminded than other parts of the USA, elsewhere legislation was already banning such teams completely or was quickly introduced.

Neither the sight of women in bloomers nor empty church pews on Sundays nor yet the ‘shocking’ idea of a black and a white man racing in the same squad would have sunk cycling as a popular activity of course. But the development of the motorcar as an economically accessible vehicle meant that the pathway of mechanized freedom, forged by cycling in the minds of the public ended up seeing the automobile using that path and superceding its predecessor. The USA’s cycling boom collapsed almost as quickly as it had been created, with sales estimated at a million continuing into the late 1890s but with more and more going towards the export market. Sport though, particularly Six Day racing endured far longer.

Six Day Racing

On the most basic level, once cycling had had such a huge impact on American society in the 1890s, it was easy to understand why one of its sporting counterparts, Six Day racing was so popular: because Six Day racing looked (and was) very dangerous, a vicarious thrill-a-minute sport. Taking place on circular wooden tracks as jaw-droppingly short and steep banked as a 100 metre circuit, like bullfighters in Spain or gladiators in ancient Rome, regardless of any very valid moral questions those activities created about both the participants and the public, the sheer courage required to be a bike racer meant that in the public’s imagination Six Day racers rapidly acquired star status.

Long before Babe Ruth filled baseball parks and Red Grange thrilled football fans, six-day bicycle racers were America's sports heroes.
Chicago Tribune

Quite apart from individual limitations, such huge levels of popularity sometimes had a high social cost. For example, in 1896, when some 2,000 fans in Minneapolis learned some 15 minutes before her race that local Six Day heroine Leona Marie “Dottie” Farnsworth would be a no-show because of illness, they promptly rioted.

Farnsworth’s irate ‘supporters’ invaded the wooden Six Day circuit, tearing it up in the process, then destroyed the grandstand. By the time organisers backed down and announced that the race would take place as planned after Farnsworth had miraculously recovered three police officers had been injured.

But just as some of the racial freedom gained by American society through Six Day cycling had already disappeared in a conservative backlash, it was a similar story with the sport and women’s emancipation. Following Farnsworth’ death aged 29 after a race crash and subsequent peritonitis, conservative lawmakers used that as an excuse to ensure women were banned from taking part in such competitions in the United States. The ban endured until 1957.

And if like other popular sports, Six Day racing was a social microcosm in ways that reached beyond it, this was not just about social or racial repression in the USA: it also acted as mirror on crime. For example, not all the Six Day public were simple fans: one Al Capone was a frequent visitor to the Chicago bike racing circuits. As Walthour told the Tribune, Capone would often appear after 2.30 am on the circuits, along with other gangsters, and they “held court in the stands, betting on individual sprints.”

Cycling reflected American society in other ways, such as how massive popularity in a society based on almost uncontrolled capitalism could generate massive contracts. in the 1920s, one American track legend, Jimmy Walthour, gained notoriety for being paid 100,000 dollars, a small fortune at the time and easily as much as the biggest baseball names, by one of his investors. (However, Walthour’s contract with said investor also specified, presumably in a bid to build his female fanbase, that he could not marry for six years).


  • Taylor, M. D. (2010). Rapid Transit to Salvation: American Protestants and the Bicycle in the Era of the Cycling Craze. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 9(3), pp. 337–363.
  • Taylor, M. D. (2008). The Bicycle Boom and the Bicycle Bloc: Cycling and Politics in the 1890s. Indiana Magazine of History, 104 (3)3, pp. 213-240.

With thanks to Ian Austen, Brian Doan, Lennard Zinn, Andy Hood, everybody at CCM but particularly Brian Reynolds, everybody at CABE including the forum member ‘locomotion’, the Smithsonian Museum and particularly Alexia MacClain at the National Museum of American History Library, the Lotto-Dstny team, but particularly mechanic Noel Vermeesch, who drove these bikes in the team truck all the way from Spain to Belgium; Juan Ignacio Romero.

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