The Bittersweet History of Bike Clubs

Neither snow, nor sleet, nor bone-chilling cold can keep the members of New York’s assorted recreational bicycle clubs from the swift — or, often, leisurely — completion of their appointed rides around and out of the city. The New York Cycle Club, the Five Borough Bicycle Club and Fast and Fab, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bike club, are some of those that lead outings and other events year round. And while none of these was around at the turn of the last century, each traces its lineage back to the ubiquitous clubs that dominated the earliest years of cycling.

In the 1880s and 1890s, growing middle-class participation in cycling led to the formation of hundreds of clubs across the United States. The first to form was the Boston Bicycle Club, created on Feb. 11, 1878. The following February saw a club formed in Buffalo, and the first New York City club came in 1880, also in February (something about the cold seemed to drive riders to associate in those days, perhaps for the warmth of the pack).

Unione Sportiva Italiana

As the numbers grew, clubs began to develop along ethnic, racial and class lines. This was particularly true in New York and other urban centers, where recent immigrants divided into Italian, German, Belgian and Irish clubs. There was a Harlem Cycling Club, one for Mongolians and even a Norseman’s club, “which I saw somewhere advertised as ‘limited to the sons and daughters of Harold the Fairhaired,’” said Evan Friss, a doctoral candidate in history at the City University of New York, whose dissertation is focused on this period in the history of cycling.

“I’ve seen references to Chinese, Japanese, Polish — almost every ethnic group,” Mr. Friss said.

Of New York’s early ethnic cycling clubs, one of the few remaining today is the Unione Sportiva Italiana. Founded in 1908, U.S.I. became an important booster for amateur bicycle racing in the city and around the country. Though its storefront clubhouse at 37th Street and Eighth Avenue is long gone, the club organizes rides from its current headquarters in Scarsdale, including the famous Gimbels Ride, a 50-mile ride beginning at the Yonkers Macy’s (formerly a Gimbels department store) that attracts scores of highly competitive amateur and professional riders in the summer.

While many of today’s clubs offer activities besides riding — Fast and Fab holds monthly dinners — the clubs of a century ago provided an important social space throughout the year, as this 1895 article from The Times describes:

The Cycle Club of Brooklyn has already gone into history because of its prosperity and increasing growth during the Winter, its prettiest and most charming of all Brooklyn’s pretty and charming young women; the best of her young men; the most esteemed heads of families and attractive matrons; because of its costume rides, and its sociable teas, champion polo and football team, and because of its nice little merry-go-round organ, to the music of whose tuneful airs its members swing gaily around the ring morning, noon, and night.

If some clubs served as a marker social class, others proved to be vehicles for assimilation, said Mr. Friss, offering “an opportunity to participate in what was an American phenomenon. They were wheelmen first, cycling like everybody else.”

For example, U.S.I. sponsored Italian immigrants arriving in America, providing them with “the work which had become required for entry into the United States,” according to Ed Cangialosi, one of the club’s current officers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ethnic divisions that characterized early cycling also had a uglier side. Depictions of cyclists often included cruel caricatures of riders, especially of Chinese and black riders, and much was written at the time about the physical differences of the races.

In 1894, the League of American Wheelmen, the largest national grouping of riders, bowed to pressure from its Southern members — who feared that allowing black members would hamper the league’s development in the South — and restricted its membership to whites. The move effectively barred blacks from most bicycle races in the United States.

As Lorenz J. Finison, corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts African-American Heritage Bike Route, writes in his recent study of an unsuccessful challenge to the league’s color bar in 1895, the increasing social importance of bicycle clubs “provides an important context for understanding the development of ‘colored’ bicycle clubs in the 1890s, and the move to exclude colored people from membership in the League.” The bicycle was often described as a democratic machine in those days, but obviously, for many, it proved to be only an extension of the existing social order.

Despite protests from many, the league remained whites-only until it dissolved in the first years of the 1900s. (In 1999, its successor, the League of American Bicyclists, apologized for the ban.)

“I think the league bar had as much to do with the social aspect as anything else,” Mr. Finison said. “I think if it had been purely a racing organization, this would never have happened.”

Follow Spokes on twitter, twitter.com/spokesnyt, where links to the column will appear along with other bike-related tweets.

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