Legends and Legacies: The Beginnings of the Bicycle in 1880s Aspen
The Aspen Times noted in 1884: “The cyclist is said to be like a South American state, for it is always on the brink of a revolution.
Acceptance was slow, and by the 1880s they had been around for decades, but you can see why just look at a photo of one. Before gears were added they were direct drive and to have any gear the wheel had to be large which made the bikes tall and the riders way off the ground. They were difficult to ride, even if a horse was just as high. They turned easily, both forwards and backwards. Rocky roads added more complications.
Cyclist accidents made headlines almost every week. At the same time, there was a fascination with the new mode of transport.
An 1883 account told of a Colorado miner whose mine, the Spondulix, was over 2,600 feet in elevation from the camp below. A fellow miner was injured and the rider volunteered, as “it would be faster than riding down the slope” to fetch the doctor. It was night, but with good moonlight, the pilot flew down the rocky road and soon his brake broke, leaving him “nothing else to do but stay in the saddle and attempt my chance”. Halfway there, he saw a trucker’s lantern pointing towards him. Fortunately, the trucker left just enough room on the side of the road for him to pass. He made it to the doctor’s office after covering the nine miles in an incredible 13 minutes.
A well-known rider, CC Hopkins, held a two-day demonstration at Aspen’s Rink Opera House. He planned a closing demonstration, a race against a roller skater, FA Morton from Denver. At the time, the building also served as an ice rink and performance hall. The plan was for a one-mile race, but after a few laps the biker couldn’t negotiate the tight turns the roller skater could, so the race ended before he crashed.
Bicycle racing generated interest and locals followed the races and records, even though few Aspen owned bicycles. The first dealer advertisement was not until 1889 for a Velociped bicycle at George F. Higgins and Company Sporting Goods, but that was in Denver, not Aspen.
An example is when Frank Dingley broke the bicycle record by covering 100 miles in five hours and 28 minutes, about 11½ minutes faster than the English record. In 1888, at the World Championships in Hartford, a Mr. Rowe clocked 3 minutes and 34.75 seconds over one mile.
The best-known local rider was Reverend Beavis, an established Presbyterian minister in his state-level church hierarchy. His main local activity, to stop smoking among young people, led him to found the Boys’ Anti-tobacco Battalion. It seems he took up horseback riding for health reasons. In 1888, he cycled through the Fort Collins area, then rode all the way from Denver to Aspen.
Aspen capped off the 1880s with a bicycle tournament at Athletic Park. It featured the United States Champion team which included three women. The star was Wilbur F. Knapp, who was billed as the world champion. In 1888, he set a world record by covering 40 miles in two hours in England. He rode a Penny-Farthing bicycle, also known as a Ferris Wheel, which was made of metal, not wood, and had rubber tires. He was nicknamed a “high-wheeler”.
The tournament finale was a one-mile race between Knapp and a local trotting horse named Ambush. The race was close until the end with Knapp taking the lead in the final 30 yards.
You might be interested to know that high-wheelers have become popular in England during the recent pandemic. A warning if you’re inclined to try it – these are very expensive bikes.
Tim Willoughby’s family history parallels that of Aspen. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Having become a tourist in his hometown, he considers it with a historical perspective. Join it at [email protected].