Preserving Bike History for The Future

Steve Schaffer, Brodie Hamilton

(United States Bicycle Hall of Fame, Davis, Ca)

I recently went on a Napa Valley road bike ride organized by volunteers of the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame, located in Davis, California.   Although I've been bicycling for the last 25 years, I didn't know there was such an institution, much less in Davis.  I was the guest of a long time friend, who is also the Hall's secretary.   And, no, Lance Armstrong had been inducted for the simple reason so far of having not yet met the five year retirement requirement for eligibility.  But during our ride and having gone on line, I learned a lot about the Hall.

Hall of fames exist in pretty much every sport, including cricket in Hartford, frisbee in Calumet, and even jai alai in Dania Beach.  So, how did the Hall get in Davis, that shady, sleepy, sometimes sweltering college town off the I-80 corridor to Sacramento?  

The original Hall was founded in 1988 in Somerville, New Jersey, about 40 miles west of New York City and home of a bike race organized just prior to World War II by bike shop owner Fred “Pop” Kugler, a former bike racer.  The Tour of Somerville has remained the longest major bike race in the country and Pop was the Hall's first entrant.  

Tillie Anderson is in the Hall.  She emigrated from Sweden to Chicago age 14 in 1889, began racing two years later and by age 18 was recognized as the best woman cyclist in the world.  She won 123 out of 130 races.  However at age 27, at her peak, women were suddenly barred from bike racing due to concerns about the level of danger and she was forcibly retired.

In the process of losing its New Jersey space, the Hall and Bicycling Museum sought alternatives and chose Davis, where a collection of historic bicycles was already in place along with penny-farthing bike races.  Davis was the first city to have been awarded a bicycle-friendly rating of platinum in 2005 by the American Bicycling Club. Only three others have been so honored, including Portland and Boulder in 2008 and Ft. Collins this year.   Davis relocated a teen-center to give space to the Somerville collection, which was moved into its new home in 2010.  Currently, the Hall is administered by a joint Somerville-Davis board.

For a long time, Davis was known for its college student bicycling.   A bike-friendly city council slate got elected in the early '60s and transformed Davis into the Bicycle Capital of America by creating the first city street bike lanes.  At the time, Cal had People's Park, UCLA had basketball, Santa Barbara had surfing and Davis had bicycling.  Given its flat terrain and relative isolation with little street traffic, Davis was the ideal biking campus.

Marshall “Major” Taylor of Indiana is in the Hall.  Working in an Indianapolis bike store, he won his first amateur race at age 13.  In 1896, he turned pro at age 18 and in two years, held seven world speed records from a quarter-mile to two-miles.  In 1899, he won the World Sprint Championship with the best one-mile track time, becoming the first black world champion in any sport, excepting a Canadian boxing bantamweight champ from a decade earlier.    Hounded by racist crowds but applauded by President Teddy Roosevelt, Taylor was finally allowed to compete in the National Championships in 1900.  A year later he was the toast of European bike racing, winning three out of every four races he entered.  Taylor and his bike are in the Hall.

There are now over 32,000 enrolled at UC Davis, triple what it was in the mid-60s.  Back then, the city population was 15,000.  It's now around 65,000, not counting the students.  The nation's largest cities have meanwhile established green belt and creek corridor bike paths, none of which apply to quaint Davis.  The town still has plenty of bike routes and bikes abound, but no longer dominate the campus culture.   Still, in honor of its high standing, Davis was included in the first four Amgen Tours of California.

Former Davis Med Center professor and orthopedic surgeon, Eric Heiden is best known for five speed-skating gold medals at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980.   That summer he also made the Olympic team as a bicycling alternate.  Placed on the team was 18-year-old Greg LeMond, the youngest to ever do so.  The US boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year but Heiden and LeMond became the predominate American professional bike racers, one at home and one abroad.  Both are in the Hall.
In 1999, I rode in the then 30th Davis Double Century, sponsored by the Davis Bike Club every March, which also every October offers the equally venerate Foxy Fall Century.   After biking 12 hours and 150 miles, I knew I was still far from the finish when I saw white-water rafters in Cache Creek, which is a dry sand-bed by the time it reaches Davis.  I felt the same way as I arrived just after sunset.

Joseph Magnani, who won the Marseille-to-Nice ride in 1935, raced in France until he was swept up by the Gestapo and imprisoned.  Almost starved to death when rescued, he was the first American to compete in a European Grand Tour, entering the Giro d'Italia in 1946.

Audrey Phleger McElmury won the 1969 women's world championships in Prague, held one year after the Soviets had invaded.  Having won in the rain, she waited in the steady downpour while officials searched a half-hour for a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Charles “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy was the first to bike 60-miles-an-hour, doing so in 1899 while drafting a railroad boxcar.  Boards were laid lengthwise across the ties for two miles to allow for the one-mile speed check.  During the first attempt, the train failed to reach the required speed.  On the second run the engineer opened the regulator.   With hot embers burning his legs, Murphy made the mile with two-seconds to spare before the engineer turned off the steam, causing Murphy to slam into the back of the train.  Luckily, his two handlers grabbed one arm each and held him as his bike crashed below.

For awhile, Lance with his seven Tour de France victories overshadowed America's bicycling past, relegating the US Bicycling Hall of Fame to something antiquated.  But now, with recent achievements of Lance's bunch eradicated, dusty bicycling history shines a little brighter.  Bikers from all eras have been inducted, including those from the pre-automobile turn-of-the-century when pro riders earned more than pro baseball players, such as Ty Cobb, and when races went six-days straight, like the modern Race Across America but in places like Madison Square Garden before packed houses.  

Somewhat like the Irish monks preserving records during the Dark Ages, the dedicated few in Davis strive to maintain the history of bicycling in America.  During our outing, I rode with my friend Brodie Hamilton, the Hall secretary, and Steve Shaffer, a Hall docent, along with Bill Reinert of the Davis Bike Club, whom I met for the first time.  We biked from Velo Vino in St. Helena past many vineyards up and over Old Howell Mountain Road down to an old-time store in bygone Pope Valley and back on Ink Grade and Sanitarium roads.  It was a cool summer day, sunny and far removed from the busy tourist-highways we left behind. It was a classic bicycling day, on unknown roads with friends, old and new.

The Bicycling Hall of Fame is located in Davis is open Wednesday afternoons and Saturday middays.  There is a fee and memberships are available.  The Hall is privately run and sponsors as many fund raising events as possible.   Anyone serious about road biking should give it some consideration.  Just having the Hall within its downtown puts the luster on Davis' bicycling status.

Published Cycle California, December 2013, Vol. 19, #11