Velocipedes & Boneshakers: The First Bike Race in the United States (1878)

Harvard lads C.A. Parker and F.E. Cabot were neck-and-neck, wheel-to-wheel, huffing and puffing, their legs burning as they approached the finish line at the Beacon Trotting Park in Boston. It was May 24, 1878 and the stylishly dressed crowd was cheering wildly, their fancy equipages (horse and carriages) “parked” nearby.

Yep: 1878 … and this was the first officially documented bicycle race in the United States (or was it? more on this below) Naturally, given the times and the way society worked back then, the starting line was filled with Harvard men. No women riders, of course, although plenty of women were already into cycling, and the freedom they discovered from cycling has been credited with playing a role in the suffrage movement. Yet another reason to love cycling!

But first, before we get to the thrilling conclusion of America’s inaugural cycling race, let’s take a step back. The bicycle was still a fairly new machine in 1878. Two decades previously, pedals were added to the front wheel, creating a teeth-rattling machine dubbed the velocipede, or boneshaker, and it became a popular style. For a while. The first high-wheel bikes, also known as penny-farthings, appeared in 1872 and quickly became popular.

The first official bike race in the world was held in Paris, as you’d expect. The 1,200-meter (about ¾ of a mile) race was held on May 31, 1868 at the Park of Saint-Cloud, and was won by James Moore, an Englishman. He rode a bike with solid-rubber tires. The mighty Moore (cycling’s first superstar?) also won the first long-distance, city-to-city race, from the Arc de Triumph in Paris to Rouen, a distance of 134 kilometers (83 miles). His winning time was 10 hours and 25 minutes. The race was held in November 1869.

This is James Moore, years later, with the bike he rode in those first two races (or so they say) … notice the pedals on the front wheel … and the not-so-comfortable seat

Cycling races were suddenly a thing, and soon enough … a really big thing. Other notable events of 1878 were: the death of Pope Pius IX; Edison patents the phonograph; Joseph Stalin is born; Emma Mills Nutt becomes the world’s first female telephone operator. Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the USA.

And so, on May 24, 1878, the Harvard Athletic Association’s Summer Meeting was held at Beacon trotting Park, which, as the name suggests, was a horse racing park. This means the track was probably packed dirt. Great for horses, not so great for the boneshaker … and their riders.

Under a subhead that read “Athletic Sports,” which seems redundant, the Boston Daily Globe reported that “the largest crowd seen on the grounds this year was on hand, and the presence of many ladies and stylish equipages made the scene a lively one.”

The meet included several running events. C.S. Hanks won the mile in 5 minutes and 2.5 seconds. The world record, at the time, was held by Walter Slade of England: 4:24.5. 

And then, the bicycle race: Three laps around the one-mile track. There were five cyclists: Parker, Cabot, L. Foster, Tubbs and Sharon. They assembled at the start of the three-lap, three-mile race “and came under the wire [to start] perfectly even and a pretty sight,” according to the Globe.

“The latter two [Tubbs and Sharon] lagged behind, but little Parker went to the second place, Cabot in the van [lead?]. At the half-mile Parker had forced himself in front of Cabot, and at the completion of the mile, (time 4.4) [which I think means 4 minutes and 4 seconds] Parker had about ten yards the best of it, though Cabot was riding superbly. Foster by this time had backed out, and a magnificent race resulted.”

It was down to two men and their machines: Parker and Cabot. 

According to the Globe: “The next mile saw Cabot and Parker neck and neck, but at the last three-quarters, Cabot, after a hard tussle, again showed ahead and passed under the wire about three wheels in front. Time 8.21. Cabot increased his lead all the way to the one-half post, but Parker was by no means worsted yet. Bending down on his machine like a Mexican on his mustang [sorry about this racially insensitive description], he crept up on Cabot, who in time increased his speed. At the three-quarter post, Parker had tackled him, went by like a shot, and the crowd at the finish got excited. The closing quarter was worked for hard, but all Cabot’s spurts couldn’t quite make him pass Parker, who won the race by just a wheel. Parker rode a fifty, and Cabot a fifty-six-inch bicycle, but the latter had the longer legs. Parker took the cup and a special prize offered by the sporting editor of the Crimson.”

Next up, after the thrilling, first-ever U.S. cycling race was: The great potato race! “Much fun was now raised by the potato race – thirty yards and fourteen potatoes to place one by one in the pail,” according to the Globe.

Boston was the hub of cycling in the U.S. back then. According to the National Archives at Boston: “Massachusetts had the largest per capita bike ownership in the country in the 1890s and the largest percentage of women who were registered bike owners. Several prominent cycling magazines were published in Boston, making cycling a topic of press coverage and a growing cultural influence as well as a form of recreation.”

***

There’s more cycling history stories on the way. I’m reaching out to Harvard to see if I can find out more about C.A. Parker, and am working on a story about the legendary Mile-A-Minute Murphy. If you like cycling history, here’s the link to my story on the first Tour de France, the link to the guy who kind of invented cyclotourisme, and here’s the link to my story on the history of the Tour de Trump. Yep, that Trump.

*A couple sources, including the city of Boston’s website, said this was the first bike race in America. I’ve since found evidence – newspaper articles – from before May 24, 1878, that indicate a bike race had been held. I think the actual first bike race has been lost to history, and there will never be a definitive answer, but it will be fun to see how far back races go in this country. I thought about trashing this one, as it’s not accurate, but what the heck: I’ll learn from my mistakes and pedal forward.

Here’s the link to my Biking France books (Provence, Bordeaux, Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne). I recently took all five off Amazon, iBooks and all the other eBook platforms because they took about 60 percent of the revenue. Now, thanks to even more tech advances, I can make them available as PDFs.

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