Look! Up in the air, it’s a bird, it’s a plane … no, it’s Leon Lyon on his Eiffel Tower Bicycle.
“Be careful Monsieur Lyon, don’t fall!”
Let’s travel back to Paris, several months before the Great Bicycle Parade of 1894. The clever organizers of the parade decided to award prizes for the best-looking bike, the best-decorated bicycle and … the oddest velo. And this is where Leon Lyon comes in. He was all in for the oddest-bike prize, and went so far as to make a 500-franc wager that he’d take the prize.
And so, according to March 10, 1895 edition of The Sun newspaper of New York City, “Lyon went to England and calling at the office of a bicycle maker at Beeston, informed him that he wanted a bicycle made, shaped as much like the Eiffel Tower as possible.”
The Eiffel Tower was still pretty new back then, as it was completed in 1889, and caused quite a stir.
From The Sun story: “The dealer thought he was talking with a crazy man at first, but Lyon convinced him that he was in earnest, and the two went to work and designed the ridiculous-looking, but, nevertheless, rideable machine which is now on exhibition in this city.”
Ridiculous? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s pretty cool.
The bike maker wanted to call it the Giraffe Bike, but Lyon was paying for it and “insisted on calling it the Eiffel Tower Bicycle.”
All my Biking France books, and Numbskull are half off. Here’s the link on Etsy.
The Eiffel Tower Bicycle was ready for the Great Bicycle Parade of Paris. Did it win the prize … and the bet? Are you kidding, of course it did.
According to The Sun: “From the moment the machine and rider appeared on the street there was no doubt about the winner of the prize. The rider was as proud as a peacock, perched away up on his seat, but he didn’t dare to respond in any way to the enthusiastic applause which his presence created. It took all the ingenuity he had to keep from falling off the lofty affair.”
How tall was it?
According to the story in The Sun, “from the ground to the saddle of the bicycle is a distance of ten feet.” However, Lyon and his tall bike travelled to Australia in 1897 and a story in The Age newspaper called it “a bicycle measuring 13 ft., 6 in. in height.” But wait, an article in the September 1, 1898 The Yonkers Statesmansaid “the Eiffel Tower bicycle, a wheel 19 feet high, will appear in the [Saratoga Floral Fete and Battle of the Flowers parade].”
The Eiffel Tower Bicycle caused quite a stir when it visited New York in early 1895. According to a syndicated article that ran in scores of newspapers across the country: “The machine is frequently seen on the avenues of the city and the rider easily overtops the ordinary lamp post along the route of travel. He seems to have perfect control over the machine, which he can drive at quite a good rate of speed, taking sharp corners with perfect ease and apparent safety. This bicycle is mounted from behind in the normal way, but it has to be held by attendants while mounting. The owner sometimes places the machine against the wall and mounts from a standstill …”
The Eiffel Tower Bicycle toured the states, then Australia, back to the United States and Saratoga in upstate New York … and then seemed to disappear from the pages of newspapers. While Leon Lyon and his Eiffel Tower Bicycle are long gone, it is far from forgotten and to this day, a small band of brave men and woman around the world design and ride what have come to be known as tall bikes.
Want to read more cycling history? Here’s the link to Part 1 of my 3-part series “inventing the Bicycle.”