The Great Cowboys Vs. Cyclists Race (1887), with a Special Appearance From Buffalo Bill

This cycling-history story has it all: Buffalo Bill and Broncho Charlie, two champion cyclists and a six-day race between mustangs and penny farthings that had all of London in a tizzy!

It’s 1887 and Buffalo Bill and his famed Wild West Show were in the midst of their first British tour at the Agricultural Hall in the Islington district of London. The wild west spectacle included “A race between a cowboy, a Mexican, and an Indian, on ponies … an attack by Indians on an emigrant wagon with equal vigor … shooting feats by Miss [Annie] Oakley and Miss Smith, a race between frontier girls, and the riding of bucking horses by cowboys,” according to London’s Morning Post newspaper. The grand finale was the rescue of a family of settlers under attack by a band of Indians by none other than Buffalo Bill.

If all this wasn’t enough Buffalo Bill decided to hold the greatest race the world had ever seen: A six-day race “between the Wild West Pony express riders Beardsley and Broncho Charlie, and Howell and Woodside, the champion professional cyclists,” according to Lloyd’s Weekly.

Here’s how it worked: The daily race was eight hours. Each team’s mileage would be totaled to determine the winner. The cowboys could use an unlimited number of mustangs and change horses whenever they liked. “As Howell and Woodside can keep up an average pace of 18 miles an hour when at their best, the cowboys will have to change horses with lightning rapidity and gallop their ponies to some purpose,” Lloyd’s reported.

Meet the cowboys

All four of the racers were fascinating fellows. Let’s start with Broncho Charlie. And yes, it’s broncho with an “h.” Back then, that’s how they spelled it. According to Broncho, he was born Julius Mortimer Miller, in a covered wagon in Hat Creek, California in 1850. “I rode the pony express in 1861 for five months from Sacramento, Cal., to Carson City, Nevada,” he said. “I was eleven and a half years old, the youngest boy they ever put on.”

There were some who disputed Broncho’s story, saying a lad this young would have never been a Pony Express rider.

Broncho Charlie was a storyteller and embellisher, up there with the likes of Buffalo Bill, so all of his many stories must be taken with a grain of salt. He enthralled reporters and audiences with tales of narrow escapes from Native Americans on his Pony Express rides, his days as a stagecoach driver, which included several gun battles with bandits. He broke and trained horses, and herded cattle. He claims to have met Teddy Roosevelt in 1884 and received a scolding from the future president for being “unkind” to a horse. In his later years, he was known as the last-living Pony Express rider.

As for Marve Beardsley, there’s no doubt he was a Pony Express rider. He would later train racehorses. He died in 1900 in a train wreck in Jackson, Mississippi.

This story is from my cycling history book, The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Here’s the link to my story about it and here’s the etsy link to get the book. Lots more great stories like this one.

Off they go

The large Agricultural Hall featured a track within a track. The cowboys and their horses raced on the outer track, which was seven laps to the mile and described as “a tan-covered” track. I think that means dirt. The inner track was “raised at the corners to facilitate the operation of turning,” according to The Standard, London, November 8, 1887.

The race began, with Broncho Charlie on a horse and Howell pedaling a penny farthing. At the end of the fifth mile, “the bicyclist was slightly in advance,” according to The Standard.

Beardsley had a rough go if it when he switched out with Broncho Charlie, according to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent: “Beardsley was thrown early in the afternoon, and was away from the track for three-quarters of an hour, and when he returned he was very lame. He was thrown again at the end of the fifth hour, but not heavily. Woodside did a good deal more work than his partner, Howell.”

At the end of the first day, the cyclists had covered 137 miles (Woodside 75 and Howell 62) and the cowboys rode 136 miles (Beardsley 69 and Broncho Charlie 67).

Meet the cyclists

According to The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Richard Howell “is a splendidly-made fellow.” He was somewhere between the age of 25 and 30, was 6-foot tall and weighed 13 stone, which is 182 pounds, a bit on the muscular side for a cyclist. At the 1881 meet at the Leicestershire Cricket Grounds, a meet the British called the world championships, Howell won the one-mile race, topping John Prince, another of the great early cycling champions.

Howell described his training regimen in the Royal Cornwall Gazette story …

“Well, I reckon I know how to take care of myself, and how to get fit. I don’t believe in the old- fashioned ideas of strict diet and heavy grueling work. I eat plain, good food, and plenty of it, and drink port wine and sound beer in moderation. In the morning I take a little walk before breakfast, and then, after that meal, if I am heavy, ride eight or nine miles on the track here, in thick flannels. After dinner I do some more slogging work, and maybe a walk in the evening, and early to bed.”

According to another newspaper story: “W.M. Woodside hails from Philadelphia, but is called the Irish champion. He is a tall slim person, has dark hair and a mustache. He says little but thinks a great deal and is a racer of the first class.”

Woodside was considered the American cycling champion, or, at least, one of the American champions. In a 26-hour race, in January 1886, against T.W. Eck, yet another American cycling champion of the day, Woodside won, covering 266 and 3⁄4 miles which “beats anything ever before accomplished,” according to newspaper reports.

Before the great six-day race against the cowboys, Woodside and Howell competed in a series of races in England: Howell was the winner. He may have had a secret weapon, according to what he told The Royal Cornwall Gazette

“If I feel dull and out of sorts, heavy or depressed, if I have done too much work, or my system is out of order – if, in short, I don’t feel quite sound, I take some medicine … I have always found this set me up and put me to rights again, and it is a remedy which I believe in and tell all my friends about.”

The not-so-secret remedy was: Warner’s Safe Cure.

Here’s the Warner’s Safe Cure bottle

Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure wasn’t exactly safe. Hubert Harrington Warner was a bit of a huckster, and claimed his Safe Cure would cure jaundice, lame back, impotency, dropsy, female complaints and even malaria. Is that all? One of the main ingredients was: alcohol. Which is perhaps why it perked up Howell.

The race continues

On day two, the cyclists maintained their slim lead for most of the eight hours of racing, but the cowboys and their horses came on strong in in the last few hours to take a narrow lead: 272 miles to 271 miles and 1,540 yards.

“The cowboys showed some brilliant riding on [day three],” stated Reynold’s Newspaper, London. At the end of the day, they had maintained their lead: 406 miles to 405 miles and 1,100 yards.

On day four, Howell and Woodside “showing much improved form,” according to the Reynold’s Newspaper, and were able to take back the lead: 536 miles and 1,100 yards to 535 miles and 502 yards.

The Final Day

After the fifth day’s race: The horsemen had ridden 674 miles (Broncho Charlie 337 miles and 4 laps, Beardsley 336 miles and 3 laps) and the cyclists were close behind, at 673 miles and 4 laps (Woodside 349 miles and 4 laps, Howell 324 miles and 2 laps).

Was it possible the great showman Buffalo Bill had something to do with the race being so close heading into the final day? A blowout, either way, would have been bad for ticket sales – and Buffalo Bill was all about selling tickets.

“It is some time since the Agricultural Hall was crowded to such an extent as on Saturday when the 48 hours’ contest between the bicyclists and horsemen was brought to a close,” wrote The Times, of London, adding that 20,00 people were in attendance.

After the 44th hour “the ‘Wild West men were only 250 yards to the good,” according to The Times. And then, “In the next hour, however, both Broncho Charlie and Beardsley made more progress than hitherto, and put another 500 yards between themselves and their rivals.”

But the bicyclists, filled with gumption and perhaps a few shots of Warner’s, clawed their way back, edging closer and closer to the horsemen. With an hour to go, they had reduced the lead of Broncho Charlie and Beardsley to only 350 yards. And then: “In the last hour the horsemen considerably increased their advantage, and won amid great enthusiasm by two miles and nearly 400 yards. The final scores were horsemen, 814 miles 4 laps (Beardsley 407 miles 4 laps, Broncho Charlie 407 miles); cyclists, 812 miles 3 laps (Woodside 422 miles 4 laps, Howell 389 miles 7 laps).”

The Rematches

A month later, there was a rematch, in Birmingham. Charles Terront, the French cycling champion, joined Woodside and Howell, and this three-against-two strategy worked. The cyclists covered 661 miles and 8 laps, edging Broncho Charlie and Beardsley, who rode their fleet of horses 660 miles and 2 laps.

The third and final cowboys vs. bicyclists contest took place in March 1888, at the Agricultural Hall in Islington. The cowboys, Broncho Charlie and Beardsley, covered 892 miles and 2 laps, edging the cyclists (Woodside, J. Dubois and J. Young), who cycled 891 miles and 3 laps.

Over the next five or six years, Howell seems to have fallen upon hard times, and had a few run ins with the British police that were reported in the London papers. And then, he disappeared from the pages of history.

Woodside continued to race in England for the next several months. In May, he raced Britain’s A. Robb in Leicester. According to The Bristol Mercury, Woodside held the lead, but on the final lap “Robb spurted in front, but came down immediately afterwards, and Woodside, who was close behind, fell over him. Robb was able to remount and complete the course, but the American was severely injured.”

The incident seems to have ended Woodside’s cycling career. He died in 1890 from yellow fever while in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, he was a manager of a balloon and parachute company, touring South America on behalf of the company. “He was one of the best riders who ever appeared on the track, and his record as a professional was of the cleanest kind,” wrote the Chicago Tribune.

Was anything proven in all these races? Not really, but they were quite the spectacle and packed in big crowds, and added to Buffalo Bill’s fame and fortune. The times were changing, rapidly, the wild west was being tamed and the cowboys and their steeds were becoming an endangered species … and the invention of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tire would soon launch the first golden age of cycling.

This story is from my cycling history book, The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Here’s the link to my story about it and here’s the etsy link to buy the book (only $3.99)


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