By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Robert Center was speeding down Broadway, his head down over the handlebars, his body curved for minimum wind resistance. His eyes may have strayed from the path in front of him to the road beneath him — for a second, maybe longer — when suddenly and without warning, he slammed headlong into a coal cart and was killed.
His death, in the spring of 1895, sparked a debate about the behavior of cyclists in traffic. Some blamed Mr. Center for riding too fast, and others, including bike advocates like I. B. Potter, the local head of the League of American Wheelmen, accusing the larger, horse-drawn vehicles of dangerous behavior themselves.
It was the height of a great bicycle boom in America. A century before City Room and its Spokes feature, The New York Times followed the debate over “scorchers” like Mr. Center and other local urban cycling news in a regular column known as Gossip of the Cyclers.
Part racing results, part travel guide, part club bulletin, part tip sheet for local cycling-related politics, Gossip of the Cyclers was a one-stop shop for city riders to bone up on all the news related to “the wheel,” as bikes were commonly known.
From 1894 to 1899, it tracked the growing popularity of cycling in its nascent years, offering a revealing — and often amusing — window into the days when riding on two wheels was as high tech as writing code.
“It was the P.C. of back then,” said Carl Burgwardt, owner and curator of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Buffalo. “That was the topic of the day. The bicycle was the hot thing.”
Some ideas about riding were tested in the column, such as the notion that one would develop “bicycle face” from riding: “the strained, half-despairing look which has come to be regarded as a characteristic of wheelmen.”
Other columns voiced similarly specious health concerns, with particular emphasis on the danger to the lungs posed by arching one’s body for speed, a position the column once called “the monkey hump.” Needless to say, the unnamed Times cycling reporter did not look kindly on drop handlebars, or velocity of any sort.
Such coverage was not limited to The Times, said David V. Herlihy, author of “Bicycle: The History.” Practically every daily newspaper had a column.
The boom, which began with the introduction of the pneumatic tire in Ireland in 1889 and peaked around 1896, reached across the city’s social classes. Despite the hefty price tag for a new bike, around $100 at a time when many only took home that much in a month, a market for used bikes developed as cycling grew more widespread. “It was fairly democratic” in the way it drew people from disparate social classes together, Mr. Herlihy said. “People called it the fraternity of the wheel.”
“The magnitude of cycling as a pastime is hard to grasp in these end-of-the-century days, when one is told that ‘everyone’ is now a wheelman,” Gossip of the Cyclers reported two weeks before Mr. Center’s accident.
Indeed, as cycling became middle class, The Times took a decidedly middle-of-the-road editorial stance, supporting such things as the free passage of cyclists over the Brooklyn Bridge (there had been a toll) while advocating tougher punishment for “scorchers,” whose behavior elicited vehement denunciations — in the days before blog comments — in letters to the editor. “Have pedestrians any rights in crossing the streets that bicyclists should respect?” asked one angry reader in 1895. (The more things change…)
As is the case today, many of New York’s riders cruised on bikes with no brakes, though this was more from technological limitation than choice. “They were essentially fixed-gear bikes,” Mr. Herlihy said.
Whether brakes should be added even became a source of debate. “The bicyclist brake question seems to have stirred up a great amount of controversy,” the Times column reported in February 1896. (By the end of the year, the column writer noticed that people were coming around to the idea.)
Gossip of the Cyclers was part of a constellation of similar tip sheets for other pursuits. There was Gossip of Horsemen, and a column known as Among the Oarsmen, a rowing feature, and an an earlier, related cycling feature called Among the Wheelmen. Inevitably, the paper began tracking the Gossip of the Automobilists.
Though Gossip of the Cyclers ended at the turn of the century, interest in riding certainly did not. Within a few years, velodrome bike racing would explode in New York.
“The boom was more than a fad,” Mr. Herlihy said. “Of course there was a fad element, when high society started riding around on bikes. But people really did see this as a vehicle to the future.”
Or, as it was expressed in Gossip of the Cyclers in July 1896:
“So many changes have come with the bicycle, and will ensue with the motor carriage, that they are beyond the possibility of prediction and imagination. The revolution is coming, and the sooner the better.”