Wheelin’ in the years
Silent Steeds of Reno traces the history of local bicycling
For cyclists in Reno, it might be humbling to learn that wheelmen from the 1880s fought for road rights, too. In 1881, C.W. Caryl, a bike agent, scheduled a riding exhibition in Reno. One Renoite, James Bradley, was not thrilled.
“James Bradley often took his buggy out about town with a spirited horse named Ballot Box prancing out in front of the harnesses,” writes Reno bicycling historian B. Delbert Williams. “Caryl came gliding down Commercial on the high wheeler about the time Bradley approached with his buggy on Sierra Street. Ballot Box was spooked by the strange contraption, reared up and bolted. Bradley was flung to the ground as his horse galloped wildly away. The buggy ended up a complete wreck, and, as might be expected, Mr. Bradley was not too happy with the bicycle or its rider.”
This excerpt comes from Williams’ book Silent Steeds of Reno, self-published in 2006. Caryl was one of the first cyclists to organize a coast-to-coast bicycle ride, and the buggy owner, James Bradley, was a Reno citizen irked by this rushed cyclist, similar to the way modern drivers are annoyed by cyclists who run stop signs. As Williams explains, the accident set off a debate for road rights that continues today.
Williams’ historical account of Reno’s 133-year-old bicycle history goes far beyond road rights. His 136-page book took six years for Williams to research. In it, he tells the story of those “ghosts astride silent steeds” who rode before the cyclists of today.
“The red bricks of Riverside Hotel rise into the sky from the very site where the town was born some 140 years earlier,” writes Williams. “Just across the street from the north end of the bridge is a parking lot that until 1909 had been the location of the Reno Wheelmen’s clubhouse.”
Williams presents the history of velocipedes, wheelmen, “bone shakers,” safety bikes and the current bike scene in Reno. After 133 years, Reno continues to evolve. At times, the bicycle has been shunned and at other times, embraced.
As the wheel turns
It was the era of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City. The year was 1863. “Fortunes,” Williams writes, “were made and lost.” Reno would soon burgeon into a progressive city, along with Gold Hill and Silver City. Nevada millwright Charles Rulison had begun crafting a velocipede modeled after those seen in France. With it, Rulison owned the first known bicycle in the state of Nevada.
This first bicycle marks the beginning of Williams’ exploration of Reno’s bicycling history. “As you read it, I not only tried to incorporate the history of bicycling in Reno but the history of bicycling nationally and the history of Nevada and Reno,” says Williams. “Because you can’t separate them, they all come together.”
Who would have known that the Reno Wheelmen kept up a winning streak against Sacramento cycling teams? Or that Reno’s bicycle history includes two bicyclists who gained international recognition at the Tour de France (Greg Lemond and Inga Thompson)?
In 1903, about 10 percent of the local population belonged to the Reno Wheelman club, roughly 400 people of 4,000. “There were probably more Reno bicycles in Reno downtown than there are now, even though there were only 4,000-5,000 people there,” says Williams.
Then the motorcycle, car and airplane came along, and Alexander Pope tried to establish a monopoly with the bicycle, which crumbled under a tenuous trust deal. The Golden Age of the bicycle in Reno, and the nation, came to a halt.
The history detailed in Williams’ book is as much about Reno as it is about bicycling. Chapter topics include the transition from large-wheeled bicycles to the “safety” bicycles (bicycles with equal-sized wheels); the Nevada State Fair, which introduced many bicycling races; and a chapter on the College Cyclery, which is one of the oldest bike shops in Nevada.
Williams hopes the book will be picked up for leisure, but also for bike advocacy. “Doing a history on bicycling is a way that people can appreciate bicycling, possibly ride more and continue riding if they have an appreciation for the history,” he says.
Williams started the book while researching work as editor for a failed magazine, Bike Roots. His curiosity continued after another magazine, Modality Magazine, ended. He was curious about bike history, hoping to bring bikers together, and intent on sharing Reno’s bicycle history for people young and old.
“The bicycle is a part of our culture,” he says. “There [are] as many different bicycles as there are people because it’s so much a part of our culture throughout. You’ll never have one bicycle be the best bicycle.”
Watching the wheels
Williams’ interest in alternative transportation, however, had begun much earlier. As an engineering student at Arizona State University, Williams fashioned a hybrid vehicle because of his interest in alternative transportation. His peers at the time laughed at him.
During an engineering exam, Williams responded to a question about the number of tanks a bridge could hold by writing, “How much longer are we going to do this military stuff? I came here to be an engineer.”
His professor responded, “If you continue with this, your grade is going to reflect your stupidity.”
Williams took his cue. He withdrew from the engineering program and pursued a fine arts degree instead. The switch, however, didn’t diminish his affinity for alternative forms of transportation.
“I grew up on a 1958 Schwinn Wasp, single speed with knee action springs. It was basically an old clunker, a cruiser is what you’d call it now,” says Williams. “Then I had a Schwinn Varsity. Then I had Raleigh, an ’80s mountain bike. I have a Japanese bike, a Nishiki, a western auto, Fairway Flier, 3-speed ’60s model and a Columbia ’60s exercise bike.”
Now, living in Reno, Williams has been a member of numerous organizations, including the Reno Wheelmen and the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and he continues to advocate road rights.
As the cyclists of the past led the way for Reno’s history, Williams is confident that the bicycle is far from a thing of the past. “Whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, or Republican or Democrat, everyone’s been on a bicycle sometime in their life.”