The Road First Travelled

On the weekend of September 11 and 12, 1879, forty wheelmen gathered in streets of West Roxbury, in Boston. It was the first ever wheelman’s convention, and the Boston Bicycle Club invited fellow clubmen from as far away as New Jersey, to join them in a 100 mile ride around the Massachusetts. Riding a “century” as it was called, was considered quite the accomplishment, and the gather was the largest congregation of wheelmen in history. Several of the men displayed club pride they wore their uniforms; the Worcester Bicycle Club stood out wearing all grey flannel, but were perhaps topped by the white shirts and bright blue stockings, set off with a matching polo cap, of the Hartford Club.

Each rider had his own sobriquet, and the President of the Boston Club, known as the Captain, sounded “Boots and Saddles” on his bugle. The ride began, the wheelmen proceeding two by two out of town. At the very first hill, one rider, known as “Froggie” ostensibly for his efforts to jump ahead of the other riders, attempted to show off; after getting his bicycle up to 15 mph, he struck against a rock, taking a header over the handlebars. The accident did little to dim his enthusiasm.

At Brook Farm, formerly a utopian  farm and the setting of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, the travelers stopped for a brief rest, much to the delight of the farm’s current residents, the wards of the Martin Luther Orphan’s Home. A short while later they were off again, wheeling through Dedham. Conversations centered on the lousy nature of the roads; one rider contended that they wouldn’t get any better until Alderman started riding bicycles; a New Jersey man countered that they were  heavenly compared to the Jersey turnpike.

A picnic lunch underneath some pine trees inspired “Champagne,” so called because of his bubbly personality, to rhapsodize on the trees while his comrades lay on their backs looking up at the blue sky, “Massoit and Chickatabut and their swarthy warriors have danced beneath their branches, and here at their feet John Eliot learned the polysyllabic accents of the Indian maids and won the hearts of their brothers of the forest wilds by reciting in their own tongue the war songs of David.”

Again the men mounted up, and away they went.  Two wheelmen, “Ned” and “Muffin” riding side by side, began an impromptu “scrub race” when Ned noticed Muffin had advanced a little ahead, and he passed him, challenging Muffin to return the favor. For a mile the men flew down the road towards Readville, to the cheers of their companions. Ned, two lengths ahead of Muffin, put his legs of his handlebars as he coasted, signaling triumph; Muffin crossed his arms over his chest and pretended not to notice as he rode by.

Towards the early evening, the men ascended Blue Hill, those who made it to the top without dismounting earning the plaudits of their companions; then it was down to Sharon, Massachussets in the receding light of the setting sun.

Arriving at the town inn after a total ride of one hundred miles, the wheelmen cleaned themselves up, dusted off their clothes, and sat down at two long tables for a well earned supper. The conversation centered on past rides, comparisons of roads, and bicycle models, and some jests in the direction of “Masher” who was busily engaged chatting up one of the young ladies who worked at the inn. Songs were followed by dancing; but Masher’s request for a dance was refused by his chosen target, she insisted that her husband always got her first dance. Festivities done, the wheelmen retired to a much needed rest.

The next day was to be harder; they arose early, dusted and oiled their “steeds” and set off through South Canton, Baptist Corners, Randolph, South Braintree, and Weymount. By now, news of the ride had gone ahead of them, schoolboys cheered their passing, and fair maidens waved handkerchiefs out of windows.

At 1pm, the men arrived at Cohasset, settling in for a fish lunch at Kimball’s, complete with their  choice of apple or squash pie. Several of the men let their food digest while lounging in the warm sun on a rock.

There was still thirty miles to go until the ride finished at Boston, and rolling along at 12 miles per hour, aided by a downgrade, and accompanied by school bells in each village through which they passed, the men arrived; well satisfied with a ride well done.

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