A Cyclist, 1884

“In appearance, he was anything but a holiday wheelman. Brown as a nut, and mud-bespattered, all surplus fat had been worn off by his severe and protracted work. His blue flannel shirt was a deal too large for him and much weather-stained. His knickerbockers had given way to a pair of blue overalls, gathered at the knees within a pair of duck hunting leggings, once brown, but now completely disguised as to texture and color by heavy alkali mud.”

Description of Thomas Stevens in Cheyenne, Wyoming, during his transcontinental bicycle “ride” (he pushed his cycle nearly as much as he pedaled it) in 1884. I wanted to read about Stevens because his trip began in Oakland. An account of his journey appears in an 1887 book called “Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle,” by Karl Kron; Kate got me a facsimile reprint a few years ago.

Naturally, I did a little search for more information on Stevens. The very first Google listing brings up an account from Harper’s Weekly with an illustration of someone considerably less weather-beaten than the character described above. Kron’s account mentions that Stevens took his bicycle across the Atlantic the following spring and set out across Europe and western Asia, getting as far as Tehran, Iran, before winter weather stopped him. The Wikipedia account discloses the next chapter (and what happened to Stevens’s bike much, much later): He made it to Japan and sailed back to San Francisco in 1886, the first person, apparently, to have cycled around the world.

And finally, Stevens’s own story of his journey is online, thanks to Project Gutenberg. Here’s how the ride starts:

“With the hearty well-wishing of a small group of Oakland and ‘Frisco

cyclers who have come, out of curiosity, to see the start, I mount and

ride away to the east, down San Pablo Avenue, toward the village of the

same Spanish name, some sixteen miles distant. The first seven miles are

a sort of half-macadamized road, and I bowl briskly along.

“The past winter has been the rainiest since 1857, and the continuous

pelting rains had not beaten down upon the last half of this imperfect

macadam in vain; for it has left it a surface of wave-like undulations,

from out of which the frequent bowlder protrudes its unwelcome head, as

if ambitiously striving to soar above its lowly surroundings. But this

one don’t mind, and I am perfectly willing to put up with the bowlders

for the sake of the undulations. The sensation of riding a small boat

over “the gently-heaving waves of the murmuring sea” is, I think, one

of the pleasures of life; and the next thing to it is riding a bicycle

over the last three miles of the San Pablo Avenue macadam as I found it

on that April morning. …”

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