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Thomas Stevens' around the world bicycle tour in 1884

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When Tom Stevens stepped off the Alameda Ferry in Oakland to begin his around the world bicycle ride in 1884, there were a couple of things he didn't have to worry about — cars and trucks.

Of course, that meant he had to do without roads, too.

National Public Radio ran an interview this weekend with Thomas Pauly, a University of Delaware faculty member who wrote a forward to a re-release of Stevens' travelogue — “Around the World on a Bicycle.”

In that interview, I was struck by some of the connections between Stevens' ride of 120 years ago and our rides today.


Rail to trail

For instance, Pauly says that because only rutted wagon roads crossed the Sierra Nevada, Stevens crossed the mountain range by walking his bicycle along the train tracks. Was this the first “rail to bike trail” project?

Pauly said that because Stevens didn't have a train schedule, he'd just make do when a train passed. Once he was crossing a trestle when a train approached. “He had to get out on a rail and hang his bicycle over the precipice as the train passed.”

Loved and demonized

Seeing a man on a bicycle in Europe, even a 50-inch penny farthing, wasn't usual. But as he passed Tehran, many people had never seen a white man before, much less a man riding a metal contraption.

“They were astounded. They thought he was a diety. But when he got further east … particularly when he got to China, all of a sudden they considered him diabolic and they actually chased him and tried to stone him.”

That's similar to reactions today, where some areas encourage bicycling and others demonize the cyclists.

“Going nowhere”

Pauly said Stevens was originally from England and had come to the United States to seek his fortune. Why did he turn to bicycle touring? “His working man life was going nowhere.”

Stevens had read accounts of people who had tried to ride a bicycle across the United States, and he thought he'd give it a go. He had never ridden a bicycle before, however. He bought his bicycle in San Francisco and practiced by riding around Golden Gate Park, Pauly said.

The bicycle was a black-enameled Columbia 50-inch Standard model penny farthing with nickel-plated wheels built by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Chicago. The company preserved Stevens' bike until World War II, when it was donated as scrap for the war effort.

Ultralight touring

Except for a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, Stevens was the original ultralight bicycle traveler. In addition to some food, he carried socks, a shirt, a bedroll, and a slicker that doubled as a tent.

He departed from San Francisco on April 22 and arrived in Boston on August 4 to become the first TransAmerica bicycle rider, after an estimated 3,700 miles. That's not bad, considering what the conditions must have been like.

All  told, Stevens' trip covered about 13,500 miles.

Book available

Because Stevens' book was published in 1887, “Around the World on a Bicycle” is in the public domain and can be viewed online on a computer or PDA.

In an adjoining post (Thomas Stevens describes bicycling in California, 1884), I've downloaded some selected paragraphs from the first chapter. You California cyclists should check it out for possible routes today.

Here's a couple of places to find “Around the World on a Bicycle.”

Project Gutenberg — Around the World on a Bicycle: Volume I

Project Gutenberg — Around the World on a Bicycle: Volume II

Memoware — Around the World on a Bicycle: Volume I

Memoware — Around the World on a Bicycle: Volume II

Permanent link to this article: http://www.bikingbis.com/2007/01/21/thomas-stevens-around-the-world-bicycle-tour-in-1884/

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