Finding historical bicycle documents online

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A reader recently emailed me to ask if I knew the oldest bicycle club in the US or the oldest race. I didn't, but the question sent me down an interesting road.

It turns out he had acquired a bike racing invitation dated Sept. 15, 1884, from the Keystone Bicycle Club in Pittsburgh and was researching it for sale in eBay.

That set me off on a wild-goose chase of my own, where I stumbled across some old sports newsletters that mentioned bicycle racing from that era.


The bike club invite carries an emblem that sports a boneshaker bicycle with high frontwheel. It reads in part:

“The Keystone Bicycle Club Cordially invite you to be present and participate in their Race Meeting on the Exposition Course. Saturday Sept. 27 1884. The track is a half mile trotting track which will be put in first class condition for racing. The Prizes are all handsome.”

I wonder what constituted a “handsome” prize in those days? If you're interested, the item is on sale at eBay: “Pittsburgh Pa Bicycle Club Race Invite 1884 Highwheel.” It ends Sunday evening.

Bike league

One of the places I suggested the seller check for old bike clubs was the League of American Bicyclists. I had forgotten it used to be called the League of American Wheelmen until a recent name change.

The LAW history says the league was founded in 1880 to defend the rights of bicyclists. You wouldn't think that would be necessary in the age before the automobile, but bicycle histories are replete with tales of cities banning bicycles from cities because they spooked horses and scared pedestrians.

More importantly, the LAW is credited with getting roads paved before the advent of motor vehicles.

Old documents

I did a little searching online and stumbled upon the website of the LA84 Foundation, a nonprofit that received leftover funds from the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles. In addition to running programs for kids, it also operated the largest sports research library in North America, the Paul Ziffren Sports Resource Center.

Among their holdings are Outing club newsletters. A 1884 issue mentioned a LAW board meeting. It reported that at the time, the League had 3,598 members. New York had the most with 718. I was disappointed to see that Washington state did not have any members; then I realized that it didn't become a state until 1889.

The old Outing newsletter also has news from the New York Bicycle Club, The Capital Club (DC), and the Harvard Bicycle Club, in which an upcoming one-mile bike race between Harvard and Yale is discussed.

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