Cycling in the Sixties: A History of US Bicycling in the 1960's
The story that one usually hears is that adult bicycling ended at the turn of the century (that is, in 1900) with the introduction of the motor car. Then, it suddenly sprang back into existence at the beginning of the 70's. Back then, I heard Eugene Sloane's book, The Complete Book of Bicycling, given credit for this "sudden" change, and recently I heard credit being given to Greg Siple, of the Adventure Cycling Association, who started the TOSRV. Actually, the reappearance of cycling was not all that sudden or unpredictable, and I think the real credit must be given to important culture changes that were happening at the same time, not to any one individual.
Each decade has it's own themes. After the roaring 20's, there was the great depression which set the mood for the 30's. In the 40's, the US was at war, and towards the end of the 40's, the cold war began. During the 50's, with the cold war and anti-communism in full swing and with most people comfortably settled into the middle-class, support for the dominant lifestyle was strong, and everyone was supposed to be alike, living a Father-Knows-Best, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave-It-to-Beaver lifestyle, except for the Blacks, who were supposed to remain invisible. But there were cracks appearing even during the 40's and 50's, people with different value systems, who wanted to live their own lives and who thought life should consist of more than a good car, good house, and steady job. As a result, the 60's ended up being a period of conflict between differing lifestyles, as the dominant culture fought back. The vague rustling of trouble at the beginning of the decade turned into disturbances and then into full-scale protests, demonstrations, and even war in the streets near the end. While segregation and the war in Vietnam were immediate causes, under attack was the entire middle class value system. Protesters rode busses, marched in the streets, burned flags and bras, and demanded the right to be equal, the right to speak out, and the right to be themselves. "Square" and "middle-class" became insults. The United States would never be the same again.
I can't help thinking that Henry Thoreau was partially responsible for these changes. He had been rediscovered in the late 40's. Until that time, Thoreau had been seen as an unsuccessful follower of Emerson who was at best a nature writer. However, the anti-war movement during W.W. II had found something else in him, and in the controversy of the cold war, some saw him as a third choice, someone neither communistic nor capitalistic. But most importantly, he spoke to those who felt trapped in a world where everyone was supposed to look alike, think alike, and dream alike. Thoreau gave people permission to be themselves: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." At any rate, Thoreau was taught in every classroom in the country as part of American literature, and my students in 1972 understood exactly what he was talking about. In fact, my English professor of the mid-60's would denounce Thoreau to the class every time he heard about a march or protest. And many of the protests in the 60's began in the classroom. I know that Martin Luther King was inspired by Thoreau, and I'm sure many others were as well.
And, as the quietest protest movement of all, adults began to ride bicycles. In comparison with the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the free speech movement, the sexual revolution, the women's liberation movement, and the environmental movement, it was an almost unnoticeable change, and the number of cyclists increased only gradually, but it was just as revolutionary nonetheless. Before then, the thinking had been that only children ride bicycles and that the automobile was the center of one's life. Obviously, whenever a powerful car came along, the humble bicycle was supposed to hit the ditch.
It's not that no adults ever rode bicycles before the 60's; some cyclists rode throughout that period. Harold Fincher, in my own town of Gadsden, Alabama, got his two bikes in the 30's, when they still were sold with wooden wheels and continued to ride them into the 80's. The League of American Wheelmen kept trying to get back up on its legs, organizing rides and events for a few years before sinking into obscurity again. The six-day bicycle races were held right up to the beginning of the second world war.
During the 40's, bicycling improved somewhat as a local activity, as gasoline was rationed, but bikes were hard to find. During this time, John Forester moved to the US as a boy and began cycling. While going to the university at Berkeley, he belonged to a city of Berkeley cycling club in 1947. The club had a standard meeting place and time for rides. The bikes were mainly foreign and included English bikes with Sturmey-Archer hubs and French bikes with derailleurs. The best bikes had alloy components and high-pressure tires. John also made three long cycling trips during the 40's, with his brother in July 1945 from Berkeley to Medocino and back, with his brother again from Santa Barbara to Solvang and back in August 1945, with a friend from Berkeley down to Cambria and alone to Fresno in the spring of '49. Although some of his friends had bikes with dropped bars, clips, and straps during the 40's, he didn't experience these until 1949 when a Schwinn salesman loaned him a Paramount track bike. He spent the summer of '49 in Massachusetts, where riding out to Walden Pond or out to a AYH hostel 50 miles north were popular cycling activities. After he returned to California that fall, he participated in the Bay Cities Bicycle Club's San Francisco to Half Moon Bay Handicap Race, and he won it too. If you have the Adobe Reader, more of this history can be downloaded at American Cycling History as I Experienced It.
During the 50's, the automobile became king again. Still, there was some bicycling. Nancy Neiman Baranet was a US racing cyclist and eventually competed in Europe. She began bicycling by riding on trips from one hostel to the other (the American Youth Hostel provided much support for bicycling during the dark ages of cycling), and later helped form a cycling club. At the time, there were only two racing tracks in the US, one in Wisconsin and the other in California. In 1954, Richard Berg crossed the US from Santa Monica to NYC, unsupported, in 14 days. Jobst Brandt began his tours into the California Sierras in 1957 or '58. He would make a long ride over difficult passes, spend the night at lodgings, and ride back the next day.
Nonetheless,adult cyclists were a very rare breed during these years (99% of bikes were sold to children), and it seemed that they would stay that way forever. In 1959 or '60, I told my father that I would never ride a bike again because I was too old (I was under 15 at the time). The Andy Griffin Show, a few years later, included two visits by an Englishman traveling on his three-speed bike, sort of a strange and hopeless but harmless soul.
I am hoping that the readers of this account will be able to furnish me with additional details both during the 60's and earlier about bicycling in the United States. I need information about touring trips that you made, rides, races, events, clubs, and publications. Be sure to furnish enough facts and figures so I have something to say, but note that this account is very condensed. At any rate, here is the information I have discovered (or that I remember) so far:
In 1960, the Bicycle Owner's Complete Handbook was published. There were 3.7 million bicycles sold in the US that year (55 million bikes had been sold during the period from 1933 to 1959, which included the depression and the war, so this was probably just a gradual increase).
In 1961, the Velo Sport Newsletter was published in the Bay Area in California. It was eight pages long, run off on a mimeograph machine by Peter Rich, the owner of a bike shop with the same name as the newsletter. Who would have dreamed that it would eventually become a major magazine? The same year, policemen were given bikes to patrol with in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Robert E. Grebel was discharged from the army in San Francisco and rode an Elgin single speed bike with 28 inch tires from there to Seattle, camping along the way. It took 47 days to make the trip. He met three or four other touring cyclists traveling in the opposite direction.
In February of 1962, Paul Dudley White, Eisenhower's former doctor, dedicated the first bikeway in the US in Homestead, Florida. White was a strong proponent of cycling, saying, "The American public is a slave to the automobile," and stating that no one should sit still for more than an hour without getting some exercise. That same year, the Velo Sport Newsletter became the Northern California Cycling Association Newsletter. At the time, there were about 1,500 racing cyclists in the US, according to Pete Hoffman, who wrote for the magazine at that time, and who later was in charge of it. That same year, 16-year-old Greg Siple and his dad made a ride from Columbus to Portsmouth, Ohio, that later became the TOSRV (Tour of the Scioto River Valley). Greg really had a great time, but his dad found the trip a bit much, as he hadn't been doing much riding. The ride was a two-day trip of about 105 miles each day. In Bloomington, Indiana, Steve Tesich and Dave Blase won the Little 500 bicycle race, the events the movie Breaking Away are based upon (some parts of the movie, however, are based on another story that Tesich wrote later).
In 1963, Cycling in the School Fitness Program was published. At the time, due to President Kennedy, the schools were really pushing physical fitness. Bob Davenport, a head football coach at Taylor University in Indiana, organized a cycling group called Wandering Wheels. The first trip, was a thousand mile trip down the Mississippi. During the next two years, tours were made through Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The gear for the riders was all carried on a following truck, and the bikes were all purchased by Davenport, at first all Louison Bobet 15-speed bikes and later all Schwinn Super Sport 10-speed bikes. In the beginning, these were probably all his own male students, but he gradually allowed other students at the school, students about to enter the school, students from other schools, and finally female students to ride also. The Great Western Rally began in La Jolla, California, in 1963. It's a mixture of rides and events which is still being held. Greg Siple that year talked three people into joining him for the second tour of the Scioto River valley.
In 1964, four people met in Chicago to refound LAW, the League of American Wheelmen. The motivation for doing so was that the organization had last disbanded in 1955, and according to the laws of Illinois, the money in the bank account would belong to the bank unless the account was reactivated. There were several active bicycle clubs in the Chicago area, so they believed that LAW could serve a useful purpose once again. In St. Louis, Missouri, a Midnight Ramble bicycle ride was organized that ran through the downtown, which is still run yearly. The Turned Down Bar, Nancy Neiman Baranet's account of her racing experiences, was published in 1964. That same year, the NCCA Newsletter was renamed the American Cycling Newsletter, in its slow evolution into a major publication. Paul Dudley White organized a ride involving congressmen in Washington DC, the men all riding in their suits on single-speed bikes. In the fall of 1964, Dr. Clifford Graves founded the International Bicycle Touring Society. The trip that fall was in New England, but the society was located in California. Every year, the society would make a different trip, including the Blue Ridge, Mississippi Valley, Ohio, and California, along with trips to Europe. These trips included deluxe accomodations and meals. Graves had been touring since W.W.II. That year, six people rode on the tour of the Scioto River valley. And least in importance, I began riding a bicycle again as an adult in 1964, traveling 45 miles on my first trip, which included about 25 miles of highway. There were a few bicycles on my school campuses in those years, but very few. Two teachers rode bicycles a little, and I managed to convince a couple of friends to ride, unfortunately only one trip each.
In 1965, the number of bicycles sold was 5.6 million. This should be a wake-up call to anyone that something was changing, as this was a 51% increase in bike sales in only five years. The League of American Wheelmen held a convention which turned it into a national organization again. The American Cycling Newsletter was renamed American Cycling, and the cost went up to 35¢. At that time, Pete Hoffman took over the magazine and kept building it up until 1969. There were three cycling books published that year with titles which indicate topics of interest at that time: Bike Trails and Facilities, Safe Bicycling, and A Handbook on Bicycle Track and Cycle Racing. That year, TOSRV had 16 riders, which is about the minimum number that I would consider to be an event. And in 1965, I made three centuries and a touring trip of nearly 600 miles to the Smoky Mountains, during which I met two younger cyclists (I was 19 at the time) from Knoxville, who had been riding with a club there and showed me some useful methods for getting along with motorists on the narrow, congested roads of the national park.
In 1966, John Howard was in his first bicycle race, which he lost. TOSRV really did become an event this year, with 45 riders, three from out of state. A director was chosen, and a regular date was set. This was also the first year that it was called the TOSRV. That same year, Wandering Wheels made its first coast to coast ride, with 35 students on the trip. After that, coast to coast rides by the Wandering Wheels, with different starting and finishing points, became common. In 1966, I made my first really long bike tour, traveling from Alabama to Ontario and then back along the Mississippi River, over 3,400 miles. On the trip, I met the president of the Louisville (Kentucky) cycling club, and he told me he had made touring trips to Canada and another member had twice bicycled to Florida. Also, while bicycling into Louisville, I saw about 40 children riding bikes at one time or another on the road, including two on a tandem bike. I did not see a single other touring cyclist or even an adult cyclist during that tour. I did hear reports of someone very much like me traveling either in front or behind me while I was in Ontario, but the people who reported hearing about him did not actually see him, and the person sounded too much like me to be anyone else.
In 1967, TOSRV had about two hundred riders. The Wheelmen was founded the same year. This organization consists of enthusiasts who collect old bicycles and memorabilia and who ride high-wheelers. In the spring, I began what was supposed to be a four or five hundred mile tour, but on the first day, a motorist lost control of her vehicle and hit another vehicle. Although I was not at fault and no one was injured, I was rather upset. I did make a short tour instead.
In 1968, TOSRV had about four hundred riders. I began a tour in the spring, only to have another woman driver lose control of her vehicle. While I did make a second tour that year, it was entirely on back roads. On the second tour, I returned on the same night that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. That same year, Fred Bauer, who was not a cyclist, traveled by bike with his entire family from New York to as far as New Mexico, destination California. The youngest child rode on a child's seat, but the 13-year-old girl and the 11-year-old boy had to pedal the whole way. In December, American Cyclist changed its name to Bicycling! (with the exclamation mark). Circulation had climbed to 12,000, as the magazine had been broadened to include touring and family cycling.
In 1969, TOSRV had about seven hundred riders. The first edition of the North American Bicycle Atlas, an AYH publication, was published. Judging from the third edition (1971), this was a collection of day trip locations from around the country, with a few longer rides and some general information about touring. That year, Wandering Wheels went coed for the first time, including young women on a 900 mile tour in Georgia and Florida. Pete Hoffman left Bicycling! that year, and it was purchased by Rodale eight years later.
In 1970, it was obvious to me that the bicycle had come into its own. That year, Eugene Sloane's Complete Book of Bicycling was published, but I had more direct evidence. That year, I made my only long-distance automobile tour, and on that trip, I saw groups of touring cyclists several times on my trip across Canada. Bike sales had increased to 6.9 million by 1970, which was only a 23% increase from 1965, but the feeling of change was in the air. I planned to begin a winter tour and wanted a better bike than my Varsity, but the shops were out of bicycles due to the recent demand. The next four years would see a number of new bicycling books, and bike sales would jump to 15.2 million in 1973.
One of the changes during that period of time that greatly contributed to the popularity of cycling was in the bicycles themselves. After Schwinn introduced the balloon-tired bicycle in 1933, these bikes made up 2/3rds of the sales until 1960. These single-speed bikes were heavy, with fenders, carriers, lights, and fake gas tanks, which added to the weight. They are the daddy of the current mountain bike. The second most popular bike was also single speed, with somewhat lighter tires and a minimum amount of tubing, very much like a hybrid bike. However, the English had been making lighter bikes, equipped with Sturmey-Archer three-speed hubs, and these bikes began arriving in my area at the end of the fifties. My 1964 bike, which I used to travel to the Smokies, was such a three-speed, from England, but cheaper than the prestigious Raleigh. Of course, it was black with white fender patches. In 1960, Schwinn had begun production of derailleur-equipped, moderately-priced bikes, the Varsity and the Continental. In 1965, when I decided I needed a ten-speed bike, I discovered that both Columbia and Schwinn had them for sale, but I chose the Varsity because I wanted fenders. It must have been the right choice because I never did see a single Columbia bicycle. While bicycles had been imported from Europe all during the fifties and sixties (my 1953 child's bike was made in West Germany), towards the end of this period, lighter, better, and less expensive bikes than the Schwinn models began arriving while the Schwinn's actually became heavier in an attempt to keep the price low. (My 1965 Varsity weighed 40 pounds; my wife's 1971 Varsity weighed 45 pounds, in spite of a smaller frame, due to a change from alloy to steel handlebar, stem, and seatpost. Her bike also had a plastic seat, while my seat was leather.) In 1970, it was possible to purchase a ten-speed, 21-pound Peugeot PX-10 "racing bicycle" with double butted 531 seamless tubing for $160, while the Schwinn cost $100. However, the prices for the European bikes doubled within a few years, and the Schwinn Varsity managed to survive until 1986, a real dinosaur by that time.
I would judge the bikes at the end of that era to be mostly as good as the bikes of today with one major exception -- shifting. The derailleurs used then were extremely poor compared with current models, and the shifters tended to slip as well. Good shifting did not occur until SunTour redesigned the derailleur and the cogs.
Bike shops were not the same back then. Only the largest cities had real bike shops; otherwise, one mainly looked for bikes and bike supplies in the hardware store; in fact, a hardware store and a bike shop looked a lot alike anyway, as the bike shop would be garage-like, with cardboard boxes full of old parts. At that time, a bicycle was a once in a lifetime purchase for a child, and the bikes were seldom serviced, so there was not much money in selling and repairing bikes. Nor was there much bicycling gear available for sale either. Some cyclists have made fun of the Schwinn's being sold with lawn mowers, but actually that was the only way for the company to sell bikes during the long years when bike shops were not profitable. When I bought my Schwinn in '65, I ordered it from a nice catalog, but no bikes were actually kept in the store.
Equipment, as you may imagine, was in short supply, and often of toy quality. To measure the miles on my bike, I had to get a big, car-like toy speedometer. However, there was one exception: it was always easy to find a generator light for a bicycle, something which is impossible to find even in a bike shop today.
In short, there wasn't any. There really wasn't any during the 70's either. However, don't think of 60's cyclists as having long hair, granny glasses, bell-bottomed blue jeans, and tie-dyed shirts. That was the 70's. To go bicycling, one would put on some tennis shoes, canvas shoes, or loafers, a T-shirt, and some shorts. In the first half of the 60's, young males wore crew cuts, and in the second half, they began letting their hair grow a few inches long, which created great anguish for their parents and their barbers. Young females wore elaborate hairdos during the first half of this period but more simple styles towards the end, along with tighter dresses and sometimes mini-skirts and short shorts.
Bicycling on the Roadway
Traveling on a bike was actually much easier back then, at least for me. Although the highways were narrower, speeds were a lot lower, and there was a lot less traffic. Motorists were more polite as well. In making my trips, I just used the main highways. Unfortunately, there was some additional danger because motorists did not know how to behave when approaching cyclists, and there were many inexperienced women drivers on the road, as many middle-aged women were just then beginning to drive.
In many ways, the sixties were a less desirable time for cycling, but in many other ways, they were better than today. My overall judgment, however, is that bicycling is the same now as it was back then. While some things get better and others worse, the pleasure of riding a bike is the same, no matter the bike or the decade in which it is ridden. The most important factor is whether the cyclist is spending time on the bike or doing something much less important.
Sources of information: Glenn's Complete Bicycle Manual, 1973 edition, and The Cyclist's Sourcebook by Peter Nye, 1991, were the sources for most of this information. These books provided a great more detail than I used. I also used the TOSRV website, my memory, and information sent to me by the individuals (Robert E. Grebel, Jobst Brandt, and John Forester). A few other cycling books furnished a fact or two each.