The Reno Wheelmen Bicycle Team

In the early 1850s, progressive leaders in the nascent women’s liberation movement discovered turkish dress or bloomers, which gave women a newfound freedom of movement. When the bicycle craze raged over Europe and the United States later that century, the trouser-like garment enabled women to join in the fun and travel on their own for the first time. In 1894, after two men bet $20,000 that no woman could bike around the world in one year’s time — a man had done it in 1884 — 5-foot-3-inch, 100-pound Annie (Cohen) Londonderry proved them wrong.

Within a year of its founding, the club became Reno’s most prominent social organization.

Bike racing is certainly a sexy sport today with lightning fast speed, high-tech equipment and skin-tight latex bodysuits, but like skiing it has its roots in a more pedestrian purpose. Similar to cross-country skiing, cycling began as a basic mode of transportation.

Crossing the Sierra by bike

Before the advent of the automobile, the bicycle was often the only form of transportation available. During the great railroad strike of 1894, passenger and freight trains from Chicago to California were effectively shut down for weeks. Reno residents Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and their 3-year-old child arrived in San Francisco by steamer in July 1894. After learning that no trains were running, they boarded a Sacramento-bound steamer. On arrival, they purchased two bicycles and set off for their home in Nevada. Bicycles at the time were bulky, heavy and had no brakes.

In a story published by the University of Nevada Student Record in February 1895, Wilson described their bicycle trip from Sacramento to Nevada: “The change of temperature after leaving San Francisco was the change from an ice house to a furnace. We cycled from Sacramento through dust and heat and rolled into Roseville Junction at high noon.”

They continued riding east and at one point, rode past a strike-stalled overland train where the stranded passengers cheered them on. They reached Auburn shortly before midnight, having ridden 36 miles and climbed 1,330 feet in elevation.

California roads were very poor at that time so the trio (the Wilson’s son rode on a small seat mounted over the rear wheel of his father’s bike) frequently rode along railroad tracks that were eerily quiet due to the work stoppage. The bumpy ride blew out one of their tires so they took to a wagon road, but the intense heat of the sand burst another tire. After a short overnight rest near Colfax, the couple returned to the railroad right-of-way and pedaled on to Emigrant Gap. They finally reached the snow sheds where the temperature was “a delightful change from that prevailing outside.”

There was no train traffic, but they did have one close call while riding through the railroad snow sheds: “As no trains were running we had things all to ourselves, until way off in the distance we heard a rumbling which came nearer and nearer. Thinking it might be a fire train, of which we had been warned, we got off the track, when like a flash a hand car shot by us.”

Eventually they passed over Donner Summit at 7,017 feet and began the slow, choppy descent down the east side. The road at this point had been washed out by “mountain torrents” the winter before so they were forced to “push, pull and carry their wheels for two miles. During all this time, the boy sat in his seat without a murmur, reported his father.

Exhausted, but inspired by the scenery, Mr. Wilson wrote: “The view from this point was magnificent; way below us lay Donner Lake, and right at the side of the road were 10 feet of snow.”

They reached Truckee late that night where they “felt that they were almost home.” The next day they took the Dog Valley route to Reno, but finding it too steep for safe riding without brakes, they borrowed some cordwood and used it for a drag.

After four grueling days, the Wilson’s reached Reno: “While riding down Commercial Row and into Virginia Street we were given quite an ovation. Tis needless to say that we were glad to reach home, although the trip was most enjoyable and one long to be remembered.”

Reno Wheelmen since 1896

With all the tricked-out, expensive bikes designed for road racers, mountain bikers and ultra-distance riders out there, it may seem that the sport is a recent phenomenon. But more than a century ago bike racing was one of the most prominent sports in the U.S. and racing clubs were common throughout the country.

In 1896, in response to a challenge by a Carson City racing club, avid cyclists in the Biggest Little City organized the Reno Wheelmen. Within a year of its founding, the club became Reno’s most prominent social organization. The group built Wheelmen’s Hall to accommodate all their activities; the building also housed a weight room, pool tables and a large room for group functions.

Four years later, the Reno Wheelmen earned a name for themselves when they defeated Sacramento’s race team to win the Pacific Coast Championships on July 4, 1900. In a stunning upset, the Nevadan’s took the title from the Golden State by winning a 50-mile relay against Sacramento’s best racers. More than 5,000 spectators cheered on their teams, including several hundred Renoites who had taken the train to California.

It was a straightforward contest. There were 10 riders for each team and each rider rode 5 consecutive miles. The Wheelmen won the race by a margin of nearly 1 mile. The best time made for 5 miles was 12 minutes and 20 seconds by Arthur Keddie from Reno.

In his book, “Reminiscences of an Active Life,” George Peckham described the post victory celebrations: “After the race bedlam broke loose and the Reno Wheelmen were given the freedom of Sacramento. Policemen told the boys the city was theirs, but advised them not to break any windows.”

Winning the Pacific Coast Championships was a challenging accomplishment that the Reno Wheelmen would repeat 10 more times.

Today the Reno Wheelmen cycling club sponsors rides and races year-round for all levels and abilities. The club’s legendary Tour de Nez race — named after Reno’s earliest coffee house — was one of the country’s first to award cash prizes to women racers.

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.