Amherst College Bicycle Club 1882
Amherst College’s romance with the bicycle started off in the winter of 1868-69 with the velocipede, a bone-rattling, derriere-damaging, wood and iron contraption. Velocipedes were the hottest of trends in the nation that year.
Charles E. Pratt describes the velocipede in his 1879 The American Bicycler: “the best machine as made here was a heavy wooden-and-iron affair, with rigid wheels nearly of a size, with flat iron or steel tires… and with the rider poised about midway between them in an unnatural position, thrusting out his feet before him for propulsion, and only able to keep his equilibrium by constant and laborious effort.” Indeed the velocipede was so difficult to ride that it was considered primarily an indoor activity, best accomplished on a smooth, level surface. Nonetheless, the thrill of speed and self-locomotion worked its seduction on Amherst students; George Cutting describes the “velocipede mania, which extended so widely in the winter of 1868-69” in this 1871 book Student Life at Amherst College, “many of the students spent most of their leisure time in learning to manage this new agent of locomotion, and, for a while, nothing was talked or thought of but the velocipede. The excitement, however, died away almost as quickly as it had arisen, and hardly a trace of it remains.” (Article on Velocipedes, above, from the Amherst Student of February 20, 1869)
Cycling made its comeback more slowly, easing into college life in the late 1870s and early 1880s. By this time, the high wheel bicycle had come into fashion – it was much easier to ride and made outdoor riding and even touring possible. The first advertisements for bicycles are found in the Amherst Student in the May 22, 1880 issue. Early mentions of the Bicycle Club appear in May and June of 1881. The bicycle club appears to have been an amateur racing and touring society, whose members traveled together to area races and events. The club seems to have disbanded once bicycle racing became incorporated into track events.
One of the most enthusiastic early bicyclists was Charles S. Mills, class of 1882. His scrapbook (Scrapbooks Collection) contains programs from races in Springfield, Belchertown and Boston and his ribbons and medals along with the photograph above, presumably showing his room with the bicycle in prominent position.
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Bicycle racing was incorporated into college athletics sometime in the mid-1880s. Track team photographs begin to incorporate high-wheel bicycles in 1887 (Amherst College Athletics Collection).
One of the most charming photographs of the high-wheel era was donated to Archives and Special Collections in 1942 by Tryon Dunham (on the left in the photograph above). He writes that the photograph is of “Frank Delabarra and myself [Class of] 1890 with our high wheeled bicycles which we rode all around Amherst”.
The high wheel bicycle was replaced by the “safety” bike around 1895. The safely bike (so called because it was indeed much safer and easier to ride) is the first bicycle that closely resembles modern bikes. These bicycles can be seen in track team photographs into the early 1900s.
Bicycle racing fell out of favor as a track event in the early 1900s and hasn’t been considered a sport at Amherst since. But bicycles have certainly remained an important part of student life.