Posts Tagged ‘Detroit Bicycle Club’

Elsa Von Blumen & Detroit’s first indoor bicycle track

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Some might think the new Lexus Velodrome is Detroit’s first — or even the first one indoors. It’s not. The Dorais Velodrome isn’t either.

In fact it’s challenging to know how many bicycle tracks Detroit has had since many were built just for a specific event.

One of those — and perhaps the first  — was built inside the former Music Hall for an endurance event in 1882.  Ms. Elsa Von Blumen (a pseudonym for Caroline Kiner) had come to Detroit in an attempt to ride 1,000 miles in six days, something she’d accomplished in Pittsburgh during the prior December.

Von  Blumen was born in Pensacola, Florida (or Kansas?), and not unlike Susan B. Anthony, moved with her family to Rochester, NY .

At age 19 she became a pedestrian racer, which was a popular sport at that time. There were plenty of endurance walking races, including six-day races in places like Madison Square Gardens and even Detroit. In 1881 she rode her first bicycle race against a horse: one mile for her, one and a half for the beast. She won 3 of 4 heats.

Many considered her the world’s top woman bicyclist of the time. Sue Macy, author of the book “Wheels of Change” says she was “one of the first competitive female athletes in the United States” — a role model for girls and young women at the start of the suffrage movement.

She told Bicycling World in 1881, “I feel I am not only offering the most novel and fascinating entertainment now before the people, but am demonstrating the great need of American young ladies, especially, of physical culture and bodily exercise. Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.”

Her Detroit Endurance Event

Her visit to Detroit didn’t start out well. She contracted a mild form of smallpox (called varioloid) shortly after arriving and was confined to the “pest house.” The case was very light and she soon recovered according to city’s Board of Health report.

To promote her race, images of her were posted at store shops around town. She offered a special invitation to other women.

Her plan was to ride for 91 hours at 11 miles an hour on a track that was 15 laps to a mile. The track was surveyed by the Assistant City Surveyor for accuracy. Chairs were arranged inside the track for spectators. There was a band to play music whenever she rode.

The Free Press downplayed her chances simply based on her appearance, “115 pounds, apparently not possessed of any of the physical characteristics essential to the successful accomplishment.”

She began her Detroit ride on Monday, April 10th, 1882 at 1 AM wearing a steel-gray suit trimmed with bullion fringe. She bowed to the crowd, got on her silver highwheeler bike, and the band started to play. She rode 35 miles in 3 hours before stopping for a two-hour sleep break. At the end of the first day, she’d ridden 140.

She mostly lived out of a Music Hall dressing room, ate three regular meals along with beef tea with crackers and some sips of port wine.

On Tuesday, she rode nearly 60 miles in the morning. Mr. Snow from the Detroit Bicycle Club rode with her for nine miles and crashed “in fine style” per the Free Press. The event manager also offered any local bicyclist $100 if they could match her miles for the final four days. She rode another 100 miles before the day was over.

Wednesday saw a slower pace at just over 10 MPH. Local ride “Robinson” was on the track riding behind her and hoping to win the $100 challenge. She finished the day with just over 449 miles.

Von Blumen continued on Thursday with another 70 miles by 3pm. The Free Press reported her looking “pan and wan, but as determined as ever.” She confidently stated that she would finish, but her nurse did mention her feet were getting cold. They had resorted to using a battery (!) to restore the blood circulation. She ended the day with 583 miles.

Friday’s low moment occurred when a spectator stepped on the track and caused her to crash over the bars.  She was thrown up against the steam heaters, hurting her head, and bruising her right leg from hip to ankle. She was carried to her dressing room and everyone thought she was quitting. Not so. She was back on her bike in 30 minutes, dizzy, weak and riding slow. While she ended the day with 707 miles, Robinson was now 7.3 miles ahead of her.

She started riding on Saturday still sore from the previous day’s crash yet got in 46 miles by noon. Her pace quickened. She had 800 miles by her dinner break. Many Detroiters began filling the Hall to watch, but especially women.

At 11:58 PM she got in 850 miles and the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. As she stopped, so did the orchestra It was an impressive endurance feat, but especially given her illness before the event began.

Robinson did out ride Von Blumen over the four days by just thirteen miles, earning himself the $100 prize.

Financial Troubles

Although the event drew a fair number of paying spectators, it still lost $400. Oddly enough, the event manager died just after the event as well.

To help pay off her debt, Detroit citizens arranged a benefit race at Recreation Park. Von Blumen would race in a 5-mile time trial event and two 5-mile races against some horses. The Detroit Bicycle Club would also hold races for its members. There was a 25 cents admission.

But before the event took place, her doctor during the 1,000 mile attempt claimed he was owed $121 dollars and the police seized her bicycle.

Fortunately a sympathetic officer let her ride her bicycle and she beat both of the horses before a good number of onlookers.

Another benefit was held a week later where Von Blumen rode a 7.5 miles race against three horse relay team doing 15. She won by a mile, literally.

It appears she left Detroit via Grand Rapids during the couple weeks that followed. She continued bicycle racing until the highwheelers went out of style.

It doesn’t appear she came back to Detroit, but she certainly left her mark. There’s little doubt her event inspired many Detroit women and girls to take up bicycling, but especially after the safety bicycle became popular in the 1890s.

Further Reading: An interesting interview with Elsa Von Blumen about a “very funny incident.” It was published on the front page of the Detroit Free Press on April 28, 1882.

Detroit Wheelmen: Fundraising to build a Clubhouse

Thursday, December 27th, 2012
Detroit Wheelmen Clubhouse at 53 E. Adams

Detroit Wheelmen Clubhouse at 53 E. Adams

The Detroit Bicycle Club was the city’s first in 1879. These were the day’s of highwheeler bicycles that appealed to young adventurous men but few others.

In fact L.J. Bates, the club’s first president wrote in that tricycles would eventually become more popular since they attracted a wider audience. A Free Press editorial from 1883 made the same prediction with this verbose attack on highwheelers.

Its demands upon the skill in balancing are too great to tempt many persons; those who indulge in it present a grotesque appearance in a garb which makes them look like convicts escaped from the penitentiary and which few care to display for the benefit or amusement of their fellowmen; while the dangers, or the necessity of guarding against danger, deprive the rider of much pleasure from scenery and wayside objects of interest.

However, tricycles never took over the market and interest in highwheelers faded. Detroit’s bicycle clubs faded as well.

The Comeback

But everything changed when the safety bicycle was introduced, a design not unlike today’s bicycles.

The safety bicycle not only kicked off Detroit’s golden age of bicycling, it helped revitalize the bicycle club scene. In 1890, the older clubs reorganized as the Detroit Wheelmen. In 1891, Detroit hosted the national convention for the League of American Wheelmen.

And with more women riding and the Detroit Wheelmen being for men only, the women-only Unique Cycling Club was formed 1893.

How close were the Detroit Wheelmen and Unique Cycling Club? In 1893 J. H. Gould was president of the former, while Mrs. J. H. Gould was president of the latter. Both clubs shared clubhouses, too.

The Clubhouse

Speaking of clubhouses, the growing interest in Detroit cycling meant a larger one was required. In order to build it they needed to raise funds — and they came up with a interesting idea. Since the circuses at the time didn’t tour during the winter, they could bring them to Detroit for a huge indoor show from Christmas to New Years.

According to the Free Press, “the Detroit Wheelmen have banished all thought of their favorite steeds for the time being… and [their] one-ring amateur circus grew into ‘the greatest show on earth,’ with three rings, clowns at all angles of the enclosure and elephants, trained lions and other wild beasts until you can’t rest.”

The circus was a “unqualified success” for the Detroit Wheelmen, raising over $2,000 in 1894 and $1,700 in 1895. It seemed they held their final circus in 1896 after they had begun construction on their new clubhouse.

The Unique Cycling Club played a role as well. They were in charge of the candy, popcorn, and flower booths. It appears they also oversaw the games of chance.

The Free Press published an article on December 26th, 1896 that describes this history and the Detroit cycling culture:

What a change has come over the Detroit Wheelmen in six short years! The old Detroit club disappeared from view, the Star club followed and for two or three years there was no bicycling organization in the city. Then several leaders organized the Detroit Wheelmen and for a long period the members met in modest quarters on Miami Avenue [later renamed Broadway.] The safety came into the field and proved such a success that the membership swelled and the club was warranted in securing splendid quarters on Washington avenue. Three years there showed an increase which necessitated more room and the old Strassburg Academy on Randolph street near Madison avenue was leased. Since moving there the organization has grown right along, until now there is paying membership and the future promises nothing but success for the organization. For a year the spirits who guide the destiny of the Wheelmen have thought of a club house of their own and after much hard work an arrangement was made whereby the club came into possession of a desirable piece of property on Adams avenue near Witherell street. On this site will be erected a $25,000 club house, work to commence next month if the weather is at all mild and by next summer the Detroit Wheelmen will own and occupy the most modern club house of any cycling organization in the west.

As it turned out, they spent $40,000 on the club house. That’s $1.1 million in 2012 dollars.

One interesting piece of trivia: They broke ground on the clubhouse on the same day Charles Brady King drove the first car in Detroit.

Shrine Circus

There’s one more interesting piece of this story.

Having seen the success of the Wheelmen’s circus, the Detroit Shriners decided to also raise funds with an indoor circus. They relied on Dr. Russell Pearce who organized the Detroit Wheelmen’s circuses. In 1906, they held the first ever Shrine Circus in Detroit which has grown across the U.S. since then.