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Race Street and the Central Wheelmen

July 30, 2013

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Kaleidoscopic Views on Race Street on Saturday Night

It is extremely evident that the cyclists “own” Race Street on Thursday nights. Particularly that part of Race Street between Fifth and Ninth Streets. The bikers begin to arrive from all directions and all points about 8:00. The come on tandems and single wheels, the single wheel predominating. The prevailing costume of the ladies is the short-skirt. Now and then a bloomer girl makes her appearance…

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The bicycle fiend, who has heretofore been compelled to confine his jaunts to the suburbs, has come into the city and Race Street is his paradise. Any evening scores of bicyclists wearing their knee-breeches and base-ball caps can be seen taking advantage of the pleasant ride on their machines which the new pavement affords.  1886 August 8 Cincinnati Enquirer

Race Street in Downtown Cincinnati has always been a lure for those in need to test their speed on the long straightaway. In the early 19th century the frequency with which impromptu races were run from 4th Street up to the Canal (on Liberty) led the City to pass an ordinance in 1822 prohibiting speeding. This prohibition applied to the horses, so when cyclists began to arrive in the late 1870’s the desire for speed was renewed.

And from the Reporter’s Notebook, Cincinnati Enquirer April 30, 1896:

The practice of “scorching” – the term used by bicyclers for fast riding – has become such a nuisance in some places that City Councils are passing ordinances against it …It is likely to be considered here unless more care is shown by the hundreds of cyclers nightly on Race, Seventh, and other smooth streets in that vicinity. Almost every night some pedestrian narrowly escapes being run over by some rider going at the rate of 20 miles an hour. While a few of the cyclists have bells or whistles, a large majority do not. The various cycle clubs, rather than have any trouble with the authorities, may take action themselves, as they are mostly people of standing and good sense, who are not disposed to abuse the privileges accorded them.

The Porkopolis Star writing for Bicycle World in the same year had a different take on the scene along Race:

As I passed up Race Street one Sunday afternoon not long ago and saw it deserted by all save the numerous small boy with his safety [sic], it struck me how different it was from the scenes of five years ago. Then the asphalt was but newly laid, and the sidewalks on Sunday afternoons were crowded by those who had come to see the bi-sick-els! Then it was that Levi was in this glory and excited the admiration of the applauding multitude with his then wonderful trick riding. Then was it that the complacent Archie Potter pedaled back and forth, firmly believing that he made many a feminine heart flutter. Then the voluble Sence on his glistening full nickeled wheel grew still more voluble when he took a fall. Then it was that Delni, on the only safety in the city would zig-zag at full speed up and down the street, apparently oblivious of the dangerous proximity of the ordinaries, and would have maledictions poured out on his head by the unfortunate riders whose sudden downfall he frequently caused. Here our Teddy [Alsup – a Crescent Club racer] began his famous career, and here was organized the Central Wheelmen who, like a meteor, flashed upon our gaze, dazzled us for a while…

The Central Wheelmen were formed after a gathering of eight young men at A.A. Bennett’s on 6th and Race on September 1, 1887. They initially held meetings in Bennett’s storeroom and shortly after rented rooms for the first winter at 282 Race Street, until finally finding good rooms at the Saxony Building at the corner of Ninth and Race Street. The moved there May 1st, 1887. The club continued to grow at a great pace, so once again the members sought out larger quarters. They settled on an old stone church located on Seventh between Central Avenue and John Streets. This building was large enough that they could furnish it with roller skates and polo equipment for indoor bicycle polo. In the winter the riders would train by sprinting from a standing start and doing gymnastics (such as lunges and standing high jumps). The old church had a wheelroom and assembly room as well.  By the Spring of 1888 they boasted fifty members – having grown from just eight in a year. Membership dues were $5 for initiation fee and $1 per month.

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