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How bike snobs ended Boston’s first cycling boom

University of Massachusetts Press

Bicycling is big in Boston and a sign of the city’s prosperity boom: A city that can afford to invest in bicycle infrastructure is doing all right, and the rush of expensive carbon frames down Memorial Drive on Sundays speaks to the wealth that’s been created here over the last decade.

The popularity of cycling as a recreational activity may feel unique to this cultural moment. In fact, the current era is actually at least the second time bicycling has been a big part of Boston city life — and if the first go-around was any indication, it’s a pastime that can lose favor as quickly as it gains it.

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In a new book, “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900,” Lorenz Finison, a Needham resident and founder of the organization Cycling Through History, explains how cycling exploded in popularity in Boston in the last decades of the 19th century, following a trend that had started in Europe. “Boston was very much an Anglophile city,” says Finison. “There was a natural line of transmission and importation of early bicycles from England.”

The first bicycles imported to Boston were the big-wheelers, with one oversized wheel in the front and a smaller one in the rear. They were hard to ride, especially for women and “less athletic, shorter men” says Finison. But even with this limitation, he explains that cycling gained favor as an alternative to sports like “professional pedestrianism” (race walking) that “had gotten heavily involved with gambling.” He adds that early cycling boosters in Boston were “concerned with creating a sport that was upper-middle-class and clean in its pretensions.”

University of Massachusetts Press

Cycling really began to look like the activity we’d recognize today in the late 1880s, with the invention of the chain drive, brakes, gears, and pneumatic tires. Together, these parts allowed for a bicycle that was faster and easier to handle. As bicycles improved and became less expensive to manufacture, a whole cycling culture sprouted in Boston. This included multiday touring events like the Wheel Around the Hub (which originated in 1879) and the creation of cycling clubs whose members would take long rides that often terminated at hotels, where they’d break for lunch (kind of an analog to the way riding groups often finish at coffee shops today).

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As the Globe reported at the end of September, the explosion of cycling also created the kinds of tensions between cyclists and the community we see today: In 1898, residents of Beacon Hill and Back Bay shouted down a proposed bike track through Boston Common, and Brookline officials repeatedly refused to bend the town’s speed limits — set from 8 to 10 miles per hour — to accommodate bike races.

Participation in cycling began to decline in the late 1890s, though not for the reasons people think, Finison explains. “The reason is not the advent of the automobile,” he says. Instead, he argues that cycling became a victim of its own success. Cycling first developed as an upper-middle-class leisure activity, but by the end of the 19th century, the price of a used bicycle had fallen to $3, making one affordable to anyone.

“Many more people began to cycle,” Finison says, “and it lost its cachet. The upper middle class went on to other leisure pursuits, like expanding golf clubs.”

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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.