Although cyclists ride year-round, springtime is the season associated with outdoor athletics. This photograph from the collection of Al Holden was donated with the information, “Bike race start at Gosman’s.” Although undated, most likely this photograph was taken in the late 1970s. George Watson, owner of the Dock, began launching annual athletic events from his iconic bar in 1976. For example, running to the Lighthouse and back to the Dock for free beer was one challenge. Watson conducted rowing and running races, as well, at which he and his brothers excelled. The Holden collection contains photographs of these races, which leads us to believe that this photograph may represent a Watson race.
Bicycle history is a fascinating one. Although the original model with one huge wheel was invented in 1817, its modern descendant was presented to the world by John Kemp Starley in 1885. From “Bicycle’s Bumpy History” on history.com we learn that Starley “perfected a ‘safety bicycle’ design that featured equal-sized wheels and a chain drive. New developments in brakes and tires followed shortly, establishing a basic template for what would become the modern bicycle.” By the 1890s a bicycle craze was at fever pitch in America, and in 1893 the Montauk Wheelmen, consisting of “American wheelmen and wheel ladies” from East Hampton and Amagansett, was born.
What’s surprising to learn is the bicycle’s powerful impact on society. Cyclists’ demands for better roads positively affected rural areas whose country byways were in deplorable condition. Filled with potholes and “canyons,” these roads were an agony not only for “peddlers,” but also for farmers and their horses hitched to wagons. Wheelmen worked in concert with the “Good Roads Association” to create flat, hard surfaces in support of wheel and animal traffic. In addition, railroad companies made every effort to meet the demands of wheelmen, whose requests for paved paths running alongside train tracks could sometimes be accommodated. In fact, railroad cars and outdoor sheds dedicated to bike storage started in the 19th century, when wheelers used the LIRR to reach biking destinations (interestingly, Greenport was known to have excellent roads for biking).
Visually, a mile-long “snake” of cyclists was a stunning sight for onlookers, especially in the evening, when illumination was required. This June 5, 1896 Star account of a parade from Patchogue to Sayville that included East End wheelmen captures something of the magic of the event, a still-new sport for many who came out to see: “The moonlight run under the auspices of the Patchogue wheelmen to Sayville Wednesday was far more of a success than had been anticipated. At 6:45 the run left, reaching Sayville at 7:40. The wheelmen made a beautiful show as the 125 lamps twinkled and danced like giant fireflies.” Forty of those participants were women, some wearing the newly reinvented “bicycle bloomer.” People had driven to Sayville in carriages and witnessed the parade there; afterward, ice cream saloons were flooded with business.
Thankfully, “wheeling” in 2021 matches the fervor that accompanied the sport in 1893 and again, in the late 1970s. Free beer or no beer, nothing will keep a dedicated cyclist off his or her “winged steed of steel.”