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Legends & Legacies: 1880s bicycling beginnings in Aspen

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
William Martin, champion of the six-day bicycle rider of the world, 1891.
Library of Congress

The Aspen Times noted in 1884, “The bicycle rider is said to be like a South American state, because he is always on the brink of a revolution.”

Acceptance was slow, and by the 1880s they had been around for decades, but you can see why just looking at the photo of one. Before gears were added they were direct drive and to have any speed the wheel had to be large making bicycles tall and riders far above the ground. They were hard to mount, although a horse was just as high. They flipped over easily, both forward and backward. Rocky roads added more complications. 

Bicycle rider accidents made the papers almost weekly. At the same time there was fascination for the new transportation mode.



An 1883 account told the story of a Colorado miner whose mine, the Spondulix, was over 2,600 feet in elevation from the camp below. A fellow miner was injured and the rider volunteered, because “it would be swifter than on horse down the slope” to fetch the doctor. It was nighttime, but with good moonlight the rider flew down the rocky road and soon his brake broke, leaving him “nothing to do but stick to the saddle and take my chances.” Part way down he saw the lantern of a teamster heading his way. Fortunately, the teamster left just enough room on the mountainside of the road for him to pass. He made it to the doctor’s office having covered the nine miles in the unbelievable time of 13 minutes.

A well-known rider, C.C. Hopkins, organized a two-day demonstration at Aspen’s Rink Opera House. He scheduled a closing demonstration, a race against a roller skater, F.A. Morton from Denver. At the time the building doubled as a roller rink and performance hall. The plan was for a one-mile race, but after a few laps the biker could not negotiate the sharp turns that the roller skater could, so the race ended before he crashed.




Bicycle racing attracted interest, and locals followed races and records even though few in Aspen had bicycles. The first advertisement by a dealer wasn’t until 1889 for a Velociped bicycle at George F. Higgins and Company Sporting Goods, but it was in Denver, not Aspen.

An example was when Frank Dingley broke the bicycle record going 100 miles in five hours and 28 minutes, about 11 1/2 minutes faster than the English record. In 1888 at the Hartford World Championships, a Mr. Rowe clocked a mile in 3 minutes and 34.75 seconds.

The best-known local rider was Rev. Beavis, a Presbyterian minister who was established in the hierarchy of his church on the state level. His major local activity, to stop youth smoking, led to his founding the Boys’ Anti-tobacco Battalion. It appears he took up riding for health reasons. In 1888 he biked around the Fort Collins area and then rode all the way from Denver to Aspen.

Aspen closed out the 1880s with a bicycle tournament at Athletic Park. It featured the U.S. champion team that included three women. The star was Wilbur F. Knapp, who was billed as the champion of the world. In 1888 he set a world record riding 40 miles in two hours in England. He rode a Penny-Farthing bicycle, also known as a high-wheel, that was made of metal not wood and had rubber tires. He was dubbed a “high-wheeler.”

The finale of the tournament was a one-mile race between Knapp and a local trotting horse named Ambush. It was a close race to the end with Knapp squeezing ahead in the final 30 yards.

You may be interested in knowing that high-wheelers became popular in England during the recent pandemic. A warning if you are inclined to try it out — they are very expensive bicycles.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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