The local bike craze is nothing new |

The local bike craze is nothing new

Brent Gardner-Smith

Biking in Aspen may have been even more popular a hundred years ago than it is today. Starting in 1897, there was a regular race from Basalt to Glenwood Springs along the Colorado Midland Railway right of way, and it attracted riders from Denver, Grand Junction, Fruita, Glenwood Springs and Aspen. “Bicycle Road Race is Great Success” trumpeted the 1910 edition of the Glenwood Post. “The thirteenth annual bicycle road race run last Sunday over the twenty-three mile country road course between Basalt and Glenwood Springs was in many respects a greater success than any similar event in the past,” the paper noted.

An article from the Aspen Democrat-Times from the same time period noted that “about 250 Aspenites took in the Road Race Sunday. Upon arriving at Basalt, it was found that it would be necessary to wait for an hour before leaving for the starting point of the race – and Kelly’s [saloon] was closed! But Mayor Kennedy, a congenial soul, soon fixed that.”

The bike race started at Emma and ran down a wagon road alongside the railroad track. Up to 13 railway cars full of well-dressed fans were brought in from Leadville, Aspen and Glenwood Springs for the races and the trains would run alongside the bike racers to Glenwood. “There were no mishaps and no serious dissatisfaction and the boys were in such good form that they rode the last end of the race in much better time than had been expected of them,” the Post reported. “In fact after the train pulled up to station in Glenwood there was just barely time to get the judges in a rig and take them to the finish line in time for them to see the first man in, Jess Joy of Aspen, cross the tape.”

The Basalt-to-Glenwood Springs races continued through 1918, said Larry Fredrick, a volunteer historian with Heritage Aspen. “It was tremendously popular,” said Fredrick. The race was held in conjunction with an annual event called the Glenwood Carnival of Sports and for years the time to beat from Basalt to Glenwood Springs was one hour, 11 minutes and 27 seconds, still a respectable pace today. And Aspen’s Jesse Joy was a regular competitor. In one race with 25 competitors, it appeared he was taken out by a dirty trick. “Jesse Joy was clipping along at a good rate, having passed all the riders excepting [Russel] Welch, when he punctured his wheel,” the Democrat-Times reported. “Upon investigating the cause of the puncture he found several pieces of leather with small nails sticking up through and covered with dust, and the leather nailed to the earth, thus making a sure puncturing device.” Biking was indeed popular in Aspen in the 1890s and the early part of the last century, but not necessarily more so than in any other part of the country. “We were not an exception,” said Fredrick. “It was the rage elsewhere and was the rage here.”

The first human-powered two-wheelers appeared in 1817, long before Europeans discovered the Roaring Fork Valley. Called velocipedes, the contraptions were little more than a wooden beam between two wheels. Riders, not having the benefit of pedals, scooted themselves along.

After decades of innovations, bicycles as we more or less know them today, complete with air in their pneumatic tires, became wildly popular in the 1880s. In 1895, one in 10 of Aspen’s roughly 5,000 residents owned a bike, according to Fredrick, who pointed out that the bikes were expensive items. By 1897, 200 million bikes were being produced in the United States, according to a recent exhibit on the history of the bicycle at the Springfield Science Museum in Massachusetts. And just like today, athletic feats were dreamed up by local riders. In 1894, Henry H. Clark and a friend rode from Aspen to Detroit, Mich., and back.

In April 1902, two Aspenites let The Aspen Times know that they planned to ride to Salt Lake City and back. “Of course they expect to work the pedals pretty fast, and have each rigged up a third wheel which will enable them to travel by rail,” the Times reported. “They expect to cut the wind of the Grand valley at a rate of 10 miles an hour and will bypass through DeBeque at such a terrific speed that the denizens of that little burg may imagine another gusher has broken loose.” That same month, the Times noted that new bike models were coming out in time for spring. The article foreshadowed what was to become a mainstay of living in modern Aspen. “Now the time has come for the legitimate use of the machine,” the Times wrote. “It is a great advantage for the man who is in a hurry. It enables him to get over considerable ground in an exceeding short space of time. “The fad and the craze is at an end but the bicycle craze will now become permanent and the dealers will learn from experience how many they can make without overstocking the market, and when to quit without leaving a demand unsupplied.”