River City Cycling

Then and Now
by Amy Groh

As a forerunner in the sport—with record-setting cyclists and advanced bicycle production—Peoria has had a huge impact on this great American pastime.

A Rich Cycling History

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” but have you heard “Prove it in Peoria”? In the preface to his 1990 book, Bicycle Fever, Steven Streight said, “If a cyclist considered himself a world class racer, Peoria was where he had to prove it. And if he could ‘prove it in Peoria,’ the rest of the world trembled.”

In the late 1800s, Peoria was the place for cyclists. We had shops, we had innovation and we had design, and enthusiasts flocked to Peoria for races and tournaments. Even so, the sport was not always viewed favorably. “It’s hard to believe that at one time [bicycles] stirred up a storm of controversy,” wrote Streight. Back then, doctors debated the effects of cycling on a person’s health, and cyclists were even “considered deluded…Violent, irrational reactions to cycles were not uncommon…Cyclists were harassed, attacked and knocked off their machines.”

The earliest bicycles, called high-wheelers, were unstable and dangerous to ride. Today, it doesn’t take long for most people to learn how to ride, but back then, “a person did not just buy one, hop on it and pedal off to the grocery store,” said Streight. “Riding these cycles required great skill, patience and endurance.” Because riders were several feet off the ground when atop a high-wheeler, a fall could be dangerous, and sometimes even deadly.

Wheels were first made of wood, and then solid rubber, before today’s rubber tube tires became universal. The poorly-engineered brake system, consisting of a small, hand-operated brake affixed to the front wheel, proved undependable, and the large front wheel impaired one’s ability to turn. Aside from these troubles, the roads presented perils of their own as well.

The poor condition of roads in the 19th century helped to spur the organization of bicycle clubs, which were devoted to efforts to make cycling safer, among other things. Another precipitator was the negativity which surrounded the sport: “Cycling clubs were formed in response to the antagonism of anti-cyclists. A large group of people riding cycles together was more difficult to intimidate than a lone cyclist. Club members dressed in military-style uniforms and presented an image of solidarity that commanded respect.” Clubs also offered the chance to “compare bicycle models, share new techniques and tricks, trade information with each other on road conditions, and plan promotional activities to advance the cause of cycling.” While there were numerous cycling clubs throughout the nation, the Peoria Bicycle Club was one of the “largest and most distinguished,” with 450 members at its peak.

While high-wheelers made cycling a popular spectator sport, “‘safety bikes,’” Streight claimed, turned it into “an activity that the masses could participate in and enjoy.” As its name implies, the safety bike made cycling less dangerous by significantly lowering the rider, decreasing the turning radius and making the two wheels the same size. This evolution made it possible for women to partake in the two-wheeled sport. Prior to the safety bike, women were not always able to reach the pedals, and their dresses made it unfeasible for them to sit on a bicycle and remain modest.

In both technological advancement and the enthusiasm of riders and spectators, Peoria was well ahead of its time. As a testament to this, one of the nation’s first bicycle shops and manufacturing plants—Rouse, Hazard, & Co.—was located right here in Peoria. The city’s location between Chicago and St. Louis helped draw crowds of cyclists and cycling enthusiasts from throughout the Midwest, the nation and even foreign countries.

Before football, baseball and basketball took over in the 1930s, bicycle racing was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Lake View Grandstand, which once stood on the current site of Woodruff Park at Grant and Adams streets, played host to fierce competitions where many records were set. Bert Myers, Peoria’s finest cyclist, “became so adept at racing a 50-inch unicycle, he ran out of competition and would race against the clock instead of other cyclists,” wrote Streight. In addition to boasting phenomenal cyclists, “The Greatest Bicycle Race in U.S. History” took place on September 12th and 13th in 1890 at Lake View Park, bringing more record-breaking cyclists together in one spot than in the entire previous history of racing.

The invention and popularization of automobiles also contributed to the decline of interest in bicycling. In an article which appeared in the Peoria Journal-Transcript, Josephine Emerson Putnam wrote, “With the rapidly increasing interest in the development and use of the automobile came the inevitable and very perceptible decrease in the interest and use of the bicycle…As the number of autos increased rapidly, just so did the pleasure of a bicycle ride likewise fade—for the dust of unpaved roads had been suffocating to the point of ruination of the rider’s lungs, long before any larger vehicle had made this situation infinitely worse.” But as technological advances were made in the automotive industry, they were also made in the cycling industry.

From High-Wheelers to Hybrids

Just as there are different types of cars—coupe, sedan, SUV—there are different types of bikes—road, mountain, hybrid. These days, racers generally use road bikes, which have light frames and narrow, high-pressure tires. Because these bikes are built for racing, the rider’s comfort is sacrificed for a lightweight, faster and more responsive ride. Saddles, or seats, have less cushioning, making the bikes lighter, and handlebars put riders in an aerodynamic position, lessening wind resistance.

Mountain bikes are, in essence, the opposite of road bikes. They are heavy-duty and not designed to be ridden on pavement or to go especially fast. Their frames are built of more durable material that can withstand the bumps and jumps required of rough, off-road riding. The tires are wide and treaded, providing the rider with more stability on trails. Handlebars allow riders to be in more of an upright position and shocks are often used to make the ride more comfortable.

While both types are common, the most popular type of bike is the hybrid—a combination of the road and mountain bikes. Designed to be universal, allowing riders to pursue limited mountain biking and road riding, hybrids are most commonly used for leisure, commuting and getting around town. Their frames are built of medium- to heavy-weight materials, and their tires are wider than road bikes, yet not as wide as mountain bikes. Handlebars allow riders to sit in an upright position, making the ride more comfortable. Because most cyclists today want to be able to ride with their families, race with their buddies and hop on a trail with coworkers once in a while, both Russell’s Cycling & Fitness in Washington and Bellevue Bicycle in Peoria Heights sell more hybrid bikes than any other type.

Joe Russell said most customers come to his store looking for a comfortable bike that requires little maintenance. Riders want to have dependable bikes that won’t break down, and they “want to smile when riding.” The saddle must be comfortable, handlebars need to put riders in a position in which they can ride all day, and tires must be durable and dependable. The average rider doesn’t want to worry about changing a tire while on a leisurely ride with the family. Russell said he and his staff try to figure out what keeps people from riding and eliminate that element from their experience.

Russell’s Cycling and Fitness evolved from a one-man operation in 1997 to a regionally-known store equipped with 28 different styles of fitness solutions—everything from treadmills to home gyms. While a freshman at Bradley University, Joe Russell began fixing bikes by himself in his father’s garage. His business grew consistently, and this past March, they finished a complete renovation of their store in Washington.

Bellevue Bicycle was started by Rex Floyd in his home in Bellevue in 1942. In 1958, he moved his store to Peoria. Doyle Collins bought the company from Floyd in 1976 and has been running it with his son, Josh, ever since. Under the Collins’ management, Bellevue Bicycle’s location changed several times before settling in its current location on Prospect Avenue in Peoria Heights, not far from where the old Rouse, Hazard & Co. factory stood in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Finding the Proper Fit

Both Russell’s and Bellevue have “bike experts” on hand, ready to fit customers for their perfect bikes. Russell likened being fitted for a bicycle to being fitted for clothing. “It’s exactly like having a suit or dress tailored for you. A properly-fitted bike will be correct for men or women.”

Both companies fit riders in-store, taking a series of measurements and asking relevant questions about the type of riding each cyclist plans to do. Bellevue Bicycle’s Alan Enslow said it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours to properly fit riders with bikes, depending on their preferences and the type of riding they want to pursue. The length of the frame and distance of the handlebars from the seat are shorter on women’s bikes than on men’s, and saddles need to be in just the right place to work with riders’ pelvic bones.

Enslow noted that when most customers shop at Bellevue Bicycle, they choose a bike based solely on its price, which is not the best way to go about it. He said that cyclists should consider things like which company makes the bike and what its warranty covers, as well as the service provided by the bike shop after the purchase is made. He suggested customers look into what service packages and tune-ups are included, especially within the first year, as well as how quick the turnaround is after dropping the bike off for service.

Russell expressed that without taking a test ride, it’s difficult to be sure any bike will be a great fit for its rider. For this reason, he allows all customers to take bikes out for a spin before buying. In his opinion, getting out on the road and feeling how the bicycle rides can really determine if a particular bike is right for him or her. Once a bike is chosen, it’s time to gear up.

Don’t Ride Without It

When asked what equipment is not merely suggested, but essential, both Russell and Enslow quickly responded, “a helmet.” Russell added, “Helmets are more than a good idea; they’re necessary.” Today’s technological advances have improved the look, weight and breathability of bicycle helmets, making them more appealing to riders.

Another important piece of equipment for all cyclists is a flat repair kit. These days, they include air systems used to pump tires, a spare tire tube and tire levers, all of which fit into a small bag attached to the frame under the saddle. Russell added a mirror to this list of essentials, noting that this is especially important when bikers listen to music while riding. When unable to hear what’s around you, seeing becomes even more important.

Like any other sport, there are a plethora of gadgets and accessories which, while not necessary, can improve performance and make cycling more comfortable and enjoyable. The purchase of these is up to riders’ preferences and particular situations. A person who uses his/her bike solely for commuting within a city’s limits probably wouldn’t need a GPS device as much as a mountain biker would.

Hit the Trails

While Peoria is no longer the cycling mecca it once was, the sport remains very popular here in central Illinois, where we are blessed to have an extensive trail system. Today’s bicycles have come a long way from their high-wheeled ancestors, now offering riders more comfort and control. And with such advances, who wouldn’t want to hop on a bike and hit the trails? A&S