May 30, 1887
HE RIDES WITH a dash and daring that can almost be called recklessness.” So marveled the Bulletin’s sports columnist, describing Pittsburgh’s newest wheelman, a nineteen-year-old prodigy named Frank George Lenz. Perched atop a massive, spidery wheel measuring fifty-six inches in diameter, the precocious Lenz, the reporter noted, “surmounts curbstones and dashes over objects with an ease and abandon that calls forth admiration from even old and experienced riders.”
Young Lenz in fact cut a dashing figure on or off his wheel, with his sandy blond hair, boyishly handsome face, piercing blue eyes, and muscular five-foot-seven frame. His ever-flashing grin, easygoing manner, and cheerful company quickly made him as popular with the public as he was with his peers.
A decade earlier, at the dawn of American wheeling, this bookkeeper from a modest German American family might have seemed a bit out of his element. The pioneer wheelmen were predominantly eastern elitists who practiced medicine, architecture, law, and other prestigious professions, while emulating the predilections of their English counterparts. But the sport’s popularity had grown considerably in the interim, as Americans enjoyed greater prosperity and increased leisure time. Cycling welcomed respectable, up-and-coming young men like Lenz, driven by ambition.
In Pittsburgh alone, the nation’s twelfth-largest city with a population around a quarter of a million, the local fleet of wheelmen had grown from about twenty-five hearty riders to about three hundred, including a handful of lady tricyclists. The national figure, meanwhile, had surpassed 100,000. Numerous clubs flourished across the country, and a handful of manufacturers operated in the East and Midwest.
The impressive growth of the cycling industry in the 1880s was due in large part to the vigorous efforts of Albert A. Pope, the pioneer American manufacturer and the maker of Lenz’s Columbia bicycle. This Boston businessman helped to quash the public’s initial misgivings about the big wheel and to establish the sport as a healthy and gentlemanly pursuit, albeit a risky one reserved primarily for the young and athletic. Among other successful initiatives, Pope helped launch the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), a national lobby that pushed for better roads while promoting racing and touring.
The prospects for further growth were downright rosy, thanks to the newly introduced Rover “safety,” which had already induced a few women and some older men to take to the wheel. Developed in England, it was the latest in a long line of two-wheeled challengers designed to remedy the high-wheeler’s chief drawback: its unfortunate propensity to hurl the careless—or unlucky—pilot over the handlebars whenever the big wheel hit an unforeseen obstacle, an all-too-common occurrence known in cycling parlance as a “header.” These dreaded spills could inflict serious injury and even, on rare occasion, death. The new pattern promised fewer and softer spills, and it was the first alternative bicycle to gain any real traction in the marketplace. Notwithstanding its solid rubber tires, the safety bicycle was a radical departure from the norm. It featured two small wheels of similar size, the rear one powered by a chain and sprocket. Some even said it was the bicycle of the -future.
But to fanatics like Lenz and other athletic young men the world over, it was no substitute for the “ordinary.” An offshoot of the original “boneshaker” of the late 1860s, the high-wheeler had long delivered to a select few an irresistible mix of speed, exercise, camaraderie, and adventure. Affirmed one early devotee: “I have passed some of the happiest hours of my life on my bicycle.” It boasted light and springy metallic wheels, a backbone of tubular steel, and joints turning on smooth ball bearings. It was a modern mechanical miracle on a par with the telephone, the typewriter, and the elevator.
Nor were purists seduced by the prospect of a safer ride. On the contrary, as one enthusiast explained, “The element of safety is rather distasteful to a good many riders who prefer to run some risk, as it gives zest to the sport.” To them, the big wheel was an asset, not a liability. It effectively absorbed road shock, gave an optimal gear, and retained the boneshaker’s direct action cranks, the simplest and most efficient propulsion scheme. It also placed the rider directly above the pedals, allowing him to apply his full weight when pedaling. From that lofty vantage point, comfortably seated above the dust of the road, the rider enjoyed a view comparable to that of a horseman. Even average riders could easily cover one hundred miles in a single day over the roughest of dirt roads.
Before buying his first bicycle, Lenz had saved for many months, putting aside a portion of his $1,200 annual salary with A. W. Cadman and Company, a manufacturer of brass fittings located in Pittsburgh’s strip district on the southern bank of the Allegheny. At last, he scraped together $125, enough for a Columbia Expert, an entry-level roadster weighing a hefty forty-five pounds. He joined the Allegheny Cyclers, a club based on the other side of the river in what was then the distinct city of Allegheny. With a membership of about thirty, it was the largest of the three bicycle clubs in the immediate Pittsburgh area.
Before long, the young clerk was spending nearly every free moment on his bicycle, escaping the unhappy home he shared with his tyrannical stepfather William and his dear but doting mother Maria Anna. On weekdays, before or after his dreary workday, he would cycle at least five miles. On weekends he would roam the hilly countryside alone or with any club mate who dared to chase after him. He loved the sensation of flying into the distance as he churned his smooth pedals and plunged ever deeper into nature’s lush sanctuary. He had no qualms about returning in the dark, with his trusty gas lamp suspended on his front hub.
Lenz soon earned a reputation for gritty outdoor adventures. In June 1887, he accomplished his first “century” run to New Castle, Pennsylvania, and back. Leaving home at four in the morning, he proceeded over miserable roads. On his return, his handlebars snapped in two. Despite the jolting and jittery ride, he continued to pedal, arriving home at midnight, sore but satisfied. Two months later, Lenz recorded his first long-distance tour, spending his two-week vacation cycling to New York City and back.
Recognizing his extraordinary speed, stamina, and verve, Lenz’s numerous friends urged him to give amateur racing a whirl. Throughout the cycling season, from May to October, various bicycle clubs in Pittsburgh and nearby cities organized high-wheel races, which were generally held on weekends and holidays at outdoor tracks before a paying public. The events typically covered between one-half and two miles, with the winner collecting a token prize, not to mention the crowd’s adulation.
That Decoration Day, in 1887, Lenz entered his first cycling contest, witnessed by a festive crowd of one thousand. He had traveled by train to Beaver Falls, a small town thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Facing several competitors, he was to make four circuits to complete a mile. “He undoubtedly would have won the novice race,” the Bulletin reported, “had it not been that the track was slippery and his wheel slid from under him on the first lap.” He did manage to prevail in the consolation race, finishing a mile in four minutes less eighteen seconds.
A few months later, in August, Lenz tried anot...