Today in History: The Great Bicycle Relay Race Passes Through Syracuse

On May 21st, 1892 The Great Relay Race, a bicycle race from Chicago to New York, passed through Syracuse. Despite difficult conditions, the 975 mile race was completed in five days at an average speed of 10 miles an hour. Its greatest accomplishment, besides showing the reliability of the bicycle as a mode of transportation, was to increase awareness of the terrible state of American roads. According to the Chicago Tribune, the trip took “109 hours and 8 minutes” between Chicago and New York, with the first of the cyclists arriving at 1:08am on May 23rd. The article says the crowd of some 200 cyclists and “curiosity seekers” stood in front of the Astor House waiting for the wheel-men to appear. Suddenly, it reads, they emerged on Park Place, a block away. “The crowd scattered as the two wheel-men swerved around to the left and bumped over the street-car tracks…The crowd ran along cheering and shouting.”

This was one of several endurance-type races that were popular when bicycle use first became common. Other competitions included races against horses and even trains. However, as we take a closer look to what the growth of cycling would do to transportation in, as well as to and from, large urban areas, we can see that its impact went beyond simply a mode of transportation. According to the book Roads Were Note Built For Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became Pioneers of Motoring, “This long ride through such knee deep mud-roads as the plucky riders to content with, out to be the incentive power to arouse the legislators of our country and the average countryman to the crying demand of civilization for better roads…it has also shown the metallic courage and endurance that “bicycle dudes” are made up of…this ride may have the effect of setting legislators and farmers to thinking.”

The great invention of the age was also seen by members of the United States military as a useful tool. According to David V. Herlihy’s Bicycle: The History, “The nation’s supreme commander General Nelson A. Miles, a proponent of the military bicycle, consigned a message from the fair-grounds to be delivered to a subordinate in New York. Wheel-man rode segments of eight to thirty-five miles over poor roads and delivered the message within five days.”