Today, it’s impossible to imagine Summit County without its bikes. With hundreds of miles of trails threading through every nook and cranny of the mountains, the sport of biking brings visitors from all over the world. The upcoming USA Pro Challenge race serves to highlight this fact, with an international eye turned onto this mountain sport and the towns that thrive off it.
“The USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Breck Epic, Summit Mountain Challenge and Breck Bike Week all reflect on how important cycling through the centuries has been in Summit County,” said Cindy Hintgen, operations manager at the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. “It has been and continues to be a means of transportation, competition and fun.”
Biking has been a part of Summit County for more than 100 years, with the early residents enjoying their two-wheeled machines just as much as we do today. However, their bikes were much different from those that can be found at the local bike shop nowadays.
The first bicycle-like machine was invented by a German man named Karl von Drais, who called it a “velocipede.” In 1865, a machine that also went by the name “velocipede” was invented in France. Due to the bumpiness of its ride, the two-wheeled pedal machine was often referred to as a “bone shaker.”
The “high wheel” is the bike that many will recognize from old photographs, with one giant wheel in front and a much smaller wheel behind. This was a popular model for racing. The first high wheel competition in the U.S. took place in 1876 over a course of 50 miles. The winner clocked in at 3 hours, 4 minutes.
By 1884, people were already testing the limits of the bicycle, with Thomas Stevens becoming the first person to bike around the world, from April 1884 to December 1886.
It appears that the 1890s were a time of high popularity for the bicycle in America, including Summit County. In her book “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods,” Mary Ellen Gilliland wrote that Charles A. Finding — a Breckenridge resident, two-time mayor and owner of multiple mines — “joined a party for a full-moon bicycle excursion to Dillon and back.”
Photographs of Breckenridge during the late 1800s and early 1900s show residents, both men and women, on bicycles. One photo shows Josie Ecklund Knorr, whose family owned a ranch north of Silverthorne, standing with a bicycle bedecked in flowers for a Fourth of July parade. In the Barney Ford Museum, a pair of bloomers can be seen, which were worn with stockings by female cyclists.
“I think (the bicycle) has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” says a quote attributed to women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. “It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat, she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
As the participants of the USA Pro Challenge streak through the streets of Breckenridge this week, take a moment to appreciate how far those lightweight marvels of wheels and gears have come from the original “boneshakers,” and think about the inventive minds and daring souls who pedaled biking from its historical origins into the future.