Got a bike? You can ride it if you like! Part 2

In anticipation of this Saturday’s Tweed Ride Toronto, this is the second in a series of three posts looking at aspects of cycling in late-1800s Toronto.  Part One is available here.

Advertisement for an upcoming day of bicycle racing. From the June 1884 issue of The Canadian Wheelman.

In the early 1880s, many Torontonians began joining cycling clubs; looking at 1880s cycling newsletters and magazines, it is apparent that these clubs engaged in a variety of “wheeling” activities. The most common events were riding excursions, in which members would go on day-trips to picnic grounds or cycle to a nearby community to visit another club’s facility.  Several decades before the automobile, the bicycle enabled people to easily travel beyond their immediate area.   As Toronto and other Canadian cities became increasingly urban, the bicycle offered idyllic access to the countryside at a much lower cost and greater convenience, when compared to horse-based transportation. 

Other regular cycling club events in Toronto included long-distance trips and cycling tours, with many clubs organizing visits to other cities, such as Ottawa or Montreal.  While these trips would undoubtedly be slow-paced, many clubs also cultivated an interest in bicycle racing, which would take place in facilities built or altered specifically for the purpose.  Numerous bicycle races were held in Toronto in the late nineteenth century, attracting competitors from all across the continent.  These were often held on Toronto Island, and later at a facility in Rosedale.

In Toronto, winter weather precluded cycling for several months of the year unless clubs had access to an indoor track.  Some clubs embarked on other outdoor activities such as snow-shoeing so as to stay in shape for the start of the cycling season.  The Wanderers, one of Toronto’s more prominent clubs during this era, organized a cycling trip in early 1884 on to Lake Ontario.  Describing the excursion in The Canadian Wheelman, they wrote that “some good sport was had on the occasion, the only drawback being an accident which occurred with an iceboat, which collided with one of the bicycles, breaking it into several pieces.”  This excursion may have taken place on conventional bicycles, or riders may have been on an “ice bicycle,” a hybrid between a bicycle and a sledge, specifically designed for use on ice.

The Wanderers Bicycle Club, 1884. Original: Humme, Ludwig Eugen Julius Friedrich (1839-1891). Reproduced from the Toronto Public Library website.

Toronto cycling clubs also had clubhouses and were able to operate as social institutions all through the year.  For many, cycling clubs were an extension of the culture of fraternal organizations and private clubs which was prevalent at the time.  As such, they frequently engaged in many non-cycling activities, such as forming their own glee clubs.  The Toronto Wanderers once noted in The Canadian Wheelman, when surveying Toronto’s various cycling clubs in the 1880s, that “although the membership may be very large, yet the number of riders is actually small.”

A description of the new, 1887 clubhouse of the Toronto Wanderers is found in the March 29, 1887 issue of the Toronto Daily Mail: “The house represents a handsome appearance inside with its expensive furniture, carpets and furnishings.  The billiard rooms are near completion and tables are up and in playing order.  The steward, Mr. D. Collins, has taken up his residence in the house, and will show visitors through at all hours… The N.Y. Wheel describes the house freely and speaks of it as the ‘first bicycle clubhouse in Canada…’”  That same issue of the Daily Mail describes a social event in which the Wanderers were invited to the rooms of the Toronto Bicycle Club on Wilton Avenue, noting the evening programme consisted of “readings, solos, glees and toasts,” the article’s author observing that “with two such thriving clubs as the Wanderers and the Torontos, this city may well claim to take the lead in cycling matters.”

Part 3 in this series will be posted tomorrow.

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