Bicycles are everywhere. No matter where you look, there are bicycles leaned against poles, bicycles parked outside shops, groups of bicycles riding down the street. No one is sure how to share the road with all these new bikes, but the city is adding infrastructure at their demand and passing safety legislations. Bike shops are popping up around every corner and all anyone can talk about is how they bike to work and where they’ll be riding over the weekend. The newspapers are calling it a bicycling craze and people are wondering how much bigger this phenomenon can get. They keep hearing all these crazy stories about what bicycling is like in Europe and they are worried.
Welcome to Indianapolis 1890.
You may be surprised to know, but Indianapolis’ history with bicycles stretches way back. The city saw its first bicycle in 1869 at a demonstration on the Circle. It was a strange contraption with one huge wheel in front and a tiny wheel behind that had the rider sitting four feet off the ground. Dubbed the Ordinary, many people referred to it as the Boneshaker because it was unwieldy to manage and came before the invention of rubber, air-filled tires.
In 1886, Henry T. Hearsey rolled into the city from Boston, an American leader in bike manufacturing and innovation. He opened a bicycle shop in the 100 block of north Pennsylvania that had the first sales room complete with an air pump for the new pneumatic tires and a riding academy. The shop was quickly the gathering place of some of the best known bikers in Indianapolis. Then in 1889, Hearsey got on stage at a full Tomlinson Hall, the largest assembly hall in the city at the time, and was the first to reveal to Indianapolis a new bicycle with two wheels of equal size and a frame lower to the ground than ever before seen. It operated with a new concept where the pedals were attached to the back wheel with gears and a chain. Called a Safety Cycle, it was affordable and comfortable so suddenly the doors of bicycling were opened up to more than just wealthy gentlemen.
Indianapolis took to cycling quickly and was one of the top bicycling cities in the country during this era. They say there were nearly a hundred bicycling clubs in Indy during the 1890s that covered every level of society from downtown business men to the ladies of the Propylaeum. The clubs would promote social riding and events like Centuries, where riders cover at least a hundred miles in a day, were popular. These groups were also dedicated to protecting the rights of cyclists and advocating for better riding conditions. It was in fact cyclists who demanded better roads and separate lanes for bikes and saw paved streets before cars had much use for them.
Rules of the Road 1896
The bicycle is a carriage, and the wheelman may go upon the public highways at all times possessed of the same rights and liable only to the same restrictions to which the drivers of other carriages are subject. He must keep his wheel in same, roadworthy condition, keep to the right of the center of the highway when meeting other vehicles, give way when necessary to drivers passing in the same direction who may desire to pass him, exercise proper care to prevent collision with other carriages and travelers on foot, and in general the degree of care which he is required to exercise is such as a person of ordinary care and prudence would exercise in the particular case in which the question arises. The law favors courtesy, though it does not demand it, and in the face of the existing prejudice against bicycles the excercising of deference, compatible with dignity under trying circumstances, will, in any case of a trial at law, go far towards winning the favor of court and jury, and exemplify the soundness of the maxim, 'Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just.'
-The Official League of American Wheelmen Road Book of Indiana
Right in the middle of this bicycle-crazed Indianapolis was a man named Arthur C. Newby. An avid cyclist himself, Newby helped found the prestigious Zig-Zag Cycling Club, invested in local bike manufacturing, and started the Indianapolis Chain and Stamping Company in 1890 to produce Diamond bicycle chains. At this time, all the bike chains were being made in Europe, but Newby’s chains quickly gained over 60% of the American bicycle chain market. Orville and Wilbur Wright were agents for Diamond chains at their Dayton bike shop (because you knew they were bicycle mechanics first, right?) and seven specialized Diamond chains were used in the flying machine that made the first successful flight in 1903.
But Newby had a greater vision for Indianapolis to become a world-renowned cycling destination. So in 1898 he built a quarter-mile board track with steep banked sides where top cyclists from every corner of the globe would compete at top speeds for fame and glory. The arena had 20,000 seats that were often full of anxious crowds who would watch the races with baited breath. Newby’s Oval was hailed as one of the fasted tracks in the nation and attracted spectators from around the world. The first race held at the Oval was the Indiana State Championships where Charles R. Pease won and set the Indiana record for a half-mile at 1 minute 5 seconds. From there, the Newby Oval hosted scores of races including The League of American Wheelmen’s National Championship races.
So, Indianapolis, the first Greatest Spectacle in Racing to be held in our city was actually a bike race. Our sports-city culture has been built on top of a legacy of the bicycle. Even as the car became the new novelty, it was cyclists who led the way in Indianapolis. In 1909, Arthur C. Newby and three other gentlemen he’d met through cycling joined together and built a new track, a bigger track. The built The Track: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And actually, the first motorized race to be held at the Speedway was a motorcycle race. The track held its first 500 miles car race in 1911 and the tradition continues to this day as the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
With the rise of the car, the memories of Indianapolis’ first love have dimmed. We’ve become a car-centric city with a motorsport culture and beautiful wide, straight streets planned without a thought of two-wheeled transport. Those in the city who remained faithful to the bicycle have been rewarded with honks, glares, insults, and near-death experiences of being run off the road.
Fortunately, bicyclists are resilient and Indianapolis has seen groups rise up for cycling throughout the last century. During the Great Depression, Butler Fieldhouse hosted six-day bike races. During World War II, many people turned to bike commuting because of the fuel and rubber rations and demanded more consideration for bikers in traffic. In the 1980’s cyclists cried out for infrastructure and advocated to see the Monon Trail built. But, in our humble opinion, we believe that it is in our time that Indianapolis is seeing men and women of vision rising up to build on the foundation laid by those who came before them to make our city a great city for the bicycle.
In 2008, Indianapolis had less than one mile of on-street bike lanes and the only bikes seen on the road were dedicated road cyclists riding in spandex for high mileage counts. Also in 2008, we swore in Gregory A. Ballard as mayor of our city and he came in with a determination to build Indianapolis into a world-class city and one way he was going to do that was with bicycles. He set up the Office of Sustainability and proposed an aggressive bikeways plan that has put us today at over 65 miles of on-street bike lanes in addition to greenways and trails throughout the city. The plan is to have over 200 miles of bike lanes within the next 12 years and place Indy in the top 10 bicycling cities in the country. “It’s trying to create the kind of city where young people want to live and where businesses come to,” explains Mayor Ballard. “It’s a nice bonus that I like biking, but it’s really about getting a creative class to move into the city.” Mayor Ballard has encouraged bicycling in the city by leading and participating in numerous rides around the city every year, supporting the bicycle advocacy campaigns, and pushing for our new Bike Hub YMCA, which is a facility unlike any other in the country with a gym, showers, lockers, and bike parking designed to serve cycling commuters.
Brian Payne, President and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation is another leader pushing for Indianapolis to be great. Payne is the creative mind behind our internationally renowned Cultural Trail, a unique urban path that connects the city’s six cultural districts. “We’ve taken eight lanes of traffic in the heart of a very busy, dynamic downtown,” says Payne, “and taken them away from cars and turned them over to bicyclists and pedestrians and joggers and people in wheelchairs and recreated our downtown. We’ve done it at a scale with a sense of beauty and design that no other city in the world has done.” And people have been noticing. Our Trail was called “one of the biggest and boldest steps by any American city” by the Project of Public Spaces, a non-profit based in New York City.
As the city moves forward in planning infrastructure, the theme is connectivity. “It’s all about filling the gaps of connectivity,” says Payne. “How do we create the connectivity to all the great things we have? And sometimes the connectivity creates the great thing.” While the city thinks of connecting places, there are others who think of connecting people. Advocacy organizations and bike clubs like INDYCOG, Bicycle Indiana, and the Central Indiana Bicycling Association are working full-time to promote the bicycling culture in our city and in our state by pushing for better riding conditions, creating more comprehensive safety legislation, educating bikers and motorists, and so much more. But most of all these are the people trying to connect bicyclists and the community to make something great. This is something that we can all be a part of.
It doesn’t matter why you bike: be it for exercise, athleticism, transportation, frugality, political motives, recreation, environmental concerns, trend-chasing or whatever. You can bike knowing the strong history that has come before you and the efforts being laid today for you so that Indianapolis will yet again be named one of the greatest cycling cities in the world. You can be a part of this city. You can be a part of this story. All you have to do is ride.
"Whether or not there has been an increase in [the use of bikes] this season, the Star does not know, but if they are coming into favor again not as a fad or a craze, but because of their real value and utility, it is a matter for congratulation. The bicycle has a place that no other vehicle quite supplies and those who like it should have the courage of their convictions and ride whether it is fashionable or not."
-The Indianapolis Morning Star July 13, 1905
What is your vision for Indianapolis as bicycling city?