Bicycling and the Presidency, Part 3

poster depicting the William McKinley (Republican) and Grover Cleveland (Democrat) bicycle gangs

Those Presidents elected in the late 1800s served during the first bicycling boom. Everyone who could ride a bike, did ride a bike, therefore it is not surprising that bicycles figured prominently in campaigns, nor that presidential hopefuls courted (or at the least could not ignore) the bicycle vote. Whether those men aspiring to the office rode or not, campaign miscellanea played to the image. Those images were meant to convey a simple message - yes wheelmen, this man is one of you, and is therefore worthy of your vote.

While Grover Cleveland lost reelection in 1897, in favor of William McKinley, it should be noted that it was during Cleveland's term in office that utilitarian uses of the bicycle were expanded. In 1896 the Army's 25th Infantry, stationed at Missoula, Montana began testing the effectiveness of using bicycles as an alternative to horses. Lieutenant James A. Moss, commanding an African-American unit, was given charge of the project, though he was not alone in his advocacy. As early as 1891 General Nelson A. Miles had made note of the potential use, and advantages, of the bicycle in a military setting: "The bicycle requires neither water, food nor rest, so the rider may push to the top notch of his own endurance without thought of his steed." Miles further noted that bicycles could move faster over fair roads, were not as conspicuous, could be hidden more easily, were noiseless, and that it was impossible to tell the direction of travel from its tracks.

The honor of being the first President of the United States to ride a bicycle may rest with his successor, Theodore Roosevelt but, William McKinley will forever be tied to the two-wheeled revolution in his own way. As America's twenty-fifth President "McKinley extolled the virtues of 'wheelmen', or bicycle devotees and good roads enthusiasts, etc." In October of 1896, while McKinley was in the midst of a hotly contested run for the Presidency, a group of several hundred wheelmen set out by bicycle and train, bound for Canton, Ohio. Along the way there were more stops to pick up even more riders. Once Canton was reached, a special bicycle escort led the group to the house of the Ohio state governor. There McKinley addressed the wheelmen and was in turn presented with a new bike of his own. A reporter for the Indianapolis News noted that McKinley "is not a bicyclist, but has frequently expressed his admiration for the sport, and no one will be surprised to see him at one of the cycle schools with his new wheel in the near future." The National Wheelmen's Club endorsed the ticket of McKinley and running mate, Garret Hobart.


While McKinley's link to the bicycle was more image-based than it was practical, his successor took a more hands-on application. Before Theodore Roosevelt was elected to the nations' highest office, he served the City of New York as Police Commissioner. During his time in that capacity, Roosevelt created the 29-member bike squad, popularly known as the Scorcher Squad. This was 1895, and by 1912 the NYPD bike squad had grown to a strength of 1,025 officers. At its beginning  the Squad was frequently used to stop speeding horse-drawn carriages; later, as automobiles became more common, the Scorcher Squad was employed in stopping reckless drivers. The athleticism and daring of those bicycle officers was often noted.

Mostly noted as America's most obese President, one would not expect any connection between William Howard Taft and the bicycle. As far as I can tell, you would be correct in that assessment. 

President Woodrow Wilson, Taft's successor, was another person entirely. More than any other President, before or after, with the possible exception of George W. Bush, Wilson was a true avid cyclist. His travels around Europe, and specifically England, before he became President of the United States were frequent. While it seems they were mostly for pleasure, he often conducted business along the way. During the summer of 1908, while on one of those trips, he travelled from Edinburgh to the Lake District. During this trip he attempted to locate the house in which his mother was born in Carlisle; he also stopped in at the home of Andrew Carnegie where he unsuccessfully tried to convince Carnegie to make a contribution to Princeton University.

On 14 June 1920, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reporting from Westfield, Massachusetts, noted that President Wilson had ordered the finest and lightest model bicycle from a local manufacturer, speculating that he would be doing some bicycle riding over the summer. Regrettably, his days of long summer touring were probably over by then, as the Secret Service was unlikely to let him participate in any such adventure. Regardless of this, I have to think that the journals, Wilson supposedly kept, of his earlier travels around Europe would make for interesting reading.

If you search the internet using the terms President Warren G. Harding and bicycle, one of the results will lead you to answers.com, where you will be informed that Harding "loved to ride a bike." I don't know about Harding himself, but the woman he married, Florence Kling De Wolfe, worked fourteen years at the newspaper owned by Harding, riding from home to the office by bicycle.

Of all the American Presidents, Herbert Hoover had one of the more interesting and adventurous connections to the bicycle. In his early 20s Hoover travelled to Kalgoorlie, in western Australia, where he was employed as an inspection engineer in charge of mine exploration and evaluation. Most of his time was spent traveling from mine to mine over a vast territory of holdings belonging to Berwick, Moreing & Co. of London. Much of the journeying could be made in the relative comfort of horse and buggy. For longer stretches across the outback, however, Hoover had to resort to travel by camel, which he disliked. On one such camelback trip, while far out into the desert, Hoover was overtaken by a bicycle messenger, who had ridden 390 miles over a three day period in order to reach him. Hoover knew these "cycle specials" to cover great distances, often being chased by packs of dingoes, or groups of Aborigines. The lesson to be learned was clear, and Hoover began to carry a spare bicycle attached to the back of his buggy during his longer trips. About this, he wrote: "because it is often 50 miles from water to water; and if an accident should happen to the team, a bicycle is the only salvation." For more on Hoover's experiences in Australia see this story in Stanford Magazine. I am unaware how often he may have turned to the bicycle in order to get from mine to mine, or whether he may have used one while in town. 

Sometimes the President's better half, the First Lady (or future First Lady) have interesting connections of their own. Following his time in Australia, Hoover with wife Lou, moved on to China where he was, again, engaged in the mining business. They were among the group of Westerners besieged in the city of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion. Lou, it was noted, was a familiar sight, riding around the city by bicycle, somehow managing to avoid being shot during the upheaval, as she carried supplies to the front lines. She may have avoided falling victim, but her bike did not. Her biographers have noted how the tires on her bicycle were shot out at one point. Regrettably there does not seem to be any photo documentation of Lou riding her bicycle during that time of conflict. In fact, the only visual legacy of her riding prowess, comes from the back of a burro at Acton, California at age 17:


In 1921 Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio at nearly forty years of age. The affliction dogged him for the rest of his life, and he spent much time and effort to hide his reliance on a wheelchair. During the younger years of his youth, however, he was quite the cyclist. At fourteen years of age, while a student at the Groton School, Roosevelt took a bicycle trip through Germany. Though Roosevelt talked his way out of tickets each time, the teacher with him recalled that they were often "arrested" for traffic violations.

As one of the Presidents serving during the time of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt White House often received letters from Americans seeking relief for their, often, desperate conditions. With money tight everywhere, many people relied on the inexpensive bicycle for their transportation needs. Even these, however, where out of reach for many. Notes requesting aid to purchase a bicycle were not uncommon. Take for example one such note from a girl whose family lived in Massachusetts to First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt: "The school I attend is very far and as I am not very healthy I often get pains in my sides. My father only works for two days a week and there are six in my family it is impossible in almost every way that I get a bicycle. I am in the eighth grade and am very fond of school. Sometimes I have to miss school on account of the walk is so far. I have often thought things would pick up and father might be able to get me a bicycle, but instead they have grown worse. I assure you that the bicycle shall not be used as a pleasure but as a necessity." I can't imagine any of these letter writers receiving anything more than words of encouragement and promises that their condition would improve, but what letters like this point to is the humble importance, and often necessity, of the bicycle. Perhaps the most equally utilitarian of all mobility tools.

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