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Bicycles boomed in 1880s, 1890s Sonoma County

With its temperate climate and mixed terrain, country roads and majestic coastal trails, Sonoma County is a cyclist’s dream. This wasn’t lost on people living in the area in the 1880s and 1890s, when bicycles boomed in popularity.

Cyclists, also called wheelmen during that time, formed clubs and held races around the county and the U.S.

The League of American Wheelmen, a national bicycling organization that formed in the early 1880s, advocated for paved roads in the late 19th century and its efforts eventually led to a national highway system. Branches of the national group soon organized around Sonoma County in Healdsburg, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, where the Empire Wheelmen formed.

The Empire Wheelmen gathered at George Schelling’s bike shop and a clubhouse on Cherry Street for card games and meals, according to the Journal of the Sonoma County Historical Society. The group also “constructed a dirt race track near the Rural Cemetery” in Santa Rosa, the Journal reported.

In the 1890s, six members of Santa Rosa Wheelmen group and a Petaluma cyclist “braved heat, steep grades and rough, dusty roads on a memorable trip to the Yosemite,” according a Press Democrat report.

Also popularized in the 1880s and 1890s across the U.S. were century rides — 100 miles of bicycling in a single ride.

Bicyclists weren’t allowed to ride on sidewalks, and when on the roads at night, like now, it was recommended that they carried a light for safety. In the early 1900s local newspapers had multiple reports of Santa Rosa bicyclists fined $5 for riding on the sidewalk.

Photographs and news coverage of bicycling in Sonoma County during that time show mostly white men and boys participating in racing and cycling.

Bicycles became less popular in the 1920s as cars took over the roads. Reports of bicyclists injured or killed in collisions with cars appeared in local news media in the 1920s and 1930s, including Thomas J. Sullivan, a 70-year-old Santa Rosa contractor killed in a bike-car collision while riding his bicycle in 1930.

“A few years ago, in spite of rough roads, one could meet wheelmen everywhere. The brutal conduct of the automobilist has changed this,” a 1920 reader wrote in a letter to the Santa Rosa Republican editor.

Bicycles soared in popularity once again during the coronavirus pandemic as gyms temporarily closed and people searched for outdoor exercise.

See the gallery above for old photos of bicyclists in Sonoma County.

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