The Wheelie Was Invented in 1890

A stunt bicyclist named Daniel Canary claims to be the first person to master the trick

Wheelie Joe Morahan/Corbis

One of the first stunt bike riders was a former telegraph messenger named Daniel Canary. When Canary started riding in 1879, bicycles were still a new form of transportation, and Canary excelled at finding new and interesting things to do on two wheels, says Phil Edwards at Trivia Happy. Canary could flip, he could ride with no hands, and in 1884 he even rode down the steps of the U.S. Capitol building.

But he didn’t stop there. 

As Edwards discovered, Canary invented one of the most well-known bicycle tricks of all time: 

As the Tribune reports, Canary tried out the bike at Niagara Falls and "performed the feat, then regarded as impossible, of riding on the rear wheel, with the front wheel elevated. Mr. Canary believes he was the first rider to perform the feat." That's right—Dan Canary invented the wheelie.

Can we be certain it's true? A few things make it plausible. First, Canary was the foremost trick rider of his time, so he's likely to have tried it early. Second, the safety bike was almost brand new, and earlier bikes were probably too heavy to wheelie because of their wooden frames and metal tires. Finally, the same article mentions the Capitol stunt that the police canceled, so it appears Canary didn't lie about his accomplishments. He was the first to do a wheelie, and millions have followed in his path.

The bicycle has changed a lot since then. Extreme sports like BMX have made it all the way to the Olympics and sponsored competitions. Today, you can teach yourself how to do a wheelie by watching YouTube videos, and some people have elevated wheelies into a high art: one stunt rider in the U.K. performed the longest bicycle wheelie ever, by balancing on his bike for eight miles

Canary would be proud.

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