The List: Tour de Smithsonian—Historic Bicycles Worthy of Display

Balancing act
Balancing act: men and their big-wheeled ordinaries in one of the first bicycling touring clubs, in 1879 near Readville, Massachusetts. Feedloader (Clickability)

As the pro cyclists in the famed Tour de France approach the Pyrenees Mountains, we suggest a break from your TV viewing of the excitement (no more media-related crashes, please!) to see where you can get your bicycle fix at the Smithsonian.

1. The Reinhardt. Fred Birchmore was a college student who really couldn’t settle down. In 1936, after his first semester studying international law at the University of Cologne, he cycled through Yugoslavia and Greece—and kept going.  He rode around the world. He later donated his bike to the National Museum of American History. It’s a one-speed, 42-pound, German-made Reinhardt, which he named Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s war horse. The name is fitting; this mechanical war horse traveled 25,000 miles. While the bike has been retired, Birchmore just keeps going, on a stationary bicycle. He lives in Athens, Georgia, and will turn 100 in November.

2. The St. Claire. Five years before they built the Wright Flyer, Orville and Wilbur manufactured bicycles at the Wright Cycle Company in Dayton, Ohio. A surprisingly sleek model of theirs called the St. Claire belongs to the National Air and Space Museum (along with their plane). It is one of only five bikes made by the brothers known to still exist.  Built in 1898, it sold for $42.50. The profits from Wright Cycle helped fund the brothers’ aviation pursuits.

3.  The Bicycle Shop Sign. The little guy on this charming Bicycle Shop Sign looks worried. And no wonder: his bike has no front wheel. Look at the sculpture straight on, however, and you can’t tell. Part of the Hemphill Folk Art Collection of the National Museum of American Art, the sign was carved by Louis Simon in the early 1930s. Simon, a champion motorcycle racer born in Russia in 1884, made the sculpture from wood, metal and rubber bicycle parts, marbles and metal hardware. The man’s legs go up and down on the pedals when the wheel is turned.

4.  The Overman Victoria. It’s a cold winter day in 1900 in the Washington, D.C. street scene section of the “America on the Move” exhibit at the National Museum of American History.  A mannequin dressed in a short jacket, long skirt and lace-up shoes stands next to her 1889 Overman Victoria safety bicycle. At the end of the 19th century, “safety bicycles” were marketed as being less hazardous than high wheelers, which they were replacing. Eventually “safety bicycles” became our regular “bicycles.” In the 1890s, bikes shared the road with streetcars and horse-drawn cabs. Their riders played a major role in lobbying for road improvements.

5. Wrought-iron-frame tricycle. This little trike appears in an artifact case, also at the American History Museum. In a nearby Montgomery-Ward advertisement it’s labeled a Boys’ Velocipede. Note the cow horn handlebars and suspension saddle with coil springs.  Depending on the size and wheels (rubber cost more than metal), it sold for $1.35 to $5. Girls, according to the catalog ad, would prefer to ride the Little Beauty, with a bench seat and hand controls instead of foot pedals.

6.  Capital Bikeshare. On exhibit outdoors near the National Mall museums, you’ll see more and more Washington tourists and residents riding bikes.  Part of the reason is Capital Bikeshare, a regional network started in 2010 and quickly expanding.  For Mall cycling, bikes are available (credit card needed) at Bikeshare corrals outside the Smithsonian Metro station and across the street from the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. Happy (bike) trails.

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