Who Did It Better? New Orleans Bicycles Then And Now

Sep 21, 2017

In celebration of the city’s upcoming Tricentennial, NolaVie and New Orleans Historical bring you the series Who Did it Better? New Orleans Then and Now. In it, we look at offbeat aspects of the city’s history and their parallels in the present. Today we give you: Big Easy Bikes. Call it a story about recycling.

New Orleans has seen quite the influx of bicyclers in the past decade. But the bike crowd is not new to the city. The high-wheel bicycle debuted in the U.S. in 1879, and New Orleans quickly hopped on the two-wheeled bandwagon. The New Orleans Bicycle Club was started in 1881 by early adopter and local fountain pen designer A.M. Hill.

Back then, the so-called “penny farthing” high-wheeled bikes weren’t limited to local commuting. In 1886, three Bicycle Club members loaded their Rudge Light Roadsters with extra silk stockings and suits of underwear and set out cross-country in an attempt to bike from New Orleans to Boston in 30 days. Despite a dearth of maps and paved roads and record rainfall, they made it, wet and muddy, with one day to spare.

The penny farthing bike, with its giant front wheel and tiny back one, was prone to tipping forward in a misfortunate move known as a header. So in 1887 the “safety” bicycle, with two equal sized wheels, came along. It was a little slow to catch on, as bike enthusiasts of the day found danger to be part of the fun. And the higher bikes could go faster, too, despite the fact that gear ratios had not yet been invented.

From the very beginning, bikes were incorporated into the cultural traditions of the city. In 1887, the great Carnival Bicycle Parade rolled on Ash Wednesday down St. Charles Avenue. Riders costumed as Romeo or Mephistopheles perched atop their 4-foot-high machines, their way lighted by Chinese lanterns and parasols adorned with multi-colored lights.

That’s not too far a cry from today’s Krewe of Kolossos, populated by bikes bearing papier mache animal heads. Or the LED lined wheels of the bikes in the Krewe du Vieux or Chewbacchus parades.

Of course, bike fashion has come a long way over the decades. Silk underwear has given way to fiberglass helmets and spandex shorts. But sometimes less is more, too: Consider New Orleans annual summer Naked Bike Ride.

Basically, members of the 21st-century cycling organization Bike Easy aren’t so far removed from those in Hill’s 19th-century Bicycle Club. Then and now, advocates have found that getting around a city filled with potholes and bad drivers (of both the carriage and car variety) is a whole lot more fun on a bicycle.

Find out more and take a bike history tour of New Orleans on NolaVie and New Orleans Historical. And thanks to New Orleans writer and New Orleans Historical’s Lacar Musgrove for the bike research used in this story.