Cycling on the frontier

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So far as I can determine, no one has ever studied the introduction and history of early bicycling in New Mexico. My remarks here, therefore, can perhaps be considered a pioneer effort in this line.

Who invented the bicycle? There's no easy answer to that. Leonardo da Vinci drew a crude picture of one in the 16th century, but apparently no example was built then. About 1855 a French blacksmith attached a pedal-and-gear mechanism to a large wheel about four feet in diameter and added a small rear wheel 16 inches high. He called this contraption a "velocipede," from the Latin for "fast feet." Other people made improvements and soon velocipedes were marketed in the United States. In this country, they were first referred to as an "Ordinary," and later as a "High Bicycle." The machine proved very unstable, especially when braking on a downhill. Riders were frequently tossed over the handlebars, but that was considered a normal hazard. A young adventurer from Boston created a sensation in 1884 when he rode his Ordinary across the country, the first person to do so. The youthful rider was Thomas Stevens and for part of the way he followed the old Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico. His appearance with a two-wheeled machine probably represented the first entry of a bicycle in the territory. New Mexico's famed poet scout, Capt. Jack Crawford, commemorated the event by writing an epic poem titled "Broncho vs. Bicycle." Crawford had served as chief of scouts in the Apache campaign of 1878 and afterward became caretaker of abandoned Fort Craig on the Rio Grande. In his poem, he described the astonishment of a group of cowboys camped at the Pecos River crossing when they beheld Stevens pedaling down the trail "A skinnin' along, with a merry song, An' ringin' a little warnin' gong." One of the cowboys up and challenged Stevens to a race, and put up his horse as a wager against the bicycle. Crawford describes the contest in elaborate detail, and its ending with machine triumphing over animal. The dejected cowboy surrenders his horse to the victorious Bostonian. Capt. Crawford evidently wrote "Broncho vs. Bicycle" at the request of the manufacturer of Columbia Bicycles about 1890. By then the machines had been greatly improved by new design and the invention by Dunlop of the pneumatic tire. Stability was increased and cyclists no longer flew over the handlebars with such regularity.

This was not the only such race in territorial New Mexico. Another occurred, pitting bicycle against cowhorse, during the summer of 1888. The race began at Silver City and the course followed the main road running 48 miles south to Deming. The event attracted spectators for 100 miles around and they lined the route to cheer on both contestants. Since this was ranch country, sentiment strongly favored the horseback rider. And it was on him that most people placed their bets; some ranchers wagered whole herds of livestock. The cowboy rider was Jim Keith, a soft-spoken man admired by all. Equally well-liked was the bicyclist S.M. Ashenfelter, a Silver City lawyer. He was short and stocky, an acknowledged athlete and devoted cyclist. High atop his four-foot wheel, he made an impressive sight. Several other local bicycle riders had driven the course before, covering the distance in about four hours. Ashenfelter bravely announced that he planned to best that time and in so doing beat the horse. Could he achieve his boast? The signal was given and the race launched in Silver City. The road was very rough in some places, its bed covered with loose gravel and sand.

That may have contributed to the outcome. The horse won by a bare two and a half minutes. The total race time was three hours and 36 minutes. Although he had failed to win, Ashenfelter on his bicycle had managed to turn in a respectable performance. There had actually been the two horsemen in the race: Cipriano Baca, who subsequently became the first sheriff of Luna County, had decided to tag along with Jim Keith since that seemed the best way to view events. He actually rode into Deming alongside the winning rider. In some of New Mexico's photo archives today can be found pictures of early-day bicycles and their owners. The images offer a glimpse of an era that is all but forgotten.