Many Americans have long had a yen to get out on the open road with the wind in their face!
“Scorchers were fast, reckless bicycle riders—sort of the hot-rodders of their day,” says Lorne Shields, a respected bicycle photography and ephemera collector. “Take a peek at her face—she has a charming, wicked smile, truly letting her photographer know of her independence. Perhaps the only thing missing is her tattoo! [Source]
Such reckless bikers weren’t considered a minor issue at the time.
Theodore Roosevelt created a “Scorcher Squad” in December 1895, made up of 29 police officers on bicycles. In his autobiography, Roosevelt praised the squad for having “ not only extraordinary proficiency on the wheel, but extraordinary daring.” The Scorcher Squad, in addition to chasing down and ticketing fast bicycle riders, ran down out of control horses and even automobiles, forcing them to slow and eventually stop; some of these events even sound like action-movie fare, such as one officer who made a habit of catching up to runaway horses and getting “alongside the horse and seize the bit in his left hand, keeping his right on the crossbar of the wheel,” at which point he would either dislodge an irresponsible rider or simply calm the horse until it slowed and stopped.
These ‘wheel mounted’ police made 1,366 arrests in their first year (though not all of these were bicycle scorchers). Denver, Colorado and Grand Forks, Minnesota began bicycle squads in the summer of 1896, “to control scorchers and sidewalk cyclists.” In Chicago, apparently, bicycle police were using slingshots to hurl lead balls at the spokes of scorchers, the impact would break the rim and bring a cycle to a sudden halt. [Source]
But to be fair, there were many folks at the time who enjoyed their velocipedes responsibly. You even had “easy riders” back then…
And I doubt that these bikers and their babes tore up the roads very fast.
But most bikes of the era were people-powered, and the real issue for many people wasn’t “how fast could you go” on these new-fangled contraptions. It was just staying on one, as can be seen in this cartoon from Harper’s Weekly in 1869 of a “Velocipede Riding School.”
But there was also concern that pretty soon most people WOULD be able to ride them, and THEN what might happen to turn society upside down?! Here’s one view in an almost Mad Magazine-style cartoon of the time: “The Velocipede Mania: What it may come to.”
It took me a minute of looking closely at the pic before I noticed the buildings in the back … a livery stable closed because no one needed horses any more…and a meat market selling horse meat since no one needed horses any more. And if you look closely on the left, you will see that a woman is riding in a wagon…pulled by another woman peddling a four-wheeler!
It never came to that, of course…the internal combustion engine was invented too quickly and lured the bikers away to an even more harried future! But until then…lots of them still had their fun.