Biking on the Wheels of Change - Museum of Science Earthshift Newsletter

This May, MassBike teamed up with the Museum of Science on a column in their Earthshift newsletter from the Museum of Science Center for the Environment. These bicycling-themed updates covered everything from bicycling history to biking for climate. Thanks to the Museum of Science for being a 2024 Bronze-level Bay State Bike Month Sponsor and collaborating on this series! Below is the first column, "Biking on the Wheels of Change" for your enjoyment. 

Biking on the wheels of change

Learn more about early bicyclists who broke through gender, racial, and cultural barriers as part of Boston's early bicycle craze!

The modern bicycle, as we know it, dates back to patents from the 1870s, and it wasn’t long before the bicycle craze centered Boston as a hub of activity. Within a short time, Boston hosted the first American bicycle race on May 24, 1878 at the Beacon Trotting Park (in the newly annexed Allston neighborhood), cheered the finish line of the first 100-mile bike race in September 1882 (Worcester to Boston in 12-hours) and the first cross-country bike trip in 1884, the city boasted the nation's first bicycle club (The Massachusetts Bicycle Club) and mass-produced bicycle (Albert Pope's "Columbia”). 

Indeed, it was the popularity of the bicycle that built the demand for better paths and trails. The Massachusetts Highway Commission was established in 1893 to assist local governments with road design, construction, mapping, and organization. Keep in mind, this was 15 years before Henry Ford introduced the world to the Model-T, and decades before the automobile would come to dominate our public ways. Truly, it was bicycle advocates at the turn of the 20th century who were part of “The Good Roads Movement” that built political will to connect our cities and towns, literally paving the way for the networks that we now come to use for our daily lives. 

Boston also fostered early cultural barrier breakers, especially for women and people of color. In the 1890s, Katherine “Kittie” Knox, a local Black woman bicyclist from Boston’s West End made news as a champion racer and group ride leader. She was also a seamstress who sewed her own “bloomers,” a style of pants that allowed her to ride a bicycle even though they defied socially accepted women’s dresses of the era. A few years later, Massachusetts was home to the first Black world champion of any sport, when Worcester’s own Marshall “Major” Taylor set records as a track bike racer in international competitions. 

Using the bicycle to break through color and gender barriers, along with spurring innovation and political advocacy for public works, seems especially appropriate when viewing the bicycle as a form of independence for the rider. From the 1870s to the 2020s, that sense of joy and self-determination persists with every pedal stroke. We hope this Bike Month inspires you to find your own freedom out on two wheels and to build a community to support better riding! 

Stay tuned for three additional columns from this bicycling series, for more from the Museum of Science make sure to sign up for their Earthshift newsletter.

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