Cycling during the Seventies: A History of US Bicycling in the 1970's
The bicycle boom during the 70's was the biggest the United States has ever had, and it was especially remarkable because it was such a tremendous jump. During the sixties, the number of bicycles sold had increased from 3.7 million in 1960 to 5.6 million in 1965 but only to 6.9 million bikes sold in 1970. Who would have guessed that 15.2 million bicycles would be sold in '73, just three years later? From our knowledge of human behavior in the late 90's, we might assume that the stock market investors all went crazy investing in bicycle stock, but actually, the stock market was in the doldrums at this time. The bicycle industry was actually struggling instead of prospering, as it had considerable growing pains, and bike dealers that I talked to were very unhappy due to problems with getting suitable bikes to sell.
What Caused this Enormous Bicycling Explosion?
First of all, it was not entirely an adult bicycling boom, as there was also tremendous growth in the sale of children's bikes. Before the end of the 60's, all the children's bikes had been heavy, 26', balloon-tired monsters or the equivalent of single-speed hybrid bikes. During the later half of 60's, Schwinn started coming out with the Sting-Ray, a small-framed bike with small tires, a banana seat, high, wide handlebars, and derailleur gears. Every kid had to own one. I must admit that I did not like these bikes because, while they seemed very fast to the rider due to the small wheels and low gearing, they were actually very slow and impractical for cycling any real distance.
However, the growth in adult biking was the most notable change, and while this was encouraged by the introduction of the ten-speed, the real cause for change was the cultural revolution, which explains why the bike boom waited until 1971 to take off, instead of occurring nearly ten years earlier. The automobile had always been sacrosanct, and all that any boy was supposed to dream of was someday owing in one of these huge vehicles with its giant fins and all that any girl was supposed to dream of was someday being driven around in the monster (very few women drove much before the 60's). But the notion was introduced of enjoying life, of being a little strange and different, and of doing your own thing, and more and more people started doing what they wanted to do rather than what they were supposed to do. In the late 60's, only those horrible hippies had bell bottoms, granny glasses, and long hair. By the end of the 70's, even the President of the United States dressed that way (and he went by his first name too). It was called "the greening of America." Because these people were usually interested in preserving the environment, it was not unnatural for these people to start to use a bicycle for transportation as well. Tastes in motor vehicles charged as well. Sales of the dinosaurs dropped as consumers hurried to buy Volkwagons, small European and Japanese cars, and the first US compact cars just ahead of the fuel shortages of the early and late 70's.
Bicycling Attitudes during the 70's
Since bicycling was swept in along with the counter-culture, it should be easy to understand that the seventies cyclist was not interested in riding on a sidewalk which was labeled "bike path." There was such a sidewalk in Birmingham, running for miles along a busy street, and I never saw one cyclist on it while bicycling down that street. John Forester's Effective Cycling wasn't published until the middle half of the seventies, but we claimed the right to be treated the same as any other vehicle based on the state laws without having read it. In fact, we photocopied the state laws, carried them around in our pockets to show any police officer, and passed them around to other cyclists.
Bicycling Dress during the 70's
When a bicycling club got together in the 70's, they wore whatever clothing they considered suitable for bicycling. There was almost no cycling clothing and certainly no uniform. A few people wore the cycling caps. There was a bike helmet, made of leather and foam strips, but I never saw anyone actually wear one. Bell actually produced its first foam helmet during the early seventies, but I never saw one, not even in a bike shop. A few people wore jackets with reflectorized material on them, but I'm doubtful if they were made especially for bicycling. The racing cyclists tended to wear tee shirts and black shorts, but I don't think these were designed for cycling either. No one wore gloves except during the winter. Finally, since we all used toe clips and straps, the shoes could be whatever we wanted to wear, although it was vaguely possible to buy cycling shoes.
Bicycling Clubs during the 70's
For the only time during my life, I belonged to a cycling club during the seventies in Birmingham, Alabama. It was quite different from any other club that I have ever belonged to, so I'm not sure how typical it was of bike clubs in general, but I noticed a number of the same characteristics in descriptions of other clubs.
The club had two very distinct kinds of members. One small group of people, interested in racing, dominated the club and controlled its activities. They held a separate meeting to decide matters for the club, and they nominated each other before an election, ensuring that they were all elected. On a club ride, they always rode together in a tight formation at the front at high speed, and usually they would come all come to a ride or all stay away. I didn't see any snobbery on their part, other than their distaste for a slower pace or stopping along the way. The other cyclists were all more casual, open, and friendly. Since those riding varied so much from trip to trip, it's quite unclear to me if they were all members or just showed up for the rides. In fact, it is rather unclear to me now whether I was actually a member or not, although I guess I was, since I "voted" in an "election".
The club had a number of lovely rides, and I was allowed to lead one of them, but I had to chose one of their rides, not one of my own (none of the inner group showed up for this ride, which pleased me). When the inner group was along, these rides were run at a furious pace which required riding in a pace line, but when they did not show up (or towards the back of ride that they were on), people traveled at a more comfortable speed and talked while riding. In either case, there was never any stop to enjoy a pretty location along the way or even for quick refreshment at a country store. However, the longer rides usually stopped mid-way at a restaurant (since I didn't have the money or eat the restaurant foods, I stayed outside and can't report what the conversations were like). The starting places for the trips were all over the Birmingham area, and I was the only person to ride to the start and then ride home again. I did not go on all the rides as I could not always ride far enough to join the group (on two occasions, my wife drove me to the start of the ride, and then I pedaled home).
Other than being a large group of people riding together, there was no indication to a passing motorist that this was a club. We all dressed differently and rode quite different bikes. I don't remember any bike snobbery either, although there would have been fertile opportunities, as some bikes were built with Reynolds 531 tubing and had tubular tires while others had cheap tubing and safety levers. No one made any fuss over anyone else's bikes, nor was there a lot of talk about one part being superior to the other, not even in the bike shop conversations (I used to hang out there, quite a bit, after my divorce).
The Bike Shop during the 70's
Bike shops were rare during the 50's and 60's, and they usually looked like garages with piles of old boxes and equipment, but during the seventies, the shop owners saw a need to appeal to a different class of customer, and so the modern bike shop was formed. One bike shop owner became a friend, and I spent many hours at his shop, so I got my first understanding of what running a bike shop was like. His father had had a shop filled with junk, but the son saw the necessity of having a cleaner and more open shop, with any dirty work done in a back room. His place was always neat, with ready-to-ride bikes and available gear displayed around.
Bicycles during the 70"s
By the early seventies, the Schwinn Varsity, which had introduced many people to adult bicycling, was already outdated, and only the supply problem with foreign-made bikes caused cyclists to continue to purchase it. Bike shops sold whatever bikes they could find, so there was no consistency as to the kind or even nationality of bicycles sold, although French-made bikes were much more popular then than they ever have before or since. A lot of bikes were sold with the words "touring" in the names that were useful on day-tours only. Many of these bikes had high-tensile frames. It was difficult to purchase the best grades of bikes due to the high demand, and the demand caused the price of some bikes to double.
Bicycle Equipment during the 70's
Some features of these bikes were as good as it gets, but others were decidedly inferior to those of today's bikes. Certainly, bike equipment was a vast improvement over the sixties. Certainly, there was no such thing as a good bike pump until the 70's.
Although we tend to think of later brakes as superior, I could lock the front and rear wheels of my PX-10 with its Mafac Racer brakes. They were a major improvement over earlier sidepulls which braked harder on one side of the wheel than the other. However, Campagnolo decided to reintroduce the sidepulls after everyone else had given up on them, and the other manufacturers followed along.
Bicycles with tubular tires were not rare in the seventies, and I got to experience this pleasure. When on a ride, one could detach the old tire and replace it with a new or previously prepared one, a messy task, since the tires were glued on, the glue being sticky and stretchable and likely to get over everything. Or one could sit down with a razor blade, patch kit, and needle and thread, and attempt to locate the hole, patch it appropriately, and then sew the tire back together. Fortunately, the patches worked pretty well back then.
My favorite piece of bike equipment was introduced during the 70's: the SunTour Barcon. These were shifters that fitted into the ends of the dropped bars and allowed shifting while holding onto the bar. However, the biggest advantage was that, due to micro-racheting, they would never slip, unlike friction levers which slowly relaxed over time, introducing an unexpected shift. I'm still using the Barcons which I purchased in 1975.
The first commercial bike trailer was sold during the seventies, the Cannondale Bugger. This trailer was a large and traveled at a 45° angle, which means it produced a good bit of wind resistance. The tires were unnecessarily heavy, and the spokes of poor quality. The bearings could not be removed to be regreased, and there was a very heavy steel axle.
Bicycle Touring during the 70's
The majority of cyclists then, in my opinion, were interested in touring, although what touring was would vary from person to person, if you asked for a definition. Generally, we would say that it meant a longer, slower-paced ride. Occasionally, a bike would arrive at the shop that was intended for a touring trip, and these sold well, although I am somewhat suspicious of how good they actually would be for loaded touring or if that was was they were used for.
However, unknown to me, Dan Burden and others were working on a project of making a national bicycle ride, called Bikecentennial. From looking at many photos from those early rides, I judge that most of the bikes and most of the bike gear was poorly suited to the task. In an analysis of the accidents on the '76 ride, it seems that those carrying loads were four times more likely to have accidents than those who were not, and I'm sure the inappropriate bikes and equipment contributed to that, although another major contributor was simple fatigue. (The accident rate, by the way, was not high.)
Events during the 70's by the Year
In 1970, there were 6.9 million bicycles sold. The Complete Book of Bicycling by Eugene Sloane was published that year and sold well. The Wandering Wheels, a touring group based at Taylor University in Indiana, completed 30,000 miles of touring, with more than 350 participants. This group has continued to tour until present, but I have no further dates for its activities. Bicycling! -- a California publication -- was the only magazine published for cyclists in the US.
The membership of LAW (League of American Wheelman, later renamed LAB, League of American Bicyclists) was about 1,000. The Harmon Hundred ride was first run near Wheeling, Illinois. During this year, I toured Canada on my only automobile tour and saw a number of groups of cross-country touring cyclists. On this basis and from what I was hearing and reading, I concluded that bicycling had become popular, and I started making plans to travel the next year by bicycle.
In 1971, there were 8.9 million bikes sold. Miss Frances Call led the Cyclemates, a group of 15 ninth graders, from Seattle, Washington, to Washington D. C., where they met the president, Richard Nixon. They traveled 3,700 miles in 59 travel days. In the Pan American games, held in Columbia, John Howard won the gold medal in the road race and the rest of the US team earned five bronze medals, the best they had ever done. The TOSRV West (Tour of the Swan River Valley), started by Dan Burden, was ridden for the first time near Missoula, Montana. Dick Allen Lansing-to-Mackinac Tour was established after Dick Allen, a representative, made some comments about the bicycle being suitable for transportation. The Minnesota Ironman ride was established (this is a 100-mile ride, not a triathalon). The 3rd edition of the North American Bicycle Atlas was published. This was an all-new book, in spite of being called the 3rd edition. I made two tours that year. The first, during the winter, was intended to help me break away from the conventional lifestyle and to toughen me up for living on a bike. I rode in extremely cold weather to a cave, where I camped out. That summer, I started with my new wife on a trip which was intended to traverse the Appalachian Mountains and then cross Canada to the West Coast. I intended to relocate there, hopefully in British Columbia, and to write a book about bicycle touring, using our trip as an example. Unfortunately, the trip was a disaster, and we returned to Alabama.
In 1972, 13.9 million bikes were sold. Greg and June Siple and Dan and Lys Burden begin the Hemistour touring trip, a 18,000 mile trip from Anchorage to Terra Del Fuego. Dan and Lys dropped out in Mexico because Dan caught hepatitis; however, they went back to Missoula to organize Bikecentennial. Greg and June finished the trip the next year.
Bike World magazine was first published, later purchased by Rodale in 1979. Richard's New Bicycle Book was published.
There were 15.2 million bicycles sold in '73, the highest number of any year. Glenn's Complete Bicycle Manual was published.
John Karras and Don Kaul of the Des Moines Register suggested that people join them for a six-day bike ride across Iowa at an easy pace. About 300 cyclists showed up on the first day, as many as 500 participated, and 115 made the entire trip, including 83-year-old Clarence Pickard, who rode a woman's bike, didn't know how to shift gears, and wore a pith helmet and baseball shoes. Clarence inspired many others to attempt it. Bikecentennial was founded and incorporated the next year.
In '74, 14.1 million bikes were sold, nearly as many as the year before. 1,800 people participated in the bike ride across Iowa. DeLong's Guide to Bicycles and Bicycling was published. I remember having this book ordered on inter-library loan and reading it as if it were real treasure. Mount Rainer Tour, a three-day ride, was established. In July, not long after my divorce, I made a weekend touring trip with my Peugeot PX-10 and pulling a Bugger trailer. It was not a happy combination, and I never attempted to tour with the Peugeot or the Bugger again; nonetheless, it was a memorable ride and a great camping trip. This year, John Forester taught a cycling class in the Bay Area and used the material from this to write his first book, Effective Cycling, published the next year.
In 1975, 7.3 million bikes were sold, half the number sold the previous year, and barely more than in 1970. The first bike boom was over, although the number of cyclists had increased. The Red Zinger Classic began this year in Colorado. The ride across Iowa was named RAGBRAI. The Cross Florida Ride was founded, a one-day ride of 170 miles with crosswinds and high temperatures. The Amateur Bicycle League of America changed its name to the U. S. Cycling Federation. VeloNews first appeared, having evolved from other magazines going back to 1972. Effective Cycling was published.
During '76, 8.1 million bikes were sold, a bit of an increase over the year before. About 4,000 cyclists participated in Bikecentennial, about 2,000 finishing the entire 4,200 mile route from Yorktown, Virginia, to Astoria, Oregon (or the other tway around). About eleven million miles were ridden. The Five Borough Bike Tour was established in NYC. Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, and other assorted hippies began riding clunker bikes downhill in Marin County, California. The same year, the first Crested Butte ride was held in Colorado. Forester began an Effective Cycling course for the League of American Wheelmen.
In 1977, 9.4 million bicycles were sold. Robert Rodale purchased Bicycling magazine. The Jersey Devil Century was established. Joe Breeze began building the first mountain bikes.
In 1978, 9.4 million bicycles were sold. John Marino rode across the US in 13 days, 1 hour, the ride that marks the beginning of the Race Across America, although that name was still in the future. The Oklahoma Freewheel ride was established, which usually extends across the state from border to border.
In "79, 10.8 million bikes were sold. This was the first year of the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, about 400 miles. The movie Breaking Away was released (about events in 1962). Bike Touring, by Raymond Bridges was published. This was the first comprehensive touring book for the US.
Sources of information: Glenn's Complete Bicycle Manual, 1973 edition for the first two years, and The Cyclist's Sourcebook by Peter Nye, 1991, were the sources for most of this information. These books provided a great more detail than I used. A few other cycling books furnished a smattering of information as well. Anyone who wants to contribute some more information can send me an email.