League of American Wheelmen, June,1890.
May 1, 2024

League of American Wheelmen Century Run

This blog post features an article that originally appeared as the Spotlight feature in the California History journal (Volume 91, Issue 2), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. The Spotlight feature was conceived by former journal editor and historian Janet Fireman as a last-page photographic feature that would evoke a lasting image for journal readers. It draws from CHS’s extensive and diverse collection of California photography and photographic history. This story showcases an image from the San Francisco branch of the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W). The advocacy group was established on May 30, 1880 in Newport, Rhode Island with the goal of promoting bicycling and advocating for the improvement of roads and highways in the United States to make them safe for cycling.

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League of American Wheelmen Century Run

League of American Wheelmen Century Run

By Shelly Kale

The bicycle craze sweeping late-nineteenth-century America flourished in San Francisco. Despite unpaved, gravel and dirt roads that jeopardized rider safety, some daredevil bicyclists, then known as wheelmen, took to their wheels with great enthusiasm. Unsafe riding conditions, however, and the tendency for the standard high-wheel bicycle—with its large front wheel and smaller back wheel—to flip over on rough roads, tempered the sport’s appeal for the wiser majority.

League of American Wheelmen, June,1890.
L.A.W. (League of American Wheelmen) Century Run, 6-1-1890. California Historical Society, CHS2009.187.

The last two decades of the century brought significant change for riding aficionados. Organizations like the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.), established in 1880, advocated rider safety, helping to secure paved roads even before automobiles took the transportation reigns. Formed by local cycling clubs—such as northern California’s influential Bay City Wheelmen, founded in 1884—L.A.W. became the country’s premier bicycling association, providing the infrastructure for members to participate in races, learn riding etiquette, and access touring maps and other publications.

The arrival of the new “safety” bicycle, with two wheels equal in size (like today’s models), increased the sport’s popularity, improving safety and offering a desirable and more affordable alternative to the high wheel, particularly among women. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony declared that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”(1) The golden age of bicycling had arrived.

During this time, L.A.W. registered more than 1,000 riders in San Francisco, exceeding membership in many other cities. Members were encouraged to observe road regulations as well as etiquette. “The law favors courtesy, though it does not demand it,” wrote Frank H. Kerrigan, attorney for L.A.W.’s northern California division, “and in case of a trial at law it will go far toward winning the favor of the Court and jury.”(2)

In this 1890 photograph, eager wheelmen pose at 21st and Capp Streets looking toward Mission Street in San Francisco at the start of a L.A.W.-sponsored century run (a bicycle ride of 100 miles or more). Both safety and high-wheel bicycles in this scene attest to the late-century transitional period in American bicycling and hint at the lasting appeal of this emancipating sport.

  1. “Champion of Her Sex,” New York Sunday World, February 2, 1896.
  2. George H. Strong, The Cyclists’ Road-book of California: Containing Maps of the Principal Riding Districts North, East and South from San Francisco (San Francisco, CA : North California Division of the League of American Wheelmen, 1895), 5; CHS PAM 1917.

Shelly Kale, California History (2014) 91 (2): 78–79. https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2014.91.2.78