Go for the Gold in the Great
Smethport Bicycle Races
Every year in late September, a flash of color and the whoosh
of wheels signal the start of the Great Smethport Bicycle Races, a 53-mile
chase through the forests of northern Pennsylvania that began in the
Riders long ago traded their wool caps and knickerbockers for florescent
helmets and spandex, but they’re still vying for the same coveted
prize: a gold pocket watch and the bragging rights to one of the most
legendary races around.
Whisked through the Victorian village of Smethport, Pa., propelled over
tree-studded hillsides that once fueled factories and sawmills, and
transported across miles of picturesque farmland to the historic Galico
Bridge, cyclists race to the finish through a ticker tape parade of
The memories are as inspiring as the views.
As early as 1892—a decade before the famous Tour de France—two
enterprising businessmen dreamed up this race to capitalize on a craze
that was taking America by storm. It was the Golden Age of Bicycling,
and Dr. F. C. Pierce and his friend Martin Armstrong were among the
sport’s most ardent vans.
Pierce, a Smethport dentist and a distributor for Rambler Bicycles,
handed out catalogs to every patient who visited his second-story office
with a toothache. As soon as their pain medication wore off, he would
escort them downstairs to Young’s General Store where they could
take a gander at the latest bicycles just in from Chicago. An avid cyclist
himself, Pierce introduced the first high-wheeler to Smethport in 1883,
and in 1895, pedaled his Rambler “Safety” to Des Moines,
Iowa, in only ten days.
Martin Armstrong would not be outdone. The town’s jeweler, telegraph
operator and baseball coach sold the competing Columbia brand from his
Main Street storefront, which doubled as a sporting goods store. The
high-wheeled Columbia “Racer” had clinched the world speed
record in 1886 at 22 miles an hour. Now the Columbia “Century”
was selling like hotcakes, even at $200 apiece. Equipped with pneumatic
tires for a smooth, safe ride, these bicycles were no longer the “boneshakers”
of the past—they were the transportation of the future. By 1895
American factories were turning out 400,000 bicycles a year.
The two Smethport businessmen knew a bicycle race would capture the
thrill of their favorite sport and fill the bustling lumber town with
spectators. Pierce sketched a 7-mile loop around the hub of the city
and Armstrong donated an engraved gold pocket watch for first prize.
The Great Smethport Bicycle Races were off and running!
Word traveled fast. Wheelmen from as far away as Buffalo, New York,
inspired by a little friendly competition and cheap fares on the Erie
Railroad, hopped on board, bringing their bicycles with them.
“If you want to come as near to flying as we are likely to get
in this generation, learn to ride a pneumatic bicycle,” wrote
Philip G. Hubert Jr. in the June 1895 issue of Scribners Magazine.
Women were among the first to take hold of the handlebars. The bicycle
liberated them from the confining Victorian clothing they were used
to wearing and freed them to go virtually anywhere they wanted. Trousers,
split skirts and lighter-weight corsets came into vogue, offering a
more comfortable, long-distance ride.
“Skirts, while they have not hindered women from climbing to the
topmost branches of higher education, may prove fatal in down-hill coasting,”
wrote Marguerite Merington, in Scribners. “Skirts,” she
cautioned, “must be fashioned as to minimize the danger of the
At first newspapers condemned the pastime as unladylike. They railed
against the speedsters, calling them “sorcerers.” But it
was the Gay Nineties after all, and there was no turning back. Bicycling
was just too much fun.
Families toured the countryside, enjoying the scenery with picnic baskets
in tow. Couples coasted into cities for dinner, to visit the theater
or enjoy the opera. Sports fans followed behind their favorite baseball
teams, riding for miles in the hopes of watching them win. And young
racers took off for far-flung locations to compete in an important race.
Challenged by rutted roads, poor drainage and ornery wagon drivers,
the bicyclists were undaunted. Instead, more than 100,000 cyclists from
across the United States banded together to form the League of American
Wheelmen, a group that lobbied for better roads and directional signs,
literally paving the way for the automobile. Smethport, like many communities,
joined in with its own chapter. Ironically, the automobile would soon
eclipse the bicycle as the favored form of travel. With the dawn of
the horseless carriage, The Golden Age of Bicycling would come to a
The Great Smethport Bicycle Races continued its rolling spectacle on
wheels through 1899. More than a century later, after a trunk of old
race photos was rescued from the trash, the fabled event was brought
back to life. Now, every September, the contest once again lures riders
in pursuit of the elusive gold watch.
For race entries and more information about the Great Smethport Bicycle
Races, visit www.smethporthistory.org.