Wouldn’t You Stop a Transcontinental Bike Ride to Compete in a Bike Race?

June 25, 1887

A series of bicycle races began in Omaha, Nebraska. The tournament took on added interest due to one bicyclist who was nearly halfway through a heavily publicized transcontinental trip across the United States. This bicyclist was 27-year-old newspaperman George W. Nellis, Jr. He was the latest of a handful of ambitious men, starting with Thomas Stevens three years earlier, to pedal from one coast to the other.

Nellis had begun his westward journey to San Francisco on May 24 in the New York village of Herkimer. By the time Nellis reached Omaha on his high-wheeled Columbia Expert bicycle on June 24, he had already established himself as a national celebrity. Nellis became acquainted with several bicyclists in town for the weekend’s big tournament, and they convinced him to participate in at least one of the races.

Along with agreeing to compete, Nellis took part in a parade the night before with other bicyclists. “Chinese lanterns were fastened to our handlebars and pedals, and these bobbing up and down in a line of 100 wheelmen, made a merry, grotesque and highly attractive appearance,” Nellis later recalled.

The tournament started at 3:30 the following Saturday afternoon at Athletic Park, with approximately 1,000 spectators in attendance. The first event of the tournament was an amateur one-mile race, and Nellis was among the 17 participating in it. Nellis did not even place among the top finishers. As he subsequently acknowledged in an interview with Wyoming’s Cheyenne Daily Reporter, “I [raced] in the tournament at Omaha, but didn’t win a prize, my forte being long rides requiring endurance.”

Nellis resumed his transcontinental bicycle ride the following day, and he reached San Francisco on August 3. His 72-day trip of 3,369 miles (5,421.88 kilometers) set a new record for traveling across the United States via bicycle.

For more information on George W. Nellis, Jr. and his 1887 bicycle trip across the United States, please check out http://www.thewheelmen.org/sections/americanjourneys/shiningsea/nellis.asp and http://www.thewheelmen.org/sections/americanjourneys/goldengate/george_nellis.pdf.

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