Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Fatigue Limit – 5

April 19, 2021

Coventry Rotary in 1879. Chain driven.

I had no regrets about missing out on the highwheeler. I started with a safety bike only a year ago, my father paying a king’s ransom for the machine. Still, I admired the local racers who suffered through their formative days riding highwheelers. They were modern-day essedarii, riding high out of the saddle where a tumble could mean a trip to the infirmary. They made the switch to safeties in a heartbeat once Carl changed over. The mechanical engineer always berated the beastly highwheelers, declaring them an engineering travesty. He pointed out the advantages a chain afforded the Coventry Rotary tricycle and called for a two-wheeler of similar design. It took ten years, but the bicycle industry finally came around to Carl’s way of thinking. Only a handful of professional racers still rode highwheelers. We assumed it was because their sponsors required it of them. They weren’t fools, but they were beholden.

Everyone’s attention turned from Carl to Gary when he rolled up, riding a custom-made Harry S. Roberts, imported from England with the latest lightweight tubing and iron rims, drivetrain on the left. Its new coat of pearlescent paint glistened in the sun. Gary’s blond hair complemented the bike color. He greeted the riders with an expressive smile, slapping hands and wheeling a circle before planting his feet. The riders crowded around, anxious to share a brief moment with the new cycling phenom. Racers worshiped anyone who could outride the pack. The personality wasn’t what mattered, just the leg muscles, the lungs, and the winning spirit. Gary had all of it and the riders wanted a piece of it. They hoped that some of his magic would rub off by following his draft. If only it were that simple. Bike racers need guile to win. Those talents weren’t necessarily God-given. Gary had quick reflexes, feared nothing, and had that unassailable confidence, but he also had cunning. He knew when to strike, when to stay back in the pack. Few racers could do what he did with the same proficiency.

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Fatigue Limit – 3

April 5, 2021

Start of a race in the 1890s.

That was an understatement. The young rider’s reputation spread like a raging wildfire across Northern California. His exploits on the bike rewrote the record books, overshadowing the accomplishments of the best riders. He proved in every race he entered that he could beat the best cyclists. Carl made adjustments with his spoke wrench while I watched. Carl knew everything about cycling, but his knowledge was worldly. In his travels to the East Coast and Europe he met the great minds of engineering, knew some by first name. He corresponded so frequently that it took the postmaster extra time to gather up all the letters.

I shuffled through a pile of missives strewn across his dining room table. The names read like a Who’s Who — John Dunlop, Pierre Lallement, John Kemp Starley, Albert Overman, Henry Sturmey, Eugene Meyer, Hans Renold, Alfred Reynolds, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. His Renaissance man attributes shown through.

“You do know some influential people,” I said, my mouth agape at the names I had perused.

Carl continued turning spokes, listening for the right pitch when they pinged and settled into place. At moments like these he was more piano tuner than wheelbuilder. After each wheel tightening, he carefully stress-relieved the spokes by grabbing pairs and squeezing them. Was there anything this man could not do? Here he was, a piano repairman one minute, a dairy farmer with the right “squeeze” the next.

“Certainly. These fellows understand scientific principles.”

“Including Sigmund Freud? Isn’t he a psychologist?”

“He’s a blowhard. I don’t buy what he’s selling, but he has a few good ideas. Besides, he’s German. I understand his writing.”

“And what about Friedrich Nietzsche? I learned about him in school. He’s a nihilist.”

“Don’t say that. It’s a highfalutin word for a realist. He doesn’t believe in prophets or fairy tales, nor do I.”

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New Almaden a step back in time

February 10, 2021

Almaden Reservoir with plenty of the wet stuff.


New Almaden feels like a town living in the 1800s. Everything is old, there aren’t any stores to speak of, and historical landmarks are everywhere. It’s also a bike ride away from home.

I made my way over to Leigh Avenue, easily the best north-south road to take when going to New Almaden. The road is wide, with a bike lane and not so much traffic compared to other roads nearby.

Be sure to take Belwood Gateway/Almond Blossom Lane in preference to Blossom Hill Road. It’s much more pleasant.

After the Camden Avenue climb, take Trinidad Drive to Almaden Expressway. If you’re dedicated to avoiding the expressway, take Glenview Drive/Rajkovich Way/Calcatera Drive/Queensbridge Way/Foxhurst Way to Almaden Road.

New Almaden had its boom times in the late 1800s with the Guadalupe Quicksilver Mine, one of the world’s largest smelters that processed cinnabar ore to yield mercury, which was necessary for gold processing. You can learn more about the mines at the Casa Grande museum/building in New Almaden. You can’t miss it. And don’t miss a visit. Well worth your time.

Historic Hacienda Hotel is also home of La Foret, fine dining in New Almaden.


Mountain bikers like to ride the dirt roads of Almaden Quicksilver County Park (check out the new bathrooms and fountain).

On my road bike I headed to Almaden Reservoir. It looks like it has a fair amount of water after recent rains in the nearby mountains. This stretch of road is one of my favorites, but it doesn’t go on for long. At Hicks Road you can go right to make a loop, but it’s a steep climb with sections of 16 percent that will get the blood flowing.

Vichy Spring yielded naturally carbonated water in 1882. Bottling failed to retain the bubbles. Sales went flat.


Going straight on Los Alamitos leads to a dead end, but not really. Back in the mid ’80s Jobst Brandt and a friend rode down from Loma Prieta Road. It was a classic Jobst Ride, with some walking and, perhaps, a little rappelling. I believe it. People are living off the road today, so it’s not advisable.

But I digress. There’s a road you should ride at least once when visiting New Almaden. Bertram Road parallels Almaden Road through town, but it’s on the other side of Alamitos Creek. This road reminds me of another road just like it — Redwood Drive in La Honda.

At the intersection of Bertram and Almaden Road you’ll find two historical markers.

Old Calaveras Road — one and done

January 13, 2021

Beautifully restored adobe house on Piedmont Road. Worth a visit.

Today’s ride to Calaveras Reservoir brought back memories and a discovery of something old turned into something new (restored), to be cherished for years to come.

I’m talking about the Milpitas Adobe House, built in 1835, tucked away in a cul-de-sac near Piedmont Road and Calaveras Road.

I started riding the Mt. Hamilton loop to Livermore in 1980, leaving from Milpitas. Jobst Brandt, our tour guide, knew all the places of interest, so he never failed to lead us past the old, dilapidated adobe on an equally old Piedmont Road.

Sadly, Old Piedmont Road didn’t make it, but the adobe did, thanks to efforts by concerned citizens and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority.

Old Piedmont Road fell victim to modernization and winter rains from 1982-83. I have no written record, so I’m relying on memory. A large slide forced the road to close, so we started using the new Piedmont Road. Sections of the old, abandoned road are still visible south of the adobe, and other sections still in use farther on.

Riders enjoy car-free riding on Calaveras Road.

I believe the old road took up some of the new Piedmont before it started uphill on the east slope. Jobst liked avoiding cars, so we took the old road until its demise.

But I digress. I wanted to check out Old Calaveras Road. In all my years or riding, I have never been on it.

For good reason, as I learned today. Old Calaveras Road starts at Evans Road and immediately I knew that this would be my last time. There is a section of 20-23 percent. It doesn’t go for long, but the climbing higher up isn’t easy either.

The good news is that there isn’t any traffic, as there is on Calaveras Road on a weekday morning. Plenty of it, moving fast.

Calaveras Reservoir finished. It welcomes Smith Creek and Isabel Creek runoff.

The payoff is a view of Spring Valley Golf Course and short descent. Nice if you like golf.

Traffic dissipated after turning left on Calaveras Road at Felter Road, and I could enjoy the views on a day drenched in sunshine.

I checked out the Calaveras Reservoir retrofit, finished after God only knows how many years and constant road closures.

Imagine what it must have looked like when this valley was farmland and a small community. Not a bad place to settle down.

I recalled all those rides around Mt. Hamilton and the final grind from Sunol to the Calaveras Road summit. In the early days we had some spirited chases. In the later years, not so much. Today it’s an achievement just to go on a ride.

Alpine Road has a hidden bridge

January 9, 2021

Bridge over Corte Madera Creek on dirt Alpine Road, looking south.


Back in the winter of 1982-1983, Corte Madera Creek flooded from heavy rains. That was the start of ongoing problems at Alpine Road’s concrete bridge spanning the creek.

The bridge is about 100 yards beyond the green gate, where east slope Alpine Road pavement ends.

As an aside, a half mile of road leading to the green gate wasn’t paved until October 1987.

I don’t have any photos of the bridge before 1986, so there may have been a suitable crossing. I would have taken a photo, if there were a problem. I suspect that the bridge was already obscured by debris.

Between 1986 and late December 1989, when the road was graded for the last time by San Mateo County, we walked down to the creek and crossed on rickety wooden slats put there by a concerned citizen.

Olaf Brandt and Jobst Brandt clamber over a makeshift bridge on Alpine Road in 1986.


There were other landslides we had to traverse during the late 1980s, some which Jobst Brandt and friends worked on to make rideable.

After the grading, we were shocked to find out that there had been a substantial concrete bridge in place. We had no idea based on the lay of the terrain.

It’s still there today, obscured by brush and trees.

Alpine Road at Corte Madera Creek bridge, January 7, 1990. Jeff Vance, Brian Cox, Jobst Brandt shown.

Searsville had a dirt bicycle track

December 26, 2020

Nick Van Male with Peter Rich on the Searsville Track, 1956.


Research by John Woodfill regarding bikes owned by Jobst Brandt led to another interesting find. Around 1956 there was a quarter-mile bike track at Searsville Reservoir. It was dirt and banked.

Searsville Reservoir, located just off Sand Hill Road and Portola Road junction, is today an ecological football. Tear down the dam (silted in) or leave it be?

Jobst was among a cadre of Peninsula cyclists, loosely called Pedali Alpini, who purchased Cinelli road and track bikes from Cupertino Bike Shop. Owner Spence Wolf was one of the exclusive dealers for Cinelli, considered the premiere racing bike in the 1950s.

There’s a photo showing Nick Van Male and Peter Rich on the track, published by The Almanac.

The track was removed in 1957.

Unless you are a local, you may not know that Searsville Reservoir was a popular recreation area. Picnics and the like.

All that changed in 1975 when the land was turned into the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. The Almanac has all the details.

The track and another “secret” board track in San Francisco (allegedly) is mentioned in writings by Erich von Neff, a former longshoreman from San Francisco. Published in Half Moon Bay Memories.

I’m not sure why President Obama is shown on the page, but Jacob Bronstein is with him. He “recorded” his books.

Calaveras Road had a railroad — kind of

December 14, 2020

Calaveras Road looking east from Milpitas near Piedmont Road.


Anyone who rides a bike on Calaveras Road knows how hard it is in the first mile leaving Milpitas.

That steep slope didn’t stop engineers from moving a steam shovel to help build Calaveras Reservoir.

In 1916, for those of you too young to remember, a huge steam shovel was transported up the hill to the dam site.

They laid track, using two steam engines to haul it up the steep grade, which is 15 percent or more in places.

The track was ripped up and repositioned all the way to the dam site.

I didn’t believe it possible, but the San Jose Mercury News ran a photo. See below.

Calaveras Road with a “rail line” in 1916.

John Forester and Kittie Knox fought for cyclists to have a place on the road

November 24, 2020

Kittie Knox, shown here in 1895, battled racist elements of the League of American Wheelmen.

It is only now that I learn of the passing of John Forester in April, an influential cyclist in the 1970-80s for his insistence that cyclists adhere to the same rules of the road as cars.

I met Forester when he lived in Palo Alto in the 1980s. I bought his nylon bike bag that mounted behind the saddle, using it on my trips through the Alps.

I knew Forester’s reputation and background when I met him, so I was not taken aback by his quirky personality and abrasive manner.

His strident views about cycling were both his strength and his downfall. He couldn’t compromise and in politics that’s a recipe for disaster.

Forester wrote and advocated the principles of Effective Cycling. I bought his self-published book mainly to show my support for cyclists’ rights to the road.

I agree with pretty much everything he advocated, but where we part ways is when it comes to bicycle facilities.

Forester disparaged bike lanes, bike paths, and other amenities for the bike.

Over the years I’ve gradually shifted my thinking from battling cars on equal footing to supporting a bike network separate from cars.

The deal is, we need both.

Bike advocate Ellen Fletcher, who served on the Palo Alto City Council when Forester was living in Palo Alto, didn’t always see eye to eye with the outspoken bike advocate. She was a politician who understood the importance of compromise.

Their political rivalry came to a head at an organization called the League of American Wheelmen. I won’t go into the details here because I was not privy to the situation. However, there is an outstanding article written by Joe Biel that delves into their differences that came to the forefront within this organization.

All of this is irrelevant today. The American Wheelmen was a seriously influential group in the 1880s, but not much more than a mouthpiece for disenfranchised cyclists in the 1980s.

The dark history of the League of American Wheelmen and its racist past is exposed by Biel in his story about a young black woman from Boston who could ride circles around most men — Kittie Knox.

Biel’s story is an eye-opener and one that everyone should read to understand that racial prejudice runs deep in this country.

Thanks to the Internet, I can share some excellent writing about cycling matters from the past. Still relevant today:

How Kittie Knox changed bicycling forever by Joe Biel

Bicycling magazine interview with John Forester by Peter Flax

Mt. Hamilton ride for Garden City Wheelmen — July 1888

November 19, 2020

Cyclists were rapidly moving to the safety bike in 1888.


From The San Jose Mercury News, July 18, 1888

Last Sunday the Garden City Wheelmen had a run to Mt. Hamilton and return.

“The following members took part in the run: A. C. McK, David Render, Yousta Hensill, Joseph Desimone [Desimone family owned a bike shop in San Jose], Alex. Gamosett, and D. L. Thornton.

Notwithstanding the excessive heat the long grade was climbed with comparative ease. Arriving at Smiths Creek in due time, the wheelmen repaired to the hotel where a substantial repast was awaiting them, to which each did exact justice. [A telephone was installed at Smith Creek hotel as early as 1884]

The ensuing seven miles proved a hard climb, but the Observatory was soon reached. Professor Keeler took the party in charge, and showed them through the observatory and described the various instruments in a manner not only courteous but entertaining.

The return trip in the afternoon was decidedly exciting, and compensated for the labor in the fore part of the day. The long miles were quickly covered at a rate of speed of ten to twenty miles per hour.

San Jose was reached at 7 o’clock, and all expressed themselves well pleased with one of the longest runs of the season. The Garden City Wheelmen have purchased an elegant gold medal to be competed for in a series of road races, the first race to occur in the near future.”

Vintage Rover safety bike reconditioned in all its glory.

Mt. Hamilton Ride description from April 1888

November 17, 2020

A map of a ride from Alameda to Mt. Hamilton by Joseph Bliss.


I stumbled across a detailed description of a ride by Joseph J. Bliss of Alameda that took him to the Mt. Hamilton summit on Sunday, April 21, 1888.

It’s in the January 1889 issue of The Wheelmen’s Gazette. My link takes you directly to the article. I think it’s being displayed by the Internet Archive, which may be different from the original location of the Smithsonian.

The tragedy is that I can’t find the second installment, which must have been in a later issue. Sigh.

I’ll summarize his trip, which is well worth reading in detail.

Bliss emigrated from Britain in 1865, from what I’ve gathered. He had three children. Based on his story, he was a clerk of some kind. His ride didn’t start until Saturday evening because back in those days the only rest day was Sunday. That’s true for some parts of the world even today.

He rode alone. I can well imagine he would have a hard time finding a companion for such a difficult ride. His bike was a 51-inch New Mail ordinary. Safety bikes were just becoming popular, most of them manufactured in England.

He stopped for dinner in Centerville, today’s Fremont. He continued on in darkness to downtown San Jose where he got a hotel room.

Next morning he left as early as possible, trying to finish the ride on Sunday so he could be back to work on Monday morning. He stopped at a restaurant and stage stop, today’s Grandview Restaurant, about five miles into the climb.

From his description, the road was in good shape, but despite that he had to walk, ride, walk, ride. No surprise on an ordinary. It’s not the gear that was the problem, but being high on the wheel made control a challenge.

He dismounted to let a stagecoach pass. The road was even narrower than it is today.

Based on his conversation with a boy he met on the road, cyclists rode up Mt. Hamilton regularly.

Previously, I wrote about Al Bouton’s ride in January 1888, the earliest documented ride I can find. I suspect that there were riders before Bouton, after reading this account.

If anyone knows where I can find the second part of Bliss’ story, let me know!