|TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
Aug. 19, 2001
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"Iron Riders" tested bikes for army
By Lynne Tolman
When the Swiss army announced this year it would abolish its
110-year-old bicycle brigade, the world's last remaining combat cyclist
regiment, it didn't need to spell out how much the world has changed
since the 1890s.
The U.S. Army had a bicycle unit back then, too. Formed
in 1896, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps at Fort Missoula, Mont., was
established to test the practicality of bikes for military purposes
in mountainous terrain. The idea had been kicking around for years,
as bikes already had been put to military use in Europe, and cycling
for sport, recreation and transportation gained tremendous popularity
on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s.
Gen. Nelson A. Miles, born in Westminster, Mass., began advocating
for bicycle couriers in the Army after seeing a six-day bicycle race
in Madison Square Garden in New York in 1891. He wrote that unlike
a horse, a bike did not need to be fed and watered and rested, and
would be less likely to collapse. Furthermore, a bike is smaller and
quieter than a horse and thus could help a soldier sneak up on the
enemy, he argued. It was Gen. Miles, who became known as "the patron
of military cycling," who approved Lt. James A. Moss' request from
Missoula to form the bicycle corps.
The 25th Infantry regiment was made up of black men, known
as buffalo soldiers, commanded by white officers. Its Bicycle Corps
began with eight riders using one-speed Spalding bicycles on loan from
the manufacturer in Chicago. Their exploits are detailed in the book
Riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle
Corps" by George Niels Sorensen (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.,
Their first major outing was a four-day, 126-mile trip to
Lake McDonald and back. Each bike loaded with gear weighed about 76
The lieutenant listed their rations: "1 jar Armour's extract
of beef, 1/4 lb.; 7 cans beans, 19 lbs.; 2 lbs. salt; 5 lbs. prunes;
6 lbs. sugar; 5 lbs. rice; 2 lbs. baking powder; 1 can condensed milk;
20 lbs. bacon; 3 cans deviled ham; 2 lbs. 2 ounces pepper; 2 lbs. coffee;
35 lbs. flour; 3 cans corn, 5 1/4 lbs.; 1 can syrup, 12 lbs.; 3 lbs.
lard. Total, 120 lbs."
At times the dirt roads were so muddy and the grades so steep,
the men walked the bikes along railroad tracks. After crossing Mission
Creek, the soldiers had to re-cement loosened tires onto their wooden
rims. Despite breakdowns and delays, their commander considered the
trip a success and immediately planned a longer, tougher one.
This time the soldiers covered 790 miles in 16 days, visiting
Yellowstone National Park. They dealt with mud, headwinds, rain, punctured
tires, stomach ailments and other suffering, but the riders all kept
a positive outlook, according to Lt. Moss' account.
The following summer, 1897, came the Bicycle Corps' most remarkable
adventure, a 1,900-mile trip from Missoula to St. Louis, Mo.
In 34 days of riding, 20 soldiers averaged 56 miles per day. Their
average speed registered 6.3 mph. Newspapers carried daily updates
on their journey, and the Army & Navy Journal quoted Lt. Moss at
"The trip has proved beyond peradventure my contention that
the bicycle has a place in modern warfare. In every kind of weather,
over all sorts of roads, we averaged fifty miles a day. At the end
of the journey we are all in good physical condition. Seventeen tires
and half a dozen frames is the sum of our damage. The practical result
of the trip shows that an Army Bicycle Corps can travel twice as fast
as cavalry or infantry under any conditions, and at one third the cost
Sorenson's book puts the Bicycle Corps' accomplishments into
perspective by exploring the role of blacks in the U.S. military, the
attitudes leading up to the bicycle experiment, the Western setting
in which the troops were stationed, and the rapid changes taking place
in America at the time, including the evolution of the bicycle itself.
In 1974, 10 bicyclists honored the Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle
Corps by retracing their route from Missoula to St. Louis. The ride
was organized by two professors, Pferron Doss and Richard Smith, from
the Black Studies Department at the University of Montana. They borrowed
the motto of the original 25th Infantry: "Onward."
Of course, the 20th century riders encountered a changed nation.
But when viewed over the handlebars, some things were hardly different.
One of Doss' reflections on the Bicycle Corps odyssey:
"It was not until we were pedaling down their shadows that
we could fully appreciate what they had endured. Though 77 years' progress
boasted the luxuries of paved freeways and high-caliber equipment,
the steep hills, weather and snakes proved to be equal opportunists
in evening the score."
Lynne Tolman's bicycling column
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