Saturday, February 28, 2009

Racycle Rumors #1: Racycles Were Racers

These days a surprising number of supposed board-track racing bicycles are coming out of the woodwork. The owners seldom (if ever) offer any conclusive evidence of their machine’s competition career, but at least their assertions are supported by a lack of evidence to the contrary!
Thanks to Racycle’s use of large sprockets and reversible handle bars, the bicycles from Middletown, Ohio, certainly cut a dashing figure that could be mistaken for a racing bicycle. Were Racycles all racers? To help shed light on the matter, here is what the manufacturer wrote in a 1901 promotional publication under the heading “Racycle’s Growth.”
“The name ‘RACYCLE’ was coined from the words ‘Ray’ and ‘Cycle,’ as a compliment to F.H. Ray, the original president of the company, to emphasize its distinctive feature when compared with all other bicycles.
“Many people labor under the false impression that it is called the RACYCLE because it is a racing machine. To correct this impression we do not employ a racing team….
“In the spring of 1896, after a great deal of experimenting with thorough practical tests, larger sprockets were advocated. No doubt many will remember the ridicule evoked by the ’97 Models exhibited at the cycle show of 1897, which were equipped with 30-tooth front sprockets.
“A great cry of ‘Freak! Freak!’ was raised. Columns pro and con were written in the cycle journals, but before the season was over all bicycle concerns were compelled to adopt this ‘freak’ feature, for the public realized that the 17-tooth sprockets not only looked badly [sic], but put so much strain on the chain that they caused a wheel to push harder than when equipped with a larger sprocket. Today a 17-tooth sprocket would elicit as much ridicule as our 30-tooth did at the ’97 show….”
So now we know the source of the name and the maker's rationale for using large sprockets, and it was not because all Racycles were racers. However, the maker may have seen the sales advantage of aping the competition machines. Today, this is commonplace. What is not altogether clear is how they concluded that larger sprockets reduced chain strain and made the Racycle easier to pedal. And was there really an industry-wide movement toward large sprockets, or was this only wishful thinking on the part of Racycle hoping to be a trendsetter? More on these questions in future posts—stay tuned!
Although the factory might not have employed a racing team (or, at least not in 1901), Racycle included a racing model in their catalog from 1897 through 1910. (Illustrations from 1897 and 1908 are included above as the second and third images.) I have incomplete information for 1911 and 1912, but the 1913 Racycle catalog does not include a racing bicycle, indicating that Racycle had by then decided to leave the competition market to other makers.
This photo collage (above) is from a promotional publication printed in 1904 and features several images that the maker had received from proud privateer Racycle racers. Elsewhere in the same publication other Racycle racers are mentioned including M. Sunada, the 1903 Japanese national champion, and Frederico Arredondo, the Mexican road champion.
Clearly a few Racycles saw competition, but the vast majority got more ordinary use.

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