‘Wheelman’ pedals antique high-wheeler across America
McNatt returned recently from a 66-day trip from Delaware to Oregon aboard his reproduction 1885 bike.
Unlike today’s bikes, riders on 1880s two-wheelers rode high atop a huge front wheel. A tiny rear wheel gave the rider balance. Solid rubber tires gave a bone-jarring ride and brakes were of the most rudimentary kind.
“You can feel every pebble,” said McNatt, who rode the bike over mountains, through 100-degree heat in the Midwest and down side roads and interstate highways.
McNatt started out the ride with a fellow enthusiast from Delaware, but completed the ride on his own after his companion was unable to finish.
McNatt has crossed the country twice previously on a conventional bike. A member of the Wheelmen, a nationwide group of antique bike hobbyists, he had long wondered what it would be like to pedal a high-wheeler across the country.
The Mansfield resident found motorists and local residents along the way friendly and more than a little curious about his high-wheeled contraption.
“Everywhere you stopped, people would swarm,” McNatt said.
Obstacles and hardships were many.
Climbing the Appalachians and the Allegheny mountains in quick succession was a supreme challenge on the high-wheeler, which has only one gear and is extremely difficult to pedal uphill. McNatt and Tim Schmidt, his companion on the first leg of the trip, resorted to walking their bikes up the heavy slopes.
McNatt crossed into the Plains states just in time to encounter excruciatingly hot weather of this summer’s drought, in which 90-plus temperatures were common.
“In Nebraska, I took a picture of a bank thermometer that read 104 degrees,” McNatt said.
Nevertheless, the local resident kept pushing, often covering 70 miles a day. He fought headwinds, mountains and desert terrain as he closed in on the West Coast.
“It’s mentally tough on you, as well as physically,” McNatt said.
Ultimately, however, McNatt’s persistence was rewarded as he finally reached the Pacific Ocean in Florence, Ore.
McNatt, who is president of the Mansfield Historical Society, figures he’s one of only a short list of riders who have completed the 3,400-mile trip on a high-wheeled bike.
Thomas Stevens, an Englishman, was the first to do it in 1884.
Since 1972, McNatt said, several people have followed in Stevens’ tracks.
McNatt, who is compiling a list of those who have completed the feat, estimates fewer than 30 riders have made it all the way.
Piloting the antique bike across the country has given McNatt a new appreciation for Mark Twain’s quote about the growing popularity of bicycles during his own time: “Get a bicycle. You’ll never regret it – if you live.”
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