Rural Missouri Magazine

High Roller
James Allen pedals across America on a
replica 19th-century 'ordinary' bicycle

by Bob McEowen

James Allen has logged more than 18,000 miles on this replica 19th-century high-wheel bicycle, including one trip across the United States.

To hear Billie Allen tell it, her husband, James, has taken his last long bike ride.

"He misses calling me one night and that's it. He doesn't get to ride again unless we get divorced," Billie says with a look so intense that even James seems to wonder whether she's serious.

James knows better though. Billie is just expressing the concern she felt one July night when the cyclist fell off his bike en route to Buffalo, N.Y., and failed to phone home as expected. Standing in the couple's Springfield kitchen surrounded by bicycle art, knickknacks and mementos, James shuffles his feet and recalls the accident.

"The front wheel fell into a crack. It flipped me end over end," says James, a telephone line serviceman and Southwest Electric Cooperative member. "It put a big blood spot on my head where the helmet hit. My shoulder hit the ground. It still hurts."

A lesser rider might have given up but James is no ordinary bicyclist. Well, actually, he is. James rides an "ordinary" — one type of high-wheel bicycle common in the late 1800s.

Called ordinary to distinguish them from a safer variation known as an "eagle," these bikes had a large front wheel (eagles had the big wheel in back). Both allowed a rider to cover a lot of ground with each turn of the pedals.

But because the pedals turned with the wheel the rider couldn't coast, making downhills treacherous. The biggest danger on an ordinary bicycle is a "header," an accident in which a rider's legs catch on the handlebars while his body flies forward.

"The bike just pivots and drives your head into the ground," James says. That is exactly what happened in July.

A dislocated shoulder and splintered ribs forced him to interrupt his trip to the annual meeting of The Wheelmen, an international antique bicycle club. Still, he managed to arrive at the meet on his bike and even competed in the high-wheel bicycle races there, placing second.

Such determination is the rule for James, who bought his first high-wheeler in 1989. He has ridden numerous 100-mile "century" rides and participates in the annual MS150 charity ride atop a replica 1884 Victor ordinary bicycle, one of more than a half dozen high-wheelers he owns.

Although he's only had the 47-pound replica eight years he's logged 18,500 miles, including more than 200 miles during a 24-hour race on a local car track. But James' greatest cycling accomplishment is a cross-country trek — 3,270 miles on a high-wheel bicycle.

In April 1999 James and fellow rider Rick Stumpff of Kimberling City placed their back wheels in the Pacific Ocean and took off from San Francisco, retracing the path of journalist Thomas Stevens who crossed the United States on a high-wheel bicycle in 104 days in 1884.

"We had terrible weather," James says recalling his cross-country trip. "Once we got past Donner Pass out in California we had 13 days of headwinds. Ten days it rained on us. Eight days we had snow and four we were in blizzards.

"We had one 10-mile mountain out in Nevada. It was just a grind. It was one of those you should have walked but we pretty well refused," he says. "I bet we didn't walk 5 miles the whole trip — didn't aim to walk."

James and his partner arrived in Boston 32 days later — averaging over 102 miles a day. If it weren't for the fact that the builder of their bikes was on hand to see the finish James says he might have ridden his bike into the Atlantic Ocean.

"What you really wanted to do was run it off the pier. You wanted to just take the dive," he says.

When he's not riding long distances James collects bicycles. Besides high wheelers, he favors antique track racers from the turn of the century when cyclists held six-day races and "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy drafted a locomotive to hit 60 mph on a bicycle.

James also dons Victorian-era costumes and joins fellow Wheelmen in parades and other public events.

"Maybe you like the attention," James says, trying to explain the allure of the high-wheel bicycle.

"You go down the road and everybody waves. You go on a bike ride and everybody stops and talks," he says. "You're as tired from talking as you are from riding."

And so while his wife threatens to end his long-distance rides, James talks of high-wheel bicycle journeys he's yet to take — perhaps following the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans or riding all the way around the U.S. border.

"I love to go somewhere on the bike. I like to sit up high and look," James says. "You never plan where you're going to stop. You just go to where you end up."

Listening to James, Billie's gaze softens. "I tell him, 'Enjoy it because it's your last ride,' but I say that in joking because I know it won't matter. He'll ride again."


Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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