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