MAMMOTH, Wyo. — Wheelman Frank Lenz, who toured Yellowstone National Park on a “safety bicycle” in 1892, never could have imagined a cycling trip like this: women in pink tutus, men wearing bright yellow tights and lipstick, others in capes and Halloween costumes.
“It’s gotten bigger every year,” said Melissa Alder, co-owner of Freeheel and Wheel bicycle shop in West Yellowstone, a company that has had a front-row seat on the park’s cycling world. “The costumes have gotten more elaborate over the years, too.”
Last Saturday and Sunday marked the final weekend of bicycling in Yellowstone before the road between Mammoth and West Yellowstone would open to vehicles Friday. This year’s cycling-only season, which is always decided by the weather, was relatively short — only two weekends. But that was enough time for the rolling party of about 40 Missoula-area cyclists to return for their fourth annual 94-mile roundtrip. They overnight in West Yellowstone.
The Missoula group’s party atmosphere — with music and dancing during roadside stops — was a strong contrast to accounts that Lenz wrote during his visit to Yellowstone 124 years ago.
“My face and nose and ears were not only brown but peeling off, and my trusty wheel bore signs of many a gallant league’s work over the alkali roads,” he wrote after pedaling up the same mountain outside Mammoth, Wyo.
Back then cyclists were called wheelmen, and a safety bicycle was the new model built without the large front wheel — those were called a penny farthing or high wheeler. The name "safety bicycle" was a promotional pitch emphasizing the bikes’ fewer crashes since the rider wasn’t seated so high above the ground.
Yellowstone was just one point along Lenz’s tour around the world, a trip he dutifully reported via telegraph to the magazine “Outing.” Portions of his Yellowstone article can be found in the book “Through Early Yellowstone: Adventuring by Bicycle, Covered Wagon, Foot, Horseback, and Skis,” written by Janet Chapple and due out in June. (See related story in today’s Outdoors section.)
“He was an amazing guy who got sponsorship from a bike company and a New York newspaper to pay for his trip around the world,” Chapple said. “The guy was so outstanding, I wanted him in the book.”
She was impressed that even when Lenz had the opportunity to ride a train to make better time or avoid bad roads, he stubbornly refused. In Yellowstone he chose to ride along Yellowstone Lake rather than take a boat from West Thumb to the Lake Hotel.
“Though most of the wheelmen who have hitherto done the park have availed themselves of the steamer at this stage, it was denied to me, for I would not ride by water wherever possible for a wheel to carry me — or, if needs be, be pushed …” Lenz wrote.
Lenz wasn’t the first cyclist to ride into Yellowstone. Credit for that distinction goes to three men from the Laramie, Wyo., Bicycle Club — W.O. Owen, C.S. Greenbaum and W.K. Sinclair — who pedaled into the park from Monida Pass in 1883. Their sag wagon — a vehicle that follows cyclists to carry their gear — was a real wagon pulled by a team of horses. Nowadays, it’s usually a van.
Perhaps the most interesting encounter of the three Wyoming wheelmen’s trip was when they came over a hill and saw a group of Indians on the road below shortly before crossing the Madison River. Concerned about whether the natives were friendly, the cyclists decided to blaze through them at high speed in hopes of bluffing their way out of a hostile encounter.
“We dashed into their midst at a speed which I dare not even conjecture, and, with the most unearthly yells that ever reached human ears, squaws, chiefs, horses and innumerable dogs scattered in as many directions as there are points to the mariner’s compass,” Owen wrote in an account of the journey for “Outing” magazine in 1891.
Lenz, on the other hand, was traveling mostly alone — although sometimes accompanied by cyclists he met along the way — and without a sag wagon. He often stopped at ranches or homes beside his route to seek shelter, food and company. One of those hosts was famed toll road operator Yankee Jim, for which the canyon along the Yellowstone River north of Gardiner is now named. Lenz called the aged bachelor entrepreneur “an interesting character” as well as a “splendid cook.”
The 1800s was a boom time for cycling in the United States. By the 1890s about 150,000 Americans owned bicycles, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society, a state that housed one of the largest bicycle manufacturers and the maker of Lenz’s Victor safety bike — the Overman Wheel Co.
Overman’s bikes were also unique in that they made all of the parts, including the newly created pneumatic tires. Sales in the United States peaked at 1.2 million bicycles a year before declining rapidly as motor cars became more popular in the early 1900s.
In comparison, a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 53 percent of American households own a bike, whether they use it or not. A 2014 Outdoor Industry Association poll found that cycling was second only to running as the top activity for youngsters and adults with more than 40 million people participating in paved road biking.
“To be able to see the park on a bike is probably one of the best ways to experience Yellowstone — the smells, the sounds,” Alder said.
Yet in Yellowstone cycling remains a fairly infrequent means of travel. Last year only 1,821 skiers and cyclists entered the park between April and November, their numbers so low that the two activities don’t even merit separate counts. However, those numbers don’t reflect people who drove into the park and then biked. These low figures are a tiny fraction of the more than 4 million tourists who entered the park last year, a new record.
“It’s very much a mix of people,” Alder said of the cyclists her shop sees. “All ages, all sizes, from hardcore to people who haven’t been on a bicycle in 30 years.”
The most unusual was a Chinese tourist who rented a bike and pedaled his pregnant wife — who sat on the top tube between him and the handlebars — about 28 miles to Madison Junction and back to West Yellowstone.
Perhaps the most famous cyclists to ride into Yellowstone were another group of Missoula wheelmen, the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. Organized in 1896 at Fort Missoula the 20 member all-black corps were testing the bicycle as a possible means of moving soldiers. The group became known as the Black Bicycle Corps, their presence in Yellowstone recounted with a memorable photo of them spread across the Minerva Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, bikes in hand.
It took them only 10 days to ride 800 miles from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone in August 1896. The next year the men would ride 1,900 miles in 41 days to reach St. Louis. Packed with all of their gear, including a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition, the cycles weighed almost 60 pounds.
No matter whether the cyclists are modern or historical, all have been impressed by Yellowstone’s numerous geysers, bubbling mud pots, wild animals and breathtaking mountain scenery.
Lenz wrote, “Who can stand upon the trembling earth, with evidence all around of the mighty buried forces of nature scarce slumbering skin-deep beneath one’s feet, without a sense of the mighty powers of imprisoned chaos?”
Yellowstone cyclists have also long encountered the park’s fickle weather, like when Lenz got caught in a snowstorm near Canyon that saw the temperature drop from 60 to 39 degrees in three hours. One modern cyclist commented on his gears freezing solid during a wet snowstorm last spring, requiring him to carry water from a hot spring to melt the ice so he could continue on.
Despite their difficulties cycling on Yellowstone’s dirt and sand roads, Lenz and Owens had nothing but praise for the park.
“It would be difficult to arrange a trip of equal interest, and I trust many others will be persuaded to take it,” Owens wrote.
“ … To all wheelmen in search of a holiday amid the fairest and most wonderful of nature’s handiwork I say, Take your pneumatic and see the Yellowstone Park awheel as I did,” Lenz wrote.
Despite such encouragement, even today cycling in Yellowstone remains the domain of a few hardy or foolish folks willing to brave the always present possibility of snow, burly bison on the road and — when the roads are open to vehicles — errant drivers on narrow thoroughfares. Despite these challenges, a few are willing to accept the risks, and for a good reason.
“They realize after they’re done that they’ve had a very unique experience,” Alder said.