An Arizona Bicycling History
Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
Article and Photos by Lorry Levine
Fred Van Meerbake was determined to be the first to ride from New York City to San Francisco. He was on an “ordinary” bike, the high front-wheeled predecessor of today’s bicycle. At the time, soldiers in the Arizona territory were still pursuing Geronimo. This was the first bicycle seen around Tucson. The year was 1886.
A year later the “safety bicycle,” with two equally sized wheels and a drive train was invented in England. In 1892, the Tucson Cycling Club was formed with 60 members. Sabino Canyon was a favorite ride back then. It took two hours each way.
The first bike shop in Arizona, Landis’ Cyclery, started in 1912 by Benjamin Harrison, grandfather of the current owners Dick and Bob Landis. By the 1920s, seven bike shops existed in Phoenix as bike racing was increasing in popularity.
On May 1, 1921 the longest bicycle race – to date – was held in Arizona. It went from Tucson to Phoenix. The overall distance was 144 miles. On rutty trails, 27 racers entered, three finished. In 1929, Russell & Shepard opened in Tucson as the first merchant to sell bikes in town.
In 1954, the ATO fraternity commenced an annual tradition of sponsoring a bicycle relay race between Arizona State and the University of Arizona on the Saturday of the ASU-UA football game. The race occurred from the visiting school to the school at which the game was to be played. Each team consisted of 10 participants. The race continued until 1963 when the interstate highway was constructed over parts of the route.
Two-dozen bike shops existed in Tucson in the early 1970s. On Oct. 31, 1970 in a Tucson Daily Citizen article, it was noted “bicycles are swarming all over the U of A as students take to pedals to avoid auto congestion. The ‘fad’ caught on as a personal campaign against air-polluting cars and as a handy means of exercise.”
On Nov. 15, 1971, Bicycle Week went to Scottsdale thanks to a petition requesting a study by Mayor B.L. Tims. It was to determine the possibility of recreational bike trails throughout Scottsdale. On March 8, 1974, new recreational bike paths were recommended in Phoenix.
Also in 1974, the Pima Association of Governments initiated the Tucson Region Bikeways Plan proposing 400 miles of bikeway system in both the city and county. Nationally and locally, cycling interests were escalating thanks to the 10-speed bike. At the time, 36 percent of people in Tucson owned a bike. One thousand people per day were using the two main bike paths of Mountain and Third Avenues.
Andy Gilmour, a custom frame builder, started Gilmour Bicycles in 1974. Fair Wheel Bikes on 6th Street opened around the same time with students and the emerging racing community as a primary customer base. Broadway Bikes, then on east Broadway (now on Sarnoff and Broadway), opened to serve the east side cycling community.
Other multispecialty shops in Tucson also emerged, many carrying other items such as motorcycles, lawn mowers, hardware, skate boards and BMX equipment. An early entrepreneur, K.L.Hart, promoted himself as a dealer in “guns, bicycles and revolvers.” Eventually, the demand for an efficient and fun way to get around enabled independent specialty bike shops to thrive.
“I started out racing and found an opportunity to start a bike shop,” said Ralph Phillips, owner of Fair Wheel Bikes, “It was a passion for me.”
Back then, it was a labor of love for Phillips as professional racers/riders discovered Tucson as a training place. In the early 90s, he realized the Internet was evolving and he started an online business which now accounts for half his business.
“We sell all over the world,” Phillips said.
In 1983, El Tour de Tucson started, and a few hundred cyclists participated to enjoy a day of traffic-free cycling while benefitting charities. Also in the 1980s, the Tucson Bicycle Police was initiated. It started generations of police officers who understand cycling and have become ambassadors for bicycling citywide.
Pima County, the City of Tucson, the City of South Tucson, Marana and Oro Valley have been instrumental in supporting bicycling and walking trails. The Loop has become wildly popular with more than 110 miles of paths completed.
Broadway Bicycles started selling skateboards, BMX bikes and road bikes. According to general manager Scott Johnson, “what really changed our mix of customers was the popularity of mountain biking in Marin county and Greg LeMond winning Tour de France. At that time, we really moved from a predominantly BMX shop to a specialty bicycling shop as the demand for quality mountain and road bikes escalated.”
Dick Landis, co-owner of Landis Cyclery, with four stores in the Phoenix area, states, “a bicycle is merely the most efficient way to get from one place to another. Certainly ASU students found getting around on a bicycle affordable and efficient but with advent of the 10 speed and the baby boomers coming of age, cycling just took off.”
Tucson’s region boasts more than 1,000 miles of bicycle infrastructure and 10 cycling camps, while the UA campus has over 11,000 bike racks. The Phoenix area has over 3,500 miles of paved bicycling infrastructure and more than 20,000 bicycle parking spaces on the various ASU campuses.
All the experts agree, with Arizona municipalities supportive of an ever-expanding bicycling infrastructure — ideal weather, the escalating costs in owning, fueling and parking an automobile, health and fitness and most of all, a bicycle’s efficiency and sense of freedom — the popularity of bicycling in Arizona will continue to grow for years to come.