Cycling In The City: A Brief History Of Bikes In Pittsburgh

Aug 21, 2015

More than 3,000 bikes line the floors and walls at Bicycle Heaven in Chateau. Just inside the entrance hangs a bike made entirely of wood.

“It’s called a boneshaker bicycle,” said owner Craig Morrow.

Past the gleaming Schwinns and Raleighs and the spot usually home to Pee-wee Herman’s iconic ride (it’s being repaired right now), Morrow points out two bikes from the turn of the 19th century, both with “lights” suspended from the cross bars.

“The lanterns usually were carbide lanterns, or even on the older ones, oil lamps, so people in horse carts and things like that didn’t run into them,” Morrow said.  

The cycling craze that gave rise to those bicycles gripped Pittsburgh in the 1880s and 1890s. Lauren Uhl, museum project manager at the Heinz History Center, said the bicycle represented a seismic shift in society.

“Early on, what bicycles mean is speed and freedom,” she said.

Cycling clubs sprang up all over town. J&L advertised its “American Special Cold Rolled Steel for Bicycle Parts,” and Banker Bros. Cycling Co. stood at the corner of Highland and Centre Avenues in East Liberty. George Banker was one of the sport’s earliest professionals. That is, until he fell in love with motor cycles and cars.

“Bicycles seem to have this ebb and flow to them,” said Uhl, noting how their popularity shifts over time.

The Allegheny Cycling Association (ACA), a USA Cycling-permitted group, has organized weekly bicycle races for more than 40 years. Since 1999, they’ve been held at the cycling track on Washington Boulevard.

“It undulates, it goes up and down and turns. It’s NASCAR. On a bicycle,” said Chris Popovic, ACA president.

He watched 26 riders race down the straightaway.

A group of riders breaks away from the main body of racers on the straightaway.
Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA

“We do this 20 weeks a year, April to September," he said. "And then of course just about any day of the week you’ll see kids learning to ride their bikes for the first time.”

Popovic motioned to a small boy in the infield struggling with the physics of two wheels.

“Looks like there’s a little bit of trouble; somebody came off their bike,” he said. “He’ll cry now, but he’ll be back on the bike at some point.”

Some call the half-mile loop the “pseudodrome” (not a regulation velodrome); most call it simply “the track” or “the Oval.” Some may know it as the place they took their driving tests. But technically it’s the Bud Harris Cycling Track.

“Well Bud, more than anything, was just relentless,” said Eric Schaffer, a long-time friend of the late Bud Harris. Schaffer said Harris knew how to get things done. He co-founded one of the city’s first “pro” bike shops with Alan Orlansky, and with Schaffer created the Thrift Drug Classic, a now-defunct pro race that attracted the likes of Lance Armstrong. When the Allegheny Cycling Association lost its regular racing spot, Harris was instrumental in creating the track on Washington Boulevard.  

“It creates a greater awareness of cycling, and it made it easier for younger cyclists to press for these kind of changes,” Schaffer said.  

When the track opened in 1999, biking was arguably at an ebb. Even in 2003, enthusiasts were working on a map tentatively titled “Yes, You Can Bicycle in Pittsburgh.” But by 2013, the American Community Survey found that since 2000, bike commuting alone increased by 408 percent in Pittsburgh.

“One of the really exciting strengths of a city is the whimsy of a city, of stuff that [doesn’t] seem to have apparent value,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Murphy worked with Harris on the track. While it was relatively inexpensive to build, it helped make Pittsburgh a city people want to live in, he said.  

“Bud was part of that, then,” Murphy said. “That sense of what it means to build a special place.”

At the track, an official rang the bell for the last of the racers’ 40 laps. “One lap to go! One lap to go!” he shouted.

With the sound of the bell, the riders — mouths open, legs a blur — surged. In the infield a boy dropped his bike to watch, his red helmet swiveling through the final lap. 

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