St Charles Avenue: New Orleans’ Bicycle Highway

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This poem appeared in the Daily Picayune in November of 1885. St. Charles Avenue was at that time the thoroughfare along which New Orleans’ new suburban development was spreading upriver from the French Quarter, facilitated by mule-drawn streetcars that ran the avenue  along the route of the Carrolton Railroad. In contrast to the older Creole neighborhoods downriver, the upriver neighborhoods along St. Charles Avenue were the purview of the protestant middle class and their late-Victorian culture.

Bicycles and tricycles had only appeared in New Orleans five years before this poem was published, but clearly they had already become a staple of the modern street and symbol of the bon vivant life. These bicycles would have been the high-wheel “penny farthing” style machines, as the “safety” model familiar today would not really be on the market for another couple of years. The tricycles were not children’s tricycles, but machines built for adult riders. These machines had two large wheels in the back and one in the front, usually, although there were other designs. The tandem tricycle had a seat in front where a passenger—usually the daughter or sweetheart of the driver—could ride. Harry Hodgson, one of New Orleans’ most prominent cyclists of the era, rode and raced a tricycle.

In 1887, St. Charles Avenue was paved with the first asphalt in the city. The new smooth pavement that stretched four-and-a-half miles from Lee Circle to Louisiana Avenue was perfect for cycling. St. Charles soon became a bicycle highway on which young office workers daily rode their bicycles between their suburban homes and the Central Business District. That year the cyclists of the city put on a Carnival Lantern Parade on St. Charles. About a hundred cyclists appeared wearing costumes of mythological, Medieval, and Oriental characters, their machines adorned with Japanese lanterns. When the new Louisiana Cycling Club formed that year, they held road races on St. Charles Avenue.

The streetcar—now electric—still runs along St. Charles. Under the electric lights there appears to be very little promenading by pretty girls, no swells on the corners. The asphalt pavement is now potholed and car-choked. Cyclists would be wise to choose another route for their dashing. But for a little while in the 19th century, St. Charles Avenue was essentially the grandest bike path in the South.

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1889: Bicycling Sensation at Audubon Park

An assumed identity, a dramatic defeat, and a champion redeemed at the
National Five-Mile High Wheel Championship
Daily Picayune
In the fall of 1889, the exhilaration of New Orleans sports fandom swirled not around boxing, baseball, or horses but a race of penny-farthing bicycles. Cycling track races had begun two years before in the Crescent City–a novel spectacle drawing ever-growing crowds to the driving track at Audubon Park. The League of American Wheelman had granted New Orleans the venue for the national five-mile championship at the local League meet. The mustached and muscled native and Southern five-mile champion, C.B. Guillotte, would ride for the title against the smug national champion, Frank Mehlig of St. Louis, New Orleans’ upriver rival.
C. B. Guillotte
Another “flyer”, Burt Spriggs, had recently arrived on the New Orleans cycling scene and joined the Louisiana Cycling Club. He swiftly endeared himself with his fellow wheelmen and wowed them with his speed in club road races. Excitement around the national five-mile race quickened with his announced entry. The rival cycling clubs of New Orleans–the LCC and Guillotte’s New Orleans Bicycle Club–would each enter a contender to capture the national title.
Two weeks before the event when a scandal erupted. Mehlig’s brother revealed the true identity of “Burt Spriggs” as M.O. Spring–the St. Louis racer who had been ousted from the League for allegedly violating the rule of amateurism. Making money from cycling races, of which he was accused, was a practice strictly forbidden by League regularions. Spriggs was subsequently scratched from the race, leaving the contest to the local bicycling badass C.B. Guillotte and the national champ, Frank Mehlig.
Frank Mehlig
On the day of the League tournament the stands filled with fans, the better portion being young women sporting hats custom-made  with ribbons in the colors of their favorite team–purple and gold for LCC and blue and white for NOBC. The national title face-off capped the event. At the shot of the gun the two men mounted their “shadow steeds” and jammed their pedals, racing wheel to wheel as the crowd hollered from the stands.
In the third quarter of the first lap, a crack sounded from the track–Guillotte’s saddle bolt snapped and sent the New Orleans boy tumbling to the ground. With his knee badly injured, he ran alongside his mount to an umpire and jumped on a substitute wheel that proved too small. He switched machines again–but this one was a size too large. By this time he was an eighth of a mile behind. Guillotte pedaled furiously, bent over his handlebars, his determination fueled by the howling of the home field fans as he passed the grandstand.
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At this point the crowd was frantic. According to the Daily Picayune, *”Boys threw their hats in the air in excitement, men shouted themselves hoarse, and even the ladies added their voices to the din and roar. In fact, some of the fair ones were seen to jump from their seats and wave their kerchiefs as if the last hope of their salvation depended thereon.”*
Guillotte caught Mehlig and matched him wheel to wheel again, momentarily surging ahead, then falling back into pace with Mehlig, then surging again to overtake him by a length. As the two men approached the finish line, “straining every nerve,” Mehlig surged again. Guillotte, hampered by the pain in his knee, failed to match him and was defeated by a length.
The outraged people of New Orleans cried foul and demanded a rematch. Mehlig agreed and the friends of both men raised money to re-stage the event three weeks later His sympathies now all-in with the local contingent, “Burt Spriggs” volunteered to train Guillotte.
 Three weeks later the crowd filled the stands again, frenzied more than ever. Again the two men locked in fierce battle in a contest now crucial to the hearts of their admirers. This time, the local champion beat Mehlig with ease in a decisive victory of more than a length. The New Orleans racing fans’ ravenous appetite for victory was satiated. Guillotte’s friends swept him from his wheel onto their shoulders and carried him from the track. Guillotte’s new trainer, M.O. Spring–aka Burt Spriggs–shared in his glory and was likewise born on shoulders past a euphoric throng.
Meanwhile, Mehlig skulked to his dressing room, where the Picayune reporter found him despondent. He proved a sore loser, claiming he’d only lost because Guillotte’s machine was lighter and his own foot had slipped from the pedal. One sports writer called this *”an obviously poor excuse. As one need not be an expert to see that the principal part in bicycle racing is to keep one’s feet on the pedals and the machine under control.”*
Guillotte’s legacy was secured, and Burt Spriggs, once-disgraced, remained in New Orleans as a hero.
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