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Biking Around the Badger State

How Wisconsin got ‘Wheel Fever’

Sep. 11, 2013
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Trail riding, road biking, tandems and tricycles are all synonymous with the modern-day bicycle, a sport that has entranced residents of the Badger State for more than 150 years. A fascinating and complex history surrounds bicycling in Wisconsin, and the stories of its riders and enthusiasts are captured for the first time in Jesse Gant and Nicholas Hoffman’s new book Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State.

Wisconsin’s bicycling frenzy started as early as 1869, when velocipedes—the forerunner of today’s bicycle—began appearing in the streets of Milwaukee, Appleton, Oshkosh and Eau Claire. This two-wheeled contraption, known for its larger front wheel, was embraced by upper- and middle-class Milwaukeeans, but by 1890 the modern bicycle had surpassed its predecessor. It is during this period that the sport Wisconsinites know so well first took shape.

The story of bicycling in Wisconsin is, sadly, also a tale of discrimination and unfairness, as women, the working poor and people of color were often left out of the elite riding set. Enthusiasts embraced the sport as a way to get from here to there as well as a leisure sport complete with unique costumes and décor. From bloomer girls to bicycle jockeys, the sport of bicycling in the state is one of much-loved recreation and competition. Complete with never-before-seen photographs, Wheel Fever shares the story of the sport’s past and why it still matters today.

Nick Hoffman is the curator at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton and Jesse Gant is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both authors will appear at Old World Wisconsin from 12-2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, for a talk and book signing.


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