Minnesota's Earliest Century Rides: 100 mile bicycle races over pre-determined times - typically 24 hours

Matt Reicher

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Members of the Century Road Club at Minnehaha FallsChronicling America

The advent of the safety bicycle in the 1880s brought a bicycling craze to cities throughout the United States and changed transportation in the country. Bicycling fever captured Minnesotans as well, and in little time the bicycle was seen as a principal mode of travel in the region.

The bicycle soon became a vital utility, used for commuting, errands, transport, and more. The prevailing opinion among riders was that no travel method was faster, more comfortable, or less expensive than the bicycle. It gave the people of the state a low-cost way to journey farther than ever before and the independence to do so whenever they pleased. It was an essential part of local travel and a favorite tool for recreation. Riders traveled as far as road conditions would allow, riding for work, relaxation, and fun.

Bicycling was also a favorite spectator sport, and bicyclists were some of the region’s earliest sports stars. Thousands flocked to local riding events to watch men and women compete against each other on the race track. Bicyclists like John S. Johnson, Dottie Farnsworth, and A.A. Hansen (Hanson) were some of Minnesota’s earliest sports stars. Crowds boisterously cheered their favorite riders and marveled at their accomplishments. The pull of competition and personal achievement was so intense that competitive bicycling couldn’t always be confined to an arena race track.

Throughout the 1890s, bicyclists took to streets to compete in ‘Century Races.’ These races, which made their way to Minnesota in the early part of the decade, mixed both speed racing and distance riding elements. Riders were required to complete a one-hundred-mile ride within a predetermined time limit. No more than twenty percent of their run could take place on “paved city streets, boulevards, (or) park roadways.” The race quickly grew in popularity, and soon Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and more boasted multiple courses pointing in all directions.

Courses stretched into Northfield, Minnetonka, Hastings, Monticello, and beyond. Each path offered competitors a unique riding experience as the different runs took bicyclists through different parts of the state. Riders rode through small towns and vast farmlands, alongside rivers and other waterways, and into local cities. Seasonality was irrelevant as bicyclists rode over century courses during the coldest winter nights and the hottest summer days. It was a year-round sport.

Bicyclists that finished an official Century Ride were given a Century Bar for their efforts. These flat gold bars, one-inch long and three-sixteenths of an inch wide, bore the completed ride date and a “C.100” logo. There was a stringent vetting process to ensure the validity of the ride. Bicyclists filled out a Century Bar application form and had it endorsed by an established century rider familiar with the length of the completed course. Submitted papers were then put in front of a three-person “road record committee” for final approval. Approved rides were entered into the record books, and Century Bars were ordered from the official jeweler in Chicago.

The local sanctioning body in the state was the Minnesota division of the Century Ride Club of America. They ensured that the race rules were followed and were the governing body recognizing riders that completed a valid century ‘run’ and later multi-century rides. Bicyclists were required to ride along with a pace keeper whenever possible and check in with some trustworthy person in twenty-five-mile increments. Those who rode the course unaccompanied needed their Century Bar applications certified by a notary public.

The club also tracked and recorded the miles ridden each year by member bicyclists. Medals were given out during a yearly award ceremony recognizing the previous season’s top riders. Some of Minnesota’s most prolific century-milers, called “centurions,” included Mrs. Archie Matheis, the first female in state history to complete a double century, and Mrs. James McIlrath, who in June 1899 became the first female in U.S. history to complete a five-hundred-mile quint-century ride. One of the most famous riders of the era was A.A. “Rainmaker” Hansen, who finished fifty-nine centuries in 1894, on his way to a record 21,053 miles ridden that year.

Owning the record for the most completed centuries or fastest ride of the year was an impressive feat, but so was finishing the first Century Ride of each new year. Each year the first ride of the season happened earlier than the previous year. Eventually, bicyclists met at midnight on January 1st to brave Minnesota’s harsh winter conditions and raced their way into the record books. Saint Paul’s Tom Bird and James McIlrath were mainstays on the New Year’s Day course, competing against riders in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York in multiple years.

As the country entered the twentieth century, a nascent automotive industry spelled the end of the country’s bicycle craze. Society, enamored with the bicycle for more than a decade, now pushed it into the background. Century Rides continued, but their popularity waned. Many former one-hundred-mile riders, known as “centurions,” melted down their Century Bars and turned them into gold coins.

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Freelance historian writing about Minnesota history.

Hugo, MN
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