A history of bicycling in Red Deer

On the afternoon of Sept. 4th, the Tour of Alberta International Pro Cycling Race will make its way to Red Deer as the second stage of the five-day event across Alberta. An estimated 120 cyclists will be participating in this year’s competition.

The history of recreational cycling in Central Alberta goes back to the mid-1890s, following the development of chain rear-wheel-drive bicycles with pneumatic tires.

These new styles of bikes were such an improvement, in terms of comfort and safety, over earlier models that they were often dubbed ‘safety bicycles.’

These new bicycles made their first appearance in Red Deer in the spring of 1896, when the village had a population of 150.

While winter had lingered, with a heavy snowstorm hitting on May 4th, the Calgary Tribune newspaper soon reported that many people in Red Deer had purchased and were learning to ride their bicycles.

People quickly became more adventuresome with their new form of transportation.

In August, J.E. Graham made a trip by bicycle from Edmonton to Red Deer. The route was the old Calgary-Edmonton Trail, with lots of ruts, water-filled potholes and other challenges.

In the spring of 1899, Reg Burch and Tom Gaetz made a round trip to Edmonton on their bicycles to attend the Dominion Day (July 1st) ‘Potlatch’ celebrations.

Fifteen Red River carts also made their way up the Calgary-Edmonton Trail to the same celebrations.

One of the most remarkable features of the new sport of bicycling was that it was not limited to men. Despite the usual attitudes of what was acceptable in Victorian times, women took up the pastime with equal enthusiasm.

This was not an easy feat. The long full skirts of the era could make it difficult to pedal. Nevertheless, bicycling gave women a socially acceptable and rather liberating activity, which they could enjoy with friends as well as their husbands, children, or young beaus.

In June 1900, Red Deer celebrated the capture of Pretoria during the Boer War with a parade that included a fife and drum band and also a procession of ‘ladies and gentlemen’ riding on their bicycles.

As the new century progressed, bicycle races became an annual feature of the Red Deer Dominion Day sports events.

They also became a feature of Red Deer Fair, school sports days, the annual Orangemen’s Day celebrations (July 12th), and others special events such as the Red Deer Board of Trade picnics and the Anglican Church’s ‘Fêtes’ which were held at the Red Deer Fairgrounds. As time went on, races of 1.6 km (1 mile) became more and more common.

On Aug. 5th, 1935, the Edmonton Young Conservative Association organized a 161 km (100 mile) race from Red Deer to Edmonton.

R.B. Bennett, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, donated the trophy for the winner. The event attracted 21 racers, of whom 11 finished. The winner completed the course in five hours, 46 minutes and 45 seconds.

The race was deemed a sufficient success that it became an annual event.

Perhaps because the federal Conservative Government was badly defeated in the election in the fall of 1935, a group of cycling clubs from Edmonton took over the organization of the race. Towns along the route also offered prizes to the first cyclists to arrive in their communities.

The event was always held on the first Monday of August.

The number of competitors stayed fairly constant at 20 to 30 cyclists. Completion times improved markedly. On Aug. 1st, 1938, although road conditions were muddy and slippery, the winner managed to finish in four hours, 59 minutes and 45 seconds.

Moreover, the race was a very close one with Ken Yeatheard, of the Edmonton Olympic Cycle Club winning by only half of a wheel length with the third place finisher only 1.5 lengths behind the first two.

Unfortunately, these annual 161 km road races came to an end in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Long distance competitive cycling races did not become popular again in Central Alberta until the last few years.