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On Exhibit: The Mountain Bike's Primitive Ancestors 

The oldest modern bicycle Michigan's Three Oaks Spokes Bicycle Museum has in its collection is an Elliot Hickory safety bike from 1892. It features equal-sized spoked hickory wheels, pneumatic tires, a chain drive, and an elliptical chain ring, something Japanese manufacturers reintroduced on bicycles in the late 1970s.

The bike once belonged to local resident John Kramer's grandfather, who rode it to infamy in a 1905 race from Three Oaks to New Carlisle, Indiana, and back. At first it appeared that Kramer's grandfather had won the race. Then it was discovered he'd never been seen at the New Carlisle checkpoint. Kramer's grandfather later admitted having had a flat tire during the first leg; by the time he'd fixed it, everyone else was on the horizon headed back toward him on the second leg. He figured he'd never catch up, so he just turned around and rode like crazy back to Three Oaks, where everyone assumed he'd won. He was too embarrassed to admit the truth until the fraud was uncovered.

"It was strange," says Bryan Volstorf, a founding member of the Three Oaks Spokes Bicycle Club and the proprietor of the museum and information center. "We never intended to have a museum. People just started giving us things. They'd clean out an attic or old shed and find something that hadn't been seen in years. And there'd always be such wonderful stories behind what they'd found."

The club, museum, and info center operate out of a renovated 1898 Michigan Central train depot in Three Oaks and are almost wholly supported by revenue generated by the club's Apple Cider Century, an annual bike ride along the back roads of southwestern Michigan that was developed by the club 26 years ago. The one-day event features multiple routes ranging from 25 to 100 miles through rural and lakefront land surrounding Three Oaks--including the towns of Union Pier, New Buffalo, and Lakeside, as well as farms, vineyards, and river valleys--and brings in approximately $250,000. This year 6,000 people are expected to participate.

The success of the Century has allowed the club to develop its collection of vintage bicycles (about 28 right now) and bike-related memorabilia. In addition to the Elliot Hickory, the museum's treasures include a velocipede (aka a "bone shaker"), a bicycle that was hugely popular in the late 1860s and the first to have pedals that turned the front wheel--earlier bikes were propelled simply by pushing and coasting.

The velocipede the museum owns was discovered locally in 1986, buried under a haystack. When the museum acquired it, it was black with mold and mildew, but Volstorf scrubbed it back to wood, metal, and leather. A family photograph identified the bike as having once belonged to Louis P. Heck, who died in 1985 at the age of 90. The bike was a hand-me-down from his father.

The velocipede's popularity waned as riders discovered the machine's design flaws the hard way. The wooden wagon wheels were prone to skidding; it was difficult to adjust to accommodate riders of different sizes; turning was almost impossible because the rider sat partially over the front wheel--in a turn the back of the front wheel would rub against the inside of the rider's leg; the bike weighed about 100 pounds; there were no brakes.

The museum also has a high-wheeler, or "ordinary," the next popular bike to be developed. Although it had its own flaws--whenever it hit a bump, the giant front wheel would stop and momentum would carry the rider over the handlebars and onto his head--the design did solve the velocipede's steering problem by placing the rider directly over the axis of the front wheel. Adding a hard rubber covering to the wheel eliminated skidding, and the bike featured a spoon brake that pressed against the rubber to slow it down.

The museum acquired its high-wheeler from two sisters who live in Marshall, Michigan. The bicycle had been in their family for generations. When they lent it to the museum it was painted blue, ostensibly to protect the metal from rust. But one of the club members was able to remove the paint by dipping the bike in a stripping vat at his workplace. It's now a beautiful wrought iron black, with a little brass oil lamp on the center post. Everyone is tempted to ride it, but no one has tried for fear of damaging the wheels and spokes.

The museum's Tally-ho tandem--one of only three known to still exist--was built by Maumee Cycle of Toledo, Ohio, in 1897. Volstorf bought it in 1995 for $4,000 from a collector in Maryland who had lovingly restored it with leaf green paint, tan leather seats, whitewall tires, brass fixtures, and carved wood fenders. The raised rear seat over the back wheel and unusual rod-and-chain connection to the front steering assembly allowed a lady rider to sit ahead of the gentleman, who then could maintain complete control of the vehicle.

One of the most unusual bikes came to its previous owner, John Juranek of La Porte, Indiana, in pieces inside a box he bought at a garage sale in 1927. He didn't know what he had until he put it together and discovered that it was an 1893 companion tandem, which features side-by-side seating, with two saddles placed at opposite ends of a crossbar mounted at the center post. Another bar with two sets of handlebars is mounted at the front post, and either or both riders can control the steering. Juranek and his wife rode the tandem in parades for many years; she loaned the bike to the museum after her husband passed away.

Hanging on the wall behind the museum's front desk is a black-and-white photograph of "Bicycle Bob"--a shady-looking character in black-brimmed hat and black three-quarter-length wool coat. Until his death in the early 90s, Bob was a Three Oaks fixture. His bike had a big, wide wire basket on the front, probably not much different from the one on the 1940s-era Oxford Cycle Truck on display. That bike was designed for neighborhood deliveries--it had easy gearing for uphill climbs, a heavy-duty frame, small, maneuverable wheels, and a sturdy two-legged kickstand.

Bicycle Bob took his bike to town every day for years and years, carrying his groceries home in the basket. But he never actually rode it--the tires were always flat.

The Three Oaks Spokes Bicycle Museum and Information Center is at 1 Oak in Three Oaks, Michigan; it's open from 9 to 5 seven days a week. Admission to the museum is free; the info center offers maps, refreshments, rider supplies, and bicycle rentals. This year's Apple Cider Century is scheduled to take place September 30, and registration for the ride continues through July 31. Call 888-877-2068 or see www.applecidercentury.com for more information.

--R.M. Johnson

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/R.M. Johnson.

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