Your History is Our History

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The Silicon Valley Bikes! Festival & Bicycle Show’s mission is to celebrate and preserve the City of SanJosè’s and the entire Santa Clara Valley’s rich bicycling history while honoring the bicycle clubs, riding groups, governmental organizations and helping organizations who are making history today. Our mission is to promote bicycling to the general public as a healthy choice, a powerful source for recreation and friendship, and a viable transportation option.

Silicon Valley is known as the birthplace of innovation for personal computers, the internet and networking.

Did you know that we’re also the birthplace of bicycling innovation?

Our Festival grew from History San Josè’s Silicon Valley Bikes! Project. In 2010, Diane Solomon wrote the “Art of the Wheel” for Metro Silicon Valley  about young bike makers Sam and Matt Rodriquez. When she learned that bicycling began in San Josè during the 1880’s, she was inspired to help History San Josè gather and preserve this history with the help of Terry Shaw (Shaw’s Lightweight Cycles Shop, the San Josè Bicycle Club and the Garden City Wheelmen), Elizabeth “Bess” Hernandez-Jones (the San Josè Bicycle Club and the Northern California Velodrome Association) and Ken Middlebrook, History San Josè Collections Director.

The Golden Era

At the 20th century’s dawn, bicycle racing was the U.S.’s (and the world’s) top spectator sport. Before baseball, cars and airplanes, people flocked to velodromes to thrill at the speed of the racers. On race nights in the 1890s, says Terry Shaw, most of San Josè’s adult population crowded into local velodromes to watch locals like Hardy Downing, Bunt Smith and Otto Ziegler become national record holders.

There were dozens of cycling clubs in San Josè during the 1890s. In September of 1895 Idelia Allen, of the African American San Josè Cyclers racing club, broke the women’s Mile Coast record at one of their first meets. “The San Josè Cyclers likely knew of Major Taylor,” says Lynne Tolman, of the Major Taylor Association. “Taylor got a lot of publicity from a June 1895 victory in Indianapolis, and another win that summer earned him a trip to a big meet in Chicago which drew black riders from all over the country.” In 1904, Taylor, the 1899 world champion, 1900 national champion and the U.S.’s first black professional athlete won a championship in Australia against his archrival, the former San Josè Daily Mercury paperboy Floyd McFarland.

The Racing Era

The Garden City Wheelmen represented San Josè’s vibrant racing community at Northern California meets in the early 1900’s. Newspapers of the era reported on their drinking bouts as much as their racing activities. A notable member was Clyde Arbuckle, the 1921 state champion who went on to become San Josè’s City Historian and the co-founder of History San Josè, Silicon Valley’s version of the Smithsonian Institute.

The U.S.’s most popular spectator sports were baseball and velodrome racing through the 1930’s. San Josè more than made up for what it didn’t possess in baseball talent with the numbers of racers it sent to national competitions and to the Olympics. Joe E. Brown’s 1934 film, “The 6 Day Bike Rider”, was based on a San Josèan and 1928 and 1932 Olympian, Henry “Cocky” O’Brien.

Stephen Halton, 91, says he started racing at 12-years-old across the street from Vince Gatto’s bicycle shop on the dirt track that circled Bakesto Park before its sidewalk was paved. In 1936 he found his way to the Garden City Velodrome and raced for the Garden City Wheelmen until he went off to World War II.

“The purpose of the Velodrome was to give us kids something wholesome to do,” says Halton, “many kids were stealing because no one was working. At 13 you were expected to help your family.” Halton recalled that most Garden City Velodrome racers were bicycle delivery boys for newspapers, telegraph companies, restaurants, pharmacies, and flower shops. Wages earned plus the prizes won at the track put food on their families’ tables.

Bicycle shop owner and Garden City Wheelmen manager Dewey Maxwell founded the Garden City Velodrome. In the late 1930’s the Garden City Velodrome was the only velodrome west of Chicago. Patterned after the track at Madison Square Garden, it held 3,500, was built in 1936 with W.P.A. funds and stood where Lincoln High School stands today until 1942.

“Admission was twenty-five cents and spectators kept the large grandstands full,” says Halton. “The Gatto brothers, Louis Randoni, Gene and Bobby Echeverria, Joe Colla, Murphy Sabatino, Antone Chimenti, Tony Valerga, and so many from San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles rode our beautiful track.”

Sport Changers

During 1950’s through the 1980’s the Valley’s long country roads, ideal climate and plentiful jobs continued to grow local talent while attracting cyclists from all over to train and race here. San Josè Bicycle Club members rode to National Board Track and Road Racing Championships and to the Olympics.

They influenced and changed the sport of bicycle racing. In 1956 Pedali Alpini members went to Italy. “They brought back multispeed road bikes and long distance road bike racing,” says member Steve Lubin. “They were pioneers. Before then the sport focused on fixed-gear racing, mostly on tracks”.

Hellyer Velodrome was built on City of San Josè wasteland in 1963. The Park was added later. The 1979 District Madison Championship was won by Greg LeMond and George Mount. Greg LeMond became world famous as the first American to win the Tour de France.  Olympic trials and thousands of USA Cycling-sanctioned races have been held at the Hellyer Velodrome.

“Hellyer was and is a breeding ground for up and coming track cyclists,“ says Elizabeth Hernandez-Jones. She helps run the beginner programs and serves on the board of the Northern California Velodrome Association, the organization that manages Hellyer Velodrome and connects Silicon Valley with USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body. “Hellyer is still the only place in Northern California for riders to train on a velodrome. It’s a community resource for people to come and learn and share.”

Silicon Valley is the Birthplace of Bicycling Innovation

Baby boomers kicked off a bicycle boom in the 1960’s that rippled through the 1980s. Silicon Valley techies rode their bikes to work and formed clubs like the Western Wheelers and the Lockheed employee’s Pedalera. GE employees’ lunchtime rides on Monterey Highway birthed the Almaden Cycling Touring Club. The Los Gatos, San Josè, Skyline and Pedali Alpini bicycle clubs revived racing, filling Hellyer Velodrome with spectators on race nights.

“The bikes weren’t that bad,” says Terry Shaw, talking about what led him to open Shaw’s Lightweight Cycles in 1976, “they just required a lot of maintenance and a good mechanic to improve them.”

Cyclists from all over the West Coast visited Spence Wolfe, who built custom parts and sold high-end Cinelli bicycles out of his garage, the Cupertino Bike Shop, on Randy Lane.

Meanwhile, young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs saw opportunities that big boys like Schwinn and Raleigh didn’t.

Encouraged by Wolfe, mechanical engineer Phil Wood started out in 1971 modernizing hubs and bottom brackets. Wheel chairs were as mobile as heavy shopping carts until Wood re-engineered them, giving the wheel chair-bound new independence and birthing a cottage industry for makers. Phil Wood & Co.’s stronger and lower maintenance bicycle products went global and are still manufactured in San Josè.

Today Mike Sinyard is the founder and CEO of one of the world’s largest bicycle companies, Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc. It’s headquartered in Morgan Hill. “I had this one professor at San Josè State,” says Sinyard. “He was a smart guy and he said, ‘every problem in the world is an opportunity to make something better’. “And so I thought about it and when you think about every challenge on a bike, whether its a saddle or the tire or whatever, it’s an opportunity.”

Sinyard worked his way through San Josè State’s School of Business fixing up and selling beater bikes he bought at the Berryessa Flea Market. In 1974 he sold his VW bus for the bucks to tour Europe on his bike. In Italy Sinyard fortuitously met Cino Cinelli, whose bicycles and components were among the world’s best. Sinyard offered to become Cinelli’s California distributor and was accepted.

Carless, Sinyard returned to his Paradise Trailer Park home on South First Street, where he pedaled European components and Blackburn pannier racks to Bay Area bike shops on his makeshift cargo bike.

Seeing demand for better quality tires and rims led him to improve and manufacture them, which led him to design and manufacture bicycles, their components, and accessories. Sinyard was among the first to mass-produce bicycles with the feel and features of custom bikes. In 1981 Specialized introduced the Stumpjumper, the first mass-produced mountain bike. Its lower cost attracted riders to the sport and it has been displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

I think it’s easier for people to start businesses now then it ever was,” says Sinyard. “It’s only limited by your ideas and your ability to want to do something where you don’t know what the outcome is.”

Bicycle touring and camping were popular in the 1970’s. The 1976 Bikecentenial got thousands of cyclists riding across the country. Seeing an opportunity, Jim Blackburn started Blackburn Designs, Inc. making baggage racks to accommodate bicycle travelers. He added handlebar bag holders and bottle cages. “Our thing was to be the experts on carrying weight on bicycles”, says Blackburn, a graduate of SJSU’s School of Industrial Design. In 1992 Blackburn sold his business to Easton-Bell Sports, who sells bicycle accessories today under its Blackburn brand.

Two of Jim Gentes’ Giro helmets are part of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Before Gentes designed the first lightweight aerodynamic bicycle helmet and started Giro Sport Design, bicycle helmets were heavy and looked like Styrofoam ice buckets.

Gentes grew up in Cupertino. He said that he always loved to ride. As a kid he patronized the Cupertino Bike Shop, taking material from its scrap heaps to tweak his bikes. In 1975 Gentes was the first U.S. Junior National Cyclocross Champion. He was instrumental in developing Cyclocross’ “Bunny Hopper” element and popularizing the sport in Northern California. After graduation he went to work for Jim Blackburn at the Campbell warehouse Blackburn shared with Sinyard before their businesses grew them into headquarters of their own.

Terry Shaw knew Gentes from visits to Blackburn and Sinyard. “I was sharing a booth with Blackburn at the Long Beach trade show when Jim showed Greg [LeMond] a mock up of his first helmet,” recalled Shaw. Shaw heard Jim say, “Greg, you said if I made it, you’d wear it.” Greg looked at the helmet and said, “if I don’t have sponsor problems I will.” LeMond, who trained and raced in the Bay Area, wore the helmet in 1986 to his first Tour de France win and popularized Giro helmets.

No! Mountain Bikes Were NOT Invented by Gary Fisher in Marin, County

Yes, Marin County’s Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Charley Kelly were instrumental in the development of mountain bikes and the sport, but largely unknown are the major contributions Silicon Valley innovators made.

The bragging rights to the first mountain bikes Gary Fisher and the Marin crowd saw belong to Russ Mahon and his Morrow Dirt Club. They were inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame as pioneers in 1996.

In 1972 Russ and brother Bernie ran track at De Anza College. “To enhance our foot race workouts, every other day we’d push these bikes up the Cupertino foothills and then bomb down, having a real good laugh,” recalled Mahon who was then 26.

Wanting to make the rides easier, Russ grafted a derailleur, a Schwinn Excelsior spring fork and a Morrow coaster brake onto his vintage Hawthorne bike. Mahon chose the Morrow brake because unlike others it wouldn’t explode on long dangerous rides downhill.

“My wife’s brothers saw what I was up to and within a year we had about ten members,” says Mahon. “In order to be in the Morrow Dirt Club you had to put together your own bike and take care of it.” Because Morrow coaster brakes were discontinued in the 1950s, clubbers went to Faber’s Bike Shop and the Alviso dump to get the parts they needed to ride Los Altos, Saratoga and Cupertino’s steepest hills.

In 1974 club members saw a flyer at the Cupertino Bike Shop advertising an opportunity to bomb down Mount Tamalpais. Billed as “The West Coast Cyclocross Championships”, they decided to go.

“All of the luminaries and studs of the bicycle world were there,” says Mahon, “and for the first time they saw balloon tire bikes with transmissions, front and rear thumb shifters and drum brakes.” Mahon believes this inspired the Marin riders to make mountain bikes. “You get an idea, that’s simple,” says Mahon, ”but to go ahead and put it out on the road? That’s a different thing.”

When Gary Fisher decided to make and sell mountain bikes, he reached out to Tom Ritchey to make the frames. Both Fisher and Ritchey were serious racers who started as tweens and knew each other through the Bay Area’s racing scene. In the early 1960s before Fisher’s family moved to Marin, he trained with Pedali Alpini, a Woodside racing club whose members included Olympians and national champions.

Ritchey grew up in Palo Alto. He started riding with his R&D engineer dad and raced with the Belmont Bicycle Club and then the Palo Alto Bicycle Club. As a junior he was nicknamed “the senior slayer” because he was beating California’s top racers, which won him a stint on the US National Road Team.

At 15, Ritchey was repairing and modifying his Cinelli racing bicycle and building frames in the family’s garage. By the time he graduated from Palo Alto High School he was earning a Silicon Valley engineer’s wage selling frames to the Palo Alto Bike Shop whose catalog gave Ritchey national exposure.

“Quite a few of the top riders in the country were approaching me to make custom bikes,” says Ritchey. “Even riders like Eric Heiden, who right after the Olympics became a pro road rider. He won the U.S. Professional Cycling Championship on a bike that I built for him.”

Ritchey made frames for Gary Fisher and Charley Kelly from 1979 until 1983 when MountainBikes dissolved. Ritchey built his business designing, manufacturing and selling frames and components for bicycles that have crossed finish lines at the Tour De France, Olympic XC Mountain Bike race and the UCI World Championships.

“I wanted to make a mountain bike that couldn’t be broken”, said Keith Bontrager.  The Santa Clara High School grad returned to the Valley to attend DeAnza College after touring Europe as a mechanic for Fox Motocross. Broke and carless, Bontrager bicycled and started making mountain bike frames in his folks’ Los Altos garage for George Slough’s shop and friends.

“Fisher cranked things up, with Ritchey supplying the frames,” says Bontrager of MountainBikes, “they were getting all kinds of press, they were selling them as fast as they could make them and they were breaking almost as fast as they could sell them.”

Studying physics at UCSC, Bontrager applied his education to the problem. He figured out how to make stronger frames, he developed the suspension fork and founded Bontrager Cycles.

“The computer industry was attracted to the Santa Clara Valley because of the weather,” says Bontrager. “Mountain biking succeeded there for almost the same reason– its good weather and there are trails everywhere. Developing a mountain bike where you’d have to drive three hours to get to the trails would have been impossible.

The Invention of the Bicycling Advocacy Movement

If you take your bicycle on Caltrain, BART, or VTA, if you use public bike racks, bike lanes, sharrows, or if you utilize your employer’s bike lockers, racks and shower facilities, thank Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.  Since 1970 they’ve worked tirelessly with local governments, transportation agencies, developers, and businesses to gain these accommodations for cyclists. Their work in the 1970s with state and local governments became national standards for bicycle parking, bike lanes, free bicycle valet services at sporting events, and employer-provided accommodations.

Today, Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition is working with the City of  San Josè’s Vision Zero program, VTA and other agencies to eliminate bicyclists and pedestrian injuries and deaths in San Josè’s Eastside, where cyclist deaths and injuries are among the highest in the Bay Area.

Given the environmental challenges we face along with rocket high housing and transportation costs, bicycling is more than a means of recreation and exercise. New bicycle lanes, sharrows and connected bikeways are making it easier to go car-freer, sparing the air and our finances.

Copenhagen, Davis and Portland, Oregon are known for bicycling. When you consider Hellyer Velodrome; hundreds of miles of new bike lanes; San Josè Bike Party; Ford GoBike bike share stations; the Vision Zero initiative; Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition; our vibrant bicycle clubs and riding groups; bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees (BPACs); the philanthropies; the Silicon Valley Bikes! Festival & Bicycle Show; Lake Cunningham’s new BMX bike park; Shiny Side Up Bicycle Show; Viva Calle; Cowgirl Bike Courier; VTA’s new bike plan, and local governments’ bicycling-promoting initiatives, they qualify the adding of “bicycling” to Silicon Valley’s reputation as the Birthplace of Innovation.

Wheels Keep Turning

Diane Solomon recruited Terry Shaw and Elizabeth Hernandez-Jones to help her research this history. Their work became an exhibition “Silicon Valley Bikes: Innovation, Passion and Politics Since 1880”. Although it opened on July 27, 2015 at History San Josè’s Clyde Arbuckle Gallery and closed a year later,  History San Josè continues to collect and preserve this history and plays a lead role in organizing the Silicon Valley Bikes! Festival & Bicycle Show.

The Silicon Valley Bikes! Festival & Bicycle Show’s mission is to celebrate and honor those bicycle clubs, riding groups and helping organizations who continue to make Silicon Valley bicycling history.

“The freedom that bicycles offered in the 1890s is the same freedom that bicycles give riders today,” says History San Josè’s Ken Middlebrook. “What’s exciting is you can take a bicycle from 100 years ago and still ride it. You still have two wheels, handlebars, a seat and leg-powered pedals. This is why they’ve been part of our community for so long, they’re not a fad; they’ll endure forever because they’re so basic to humans and what we like to do.”

Visit our Silicon Valley Bikes! online exhibit!

Written by Diane Solomon, History San Josè’s volunteer historian and the founder and organizer of History San Josè’s Silicon Valley Bikes! Project.

Do you have local bicycling history and/or related photos, artifacts or media to share with or donate to History San Josè? Would you like to help our history gathering project? Would you like to volunteer at our Festival?

Please contact Diane at siliconvalleybikes@historysanjose.org