Your History is Our History

Two_LadysBikesRoad (1)

The Silicon Valley Bikes! Festival & Bicycle Show’s mission is to celebrate and preserve the City of San José’s and our Santa Clara Valley’s rich bicycling history while honoring the bicycle clubs, riding groups, governmental organizations and helping organizations who are making history today and to promote bicycling in San José and Santa Clara County to the general public as a healthy choice, a powerful source for recreation and friendship and a 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, because Diane Solomon wrote the “Art of the Wheel” for Metro Silicon Valley  about young bike makers Sam and Matt Rodriquez, 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 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 its velodromes to watch locals like Hardy Downing, Bunt Smith and Otto Ziegler become national record holders.

There were dozens of cycling clubs then. In September of 1895 Idelia Allen, of the African American “San Josè Cyclers”, 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, 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 the Olympics. Joe E. Brown’s 1934 film, “The 6 Day Bike Rider”, was based on San Josèan and 1928 and 1932 Olympian Henry “Cocky” O’Brien.

Stephen Halton, 91, says he started racing as 12-year-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 GCV 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.

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

“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 the Olympics. 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 won by Greg LeMond and George Mount, Olympic trials and thousands of USA Cycling-sanctioned races have been held there.

“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 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 riders new independence and birthing a cottage industry for makers. Phil Wood & Co.’s stronger and lower maintenance 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 frames and bikes. 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 says 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. “ ‘Greg, you said if I made it, you’d wear it’. Greg looked at it 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.

Wheels Keep Turning

 Diane Solomon recruited Terry Shaw and Elizabeth Hernandez-Jones to help her research this history. Their work has become an exhibition “Silicon Valley Bikes: Innovation, Passion and Politics Since 1880”. It opened on July 27th at History San Josè’s Clyde Arbuckle Gallery and closed a year later.

The Silicon Valley Bikes! Festival & Bicycle Show’s mission is to celebrate and preserve this history while honoring 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 the 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