A New Epoch in Wheeling

You don’t need high-tech to be ahead of the time. Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment push their fully loaded bikes outside of Fort Missoula, MT in 1897. The man on the far left is Lt. James A. Moss, who would join the 25th in Cuba a year later during the Spanish-American War. Photo: Frank M. Ingalls

A New Epoch in Wheeling Broken Frames and 2,000 miles with the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps

The group looked exhausted as it entered the tiny frontier town of Billings, MT, their formerly crisp, bright-blue uniforms turned nearly black by the rain.

Mud spattered their legs, and their bulky packs looked as soaked as their jackets. But it wasn’t the color of their clothing or condition of their equipment that drew curious citizens to watch them pass. The visitors were on bicycles, and they were black. Even in cities, this would be an unusual combination. In 1897 Montana, it was downright bizarre.

The train of soldiers was the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, and they were on their way to St. Louis, MI. Known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the 25th Infantry was an entirely African-American regiment created shortly after the Civil War. By the early 1900s, the 25th would have gone on to become somewhat of a legend; in 1888, however, they’d been stationed at the Fort Missoula to keep them out of the way. So had their leader, Lieutenant James A. Moss. The Louisiana native had finished bottom of his class at West Point a few years earlier, and considering the town’s “backwoods” status, the Missoula post was not a prestigious one.

Fortuitously, these two misfit entities would be united by the newest fad in leisure to accomplish something amazing: complete one of the greatest journey’s in U.S. history, and show the world that the bicycle was a machine capable of amazing things.

By the 1890s, “wheeling” was all the rage in the U.S. The invention of the modern safety bicycle, chain-driven and with two same-sized wheels, had drawn droves of new riders, including Lt. Moss. As an avid cyclist, he saw the benefits this recreational machine had over horses; it was far faster than walking, and unlike horses didn’t eat, drink, get tired, or die. A number of European countries had already found useful ways to use bicycles as a military tool, so when Lt. Moss proposed the idea of an experimental bicycle expedition to Major General Nelson Miles in 1896, he was given the go ahead. The result was the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps.

There was one problem. The Corps had 20 men but zero bicycles and zero funding to buy any. To overcome this, Lt. Moss struck a deal with the Spalding Bicycle Company—donate bikes to the expedition, and Spalding could use the Corp in their advertisements, and would be first in line to supply the military if the idea proved fruitful. After weeks of training on their new bikes, Lt. Moss and six volunteers set off from Fort Missoula in August, pedaling through the Mission Mountains to McDonald Lake.

It was a brutal endeavor. The already poor roads were made worse by bad weather, and the soldiers were unprepared for the mechanical issues unique to a bicycle. But four days and 126 miles later, the tired and wet party returned to Fort Missoula.

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