My late father,17, on the left, pictured with a friend in Verdun on June 4, 1939. Dad was a member of that town’s Wolfe Cycling Club, and he was an avid cyclist all his life.

Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 7, 2012.

In the spring of 1894, Montreal was all abuzz over a sporting event of an exceptional   character. In point of fact, the Gazette reported in its June 18th edition “that as early as 1 o’clock several hundred people were assembled in front of the Windsor hotel anxiously awaiting the arrival of the couriers”. As it happened, some two hundred of Canada’s finest and fastest cyclists, in rapid relays of two, were quickly making their way through southern Ontario towards Montreal. Starting in Sarnia, they pedaled furiously through a dozen cities, fifty or so towns, and countless villages where had gathered throngs of excited citizens cheering them on.

Each team in the competition, in short sprints, covered approximately eight kilometres before passing a symbolic satchel to the next squad. The riders travelled together in pairs just in case one stumbled on the often muddy and treacherous roads of the day.

The purpose of the contest was to see how much time would be required to cover the distance in question, as well as to promote Canadian athletes. It was also intended to demonstrate the practicality of the bicycle as a reliable and rapid means of transportation from one locality to another. Indeed, with the arrival of the mass-produced chain-driven safety bicycle, cycling had become by the early 1890’s accessible to the population at large. As a result, a marked and sudden escalation in bicycle sales took place that, in later years, quickly collapsed as the market became saturated with this particular means of popular transport.

Sponsored by the Canadian Wheelman’s Association, the athletes achieved the eight hundred kilometres between Sarnia and Montreal in just over 33 hours – four hours less than what had been originally anticipated. Indeed, a rail man of the day commented that it took 36 hours for the fastest freight train to cover the same distance.

Styled the “Great Relay Road Race of 1894”, each partaker carried an oblong   leather pouch, or dispatch case, that contained a letter that was to be signed by all the mayors of the various municipal jurisdictions covered by the determined riders. Montreal’s Acting–Mayor R. Costigan was the eleventh and final city magistrate to sign it. The correspondence was addressed to Albert T. Lane, 118 St. Matthew Street, at the time president of the Wheelman’s Association.  Lane was well-known in city cycling circles as it was he who imported, in 1874, the first bicycle to Montreal and, indeed, to all of North America.

On July 1 of that same year, before an astonished town, Lane peddled his ‘penny farthing’ bicycle along Sherbrooke Street, then the very hub of Montreal’s most fashionable district, styled the “Golden Square Mile’. With a front wheel diameter of 50 inches (126 cms.), the ‘ordinary’ (as the ‘penny farthing’ was also known) could accomplish, depending on the rider, remarkable speeds for the period. Most unfortunately though, it had no brakes, a fact which inevitably led to some very unpleasant incidents.

By the time of the 1894 Relay Road Race, however, the ‘ordinary’ had given way to the type of bicycle with which most of us today are very familiar. With two wheels of equal size, the ‘safety bicycle’ had the effect of keeping the cyclist closer to the ground that, in itself, had the effect of eliminating the more serious accidents.

On that memorable day in June of 1894, C.P. Lyman, a member of both an Ottawa and Montreal cycling club, pedaled (along with his relay partner, T. Harvey) the final lap from Blue Bonnets to Dorchester and Peels Streets. He dismounted at the Ladies’ Entrance to the Windsor Hotel opposite Dominion Square and handed the ‘pouch’ to Acting–Mayor Costigan. Before hundreds of well-wishers, Costigan opened it, signed the memo, and indicated the final time of arrival as 1:26:38 P.M.

Exactly one hundred years later, on the Canada Day Weekend of 1994, this outstanding sporting event was re-initiated over the same terrain covered a century earlier, only this time in reverse.  In fact, the Montreal – Sarnia run was stretched out over the entire summer of 1994.  Moreover, one of the participants and organizers on this occasion was Montrealer Don Houston, the great grandson of none other than Albert T. Lane himself.

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