May 12th - July 2nd, 2016
Pushing Pedals: Cycling on the Prairies
Curated by David Dyck
To those who haven’t lived on the prairies, the prospect of a flourishing cycling scene might seem quite unlikely. The prairies are recognized as a land of flat nothingness, and while you may not actually be able to ‘watch your dog run away for five days’; you can spend what seem like hours riding towards distant landmarks on the horizon. From the seat of a bicycle, many of these stereotypes seem to be rooted in fact: the wind is an almost constant companion, the land (at least in the southern part of the region) is quite flat, the roads are on a repetitive straight-lined grid, and the population is sparse, with major distances between towns.
Bicycles brought change to prairie residents’ lives a century ago. In his book Riding with the Wind: The history of Cycling in Saskatchewan author Pat Rediger writes about the expanded range that bicycles offered:
“One gentleman documented his experiences with a bicycle during the 1910s in the Consul district. He filed for land in 1912 and arrived in the Maple Creek area the next year with only a handful of clothes and his bicycle. This early homesteader revealed that his mileage indicator stated that he had traveled more than 3000 kilometers during his first year on the farm. That was a remarkable achievement considering there were only horse trails and cow paths in those days.”1
Early bicycle manufacturers, like Canadian Cycle Manufacturing (CCM), used professional athlete's endorsements to sell their product. The most famous Canadian racer, William “Torchy” Peden, who raced on this model of bike, endorsed CCM Flyer Track Bike. From the early days of cycling as a sport, six-day races were held in velodromes or wooden banked-oval tracks. Racing at that time was much like a tournament atmosphere, similar to a hockey game.
The automobile and its road network closely followed the introduction of the bicycle. With this quick advancement came conflict and collision, with bicycle riders suffering their share of injury. Estevan, Saskatchewan, pioneered the cause of bicycle safety.
“Estevan Rotary Club, Estevan Kinsmen Club, and the Estevan Board of Trade, in co-operation with the Saskatchewan Highway Traffic Board, town police and the local detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police launched what was believed to be Canada's first bicycle safety lane in 1950… one hundred and fifty children participated in the program which involved five tests including: balance, hand signaling, braking, dismounting and control.” 2
One could imagine these children riding bikes like the 1957 CCM Doublebar. The design of this bike was based on the earlier model from the 1930s also known as ‘motorbike’ style bikes, older models had tank panels on the side of the double top tubes to make them resemble a motor bike. In the 1950s wider tires started to become more common on bicycles, expanding their range into other terrains. This led to the nickname ‘Beach Cruiser’. You can still buy bikes of this design today, a testament to their utility for getting around town simply and stylishly.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a substantial increase in interest in cycling. This was referred to as ‘the bike boom’ of the ‘70s, with bike sales more than doubling over the previous decade. One of the largest manufacturers of bicycles in Canada at this time was Sekine, a company originally established in Japan. At that time, Canadian companies like CCM successfully lobbied the government to implement a tariff on imported bikes. To get around this tariff, Sekine relocated its manufacturing to Canada, establishing its operations in a former airplane hangar in Rivers, Manitoba. This was also an employment initiative in collaboration with the Canadian government and First Nations from the area, from which many of Sekine’s employees came.
Sekine frames were assembled using a lugged construction method, which uses steel sockets to join frame tubes together through a welding process called brazing. Sekines like the 1976 model SHL 276 in this show, are still found in use across Canada to this day, a tribute to the quality of their construction.
Another Japanese brand that became popular all over Canada was Kuwahara. Joe Lingelbach, who initially sold the BMX shown in Pushing Pedals notes that the popularity of the brand was boosted by the movie E.T., where the main character takes a ride on a similar bike during a key scene. Lingelbach notes that this “gold-chromed Kuwahara BMX bicycle was first purchased at Estevan Cycle and Sporting Goods here in Estevan. The original purchase was made by a local man who purchased the bike for his son. Since then, that son has had kids of his own and it has been used by the grandkids.” Lingelbach has looked after the bike through these generations, and is to thank for the bike’s excellent condition.3
The BMX craze of the 1980s reached its peak on the prairies with the filming of the movie RAD in Cochrane, Alberta in 1986. Racetracks were established in major centres, with Queen City BMX club in Regina, and Bridge City BMX Club in Saskatoon. The 1980s SE Flyer in Pushing Pedals was raced in the ‘cruiser’ or 24” wheel class in the Bridge City BMX club and is owned by Jay Woytowich, one-time national team racer. Saskatoon hosted the BMX world championships in 1997, bringing the world’s best racers to Saskatchewan.4
Young racers starting in BMX could find other outlets for competition, as reflected in the popularity of mountain bike racing and road racing in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. The popularity of mountain biking skyrocketed in the 1990s. On the prairie terrain, clubs were established with riders being drawn to valleys instead of mountains. In Saskatchewan, a provincial race series was established with stops in parks across the province. Wascana trails, Regina Beach, and Blackstrap Park near Saskatoon are notable long-running race venues for Saskatchewan mountain bikers.
In a similar fashion, road bike racing experienced a surge in interest with the dominance of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France during the 2000s. This bike, from Québec based manufacturer Devinci, was raced in Saskatchewan’s provincial series during the mid 2000s. This bike features Italian components from Campagnolo and a carbon fibre frame for the best balance of high strength and light weight.
For something that is considered an individual activity, cycling is something that most often brings people together in the shared love of getting up on two wheels.
The collection of bikes in Pushing Pedals speaks to the joy that riding a bike brings. These objects, some almost 100 years old have been passed down in still ridable condition and were obviously cherished by their owners along the way.
1. Rediger, P. (2001). Riding with the Wind: The history of cycling in Saskatchewan. Regina, SK: Saskatchewan Cycling Association and Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
3. Joe Lingelbach email, May 10, 2016.
4. Jay Woytowich, interview, April 28, 2016.