Thomas Stevens – first to cycle around the world
Thomas Stevens, a free spirit and explorative soul, lived in San Francisco, where he would listen to the constant whispering of the Pacific Ocean and dream of adventure – and what better adventure than to ride across the United States of America, in search of the opposite coast? In 1884 he set out on his Columbus penny-farthing, whose large front wheel measured 50 inches and heavy frame weighed 34 kg. He carried a change of socks, a spare shirt and a raincoat inside bags lashed beneath his seat, as well as a revolver strapped to his hip. For shelter he planned to sleep beneath his raincoat or rely on strangers’ hospitality. Eastwards he rode, following in the wheels of several others who had attempted the journey, though all had failed and turned back. There followed several months of riding, dragging and pushing his bike along wagon roads, railroads, canal towpaths and the few public roads that existed. Poor weather and rough terrain meant that around a third of his journey was spent walking.
The perils of the journey were many: at one point he escaped a mountain lion by using his revolver; another time he was bitten by a rattlesnake, though the poisonous fangs sank harmlessly into his canvas gaiters. But more dangerous than wild animals was the railroad; though ideal in many ways – a route flat and direct, its network of tunnels and bridges carving a smooth passage through state after state – the rumble of an approaching train would cause Stevens’s heart to beat fast in his chest. Once, he was forced to crouch beneath the tracks to avoid being hit, high above a ravine, his bicycle dangling in one hand.
Once he reached Boston, Stevens had achieved his aim: here was the Atlantic, to whose great waves he could now deliver the message of the Pacific. He spent the winter in New York, writing up the accounts of his travels for Outing magazine. Inspired by his work, the editors offered him sponsorship for his onward journey, if he chose to take it. So in April 1885 Stevens set sail for England for the next stage of what had become a round-the-world mission.
Through England, Europe and the Balkans he pedalled, then across Turkey, Iraq and Iran. In every nation he drew fascinated stares, folk intrigued by this tall, energetic white man with a curled moustache, riding a contraption which had never been seen before. Curious locals frequently blocked his path, asking him to entertain them with his bicycle. Though happy to oblige, this eventually became tiresome: when resting and eating at a cafe in Turkey the proprietor took away Stevens’s unfinished meal, not returning it until he had pleased the crowds. Yet Stevens’s overwhelming impression was of helpful, kind and hospitable people, willing to provide shelter, food and water. ‘Humanity is the same the world over,’ he wrote in his diary – a theme that would become familiar in the tales of generations of world travellers to come.
Thirty-two months after he had departed, with 13,500 miles under his wheels, he arrived back in San Francisco. An article in The New York Times written during his travels said:
‘But how the world shrinks and what a prospect does the adventurous cyclist open up before the eyes of wheelmen! What corner of the world will be left unvisited by the silent riders of the iron steed?… The inventor of the bicycle has done more to revolutionize the religious, moral and social ideas of mankind than all the philosophers of our time.’