Thomas Stevens

Stevens and his 50 inch Columbia Standard

I have mentioned that I have come across some interesting characters while reading about cycling’s 19th Century history.  One such person is Thomas Stevens, the first person to circumnavigate the world on a bicycle.  That’s quite an impressive feat.  What makes it even more impressive is that he did it on a Penny Farthing!

Born in England in 1854, Stevens traveled to America at the age of 18 to seek his fortune.  He eventually found himself working as a miner in Oakland, California.  12 years of this work had not brought him very much wealth, so he did the logical thing: he bought a bicycle and decided to cycle across North America.

He set off from Oakland in April, 1884, with almost no provisions apart from a spare shirt, some socks, a bedroll, a .38 calibre revolver, and a rain slicker that doubled as a tent.  His trip received a fair amount of publicity (how a failed miner is able to do that is beyond me) and was greeted by many local bicycle clubs, the largest of which apparently was Laramie, Wyoming’s League of American Wheelmen.  This was only eight years after George Custer battled the Sioux at Little Bighorn.  To say the area was “underpopulated” would be an understatement.  There were large stretches where he simply followed railroad tracks.  In the Sierra Nevadas, there was barely enough room for him and the occasional passing train.  At one point, he was forced to sit on a rail of a trestle bridge and hang his bike over the edge as a train passed.  103 days and 3,700 miles after departing Oakland, Stevens rolled into Boston and completed the first transcontinental bike tour.

Sketch from Stevens' book, "Around The World On A Bicycle"

By this time, Stevens was something of a celebrity.  His exploits were published in Harper’s Magazine.  He spent the winter of 1884 in New York, drawing sketches of his trip which were published in Outing Magazine.  Next Spring, the magazine made him a “Special Correspondant” and shipped him off to Liverpool, England, where he was met by thousands of fans.  Thus began his trip across Europe.

He pedaled across England, through France and onward to the Balkans.  In Hungary, he picked up a cycling companian who could not speak English.  No worries!  Upon reaching Constantinople, he rested, had repairs made to his bike, bought a better pistol, and waited for reports of banditry to subside.  He then carried on through modern-day Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, where he spent the winter of 1885 as a guest of the Shah. 

1886 was a more challenging year for Stevens.  Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, he was expelled by local authorities.  He had already been denied permission to travel through Siberia and this effectively blocked his route.  Obstacles such as these may have stopped some people but Stevens viewed this as merely being a detail.  He hopped a series of steamers across the Caspian Sea back to Constantinople, then through the Red Sea and onward to India.  Picking up the trail in Karachi, he pedaled across northern India.  He was very pleased to see a refreshing lack of bandits but found the climate to be extremely hot.  Most of the locals had never seen a penny farthing or a white man and many considered him to be some sort of deity, which I imagine could be quite helpful at times.

Upon reaching Calcutta, Stevens got on another steamship and headed to Hong Kong, whereupon he began riding to Shanghai.  Sadly, the Chinese had a slightly different reaction than the Indians, considering Stevens to be some sort of demon.  They chased after him with sticks and rocks.  Having been chased by a Doberman earlier this year, I empathize.  Asking and receiving directions in Chinese was problematic for Stevens, especially when people tended to riot around him. Those who understood him to be English (and not a demon) were prone to anger over China’s recent war with French.  The distinctions between the English and the French were lost upon the locals, who took out their anger on Stevens.

Eventually, Stevens made it to Shanghai and took a steamer to Japan, which he found to be extremely agreeable.  He concluded his tour in December, 1886, in Yokohama.  His trip totalled about 13,500 miles of cycling.

On a freakin’ Penny Farthing.  With some socks, a shirt, a bedroll, a rain jacket, and a gun.  Very impressive.

Stevens went on to write several books about his experiences.  He passed away in 1935 and is buried in East Finchley, London.  The Pope Bicycle Company came into possession of his bike and preserved it until WWII, when it was donated to a scrap drive to preserve the war effort.  A pity, that. 

The next time I have a mechanical challenge or face a daunting stretch of poorly-paved roads, I shall try to remember Thomas Stevens and thank my lucky stars that I am not concerned with banditry, avoiding trains on trestle bridges, or being suspected by the local populace as being a demon!

Further Reading:


Biking Bis


Works by Thomas Stevens at Project Gutenberg


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