Buffalo soldiers: The original off-road bikers

By now most of us have heard the lore surrounding the “first” mountain bikers riding Mount Tam north of San Francisco in the 1970s but it turns out bicycles were being ridden off road at least 75 years earlier. In 1896 the US Army formed an experimental regiment of bicycle mounted soldiers (“buffalo soldiers”) to see if bikes could replace horses in combat. The idea was the bikes didn’t need to be fed or watered and they were potentially quieter than a horse and therefore better suited to surprise attacks.

Photo courtesy of UM Mansfield Library, unidentified collection.

In 1897 the 25th Infantry Army Bicycle Corps journeyed from Missoula, MT to St. Louis (1,900 miles) in just 34 days – an average of about 56 miles per day. While by today’s standards this may not seem remarkable, it was a more than double the speed of a typical cavalry or infantry unit. The bikes were single speed rigs (natch) and weighed more than 70 pounds fully loaded which makes most downhill rigs seem like featherweights. In the late 1800s roads in the west were largely unpaved or non-existent meaning the buffalo soldiers spent lots of time in the mud (and a good bit of that time was spent pushing rather than riding). Sadly the Bicycle Corps was disbanded shortly after the epic 1897 demonstration – it turns out the internal combustion engine was a bit more effective at moving troops and supplies.

Photo by Frank Jay Haynes.

After reading about the buffalo soldiers and the Bicycle Corps I pulled out my copy of “Origins of mountain biking: The birth of dirt” and was surprised to see there was not a single mention of the 1890s riders.  So the next time you hear Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldiers” think of the first REAL American off-road riders – the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. Those guys were extreme.

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