Van Corker Goes For A Scorch
Today, I'm kicking off a new blog series called Wheel Chronicles. With it, I will be uncovering and sharing curious and interesting bits of cycling ephemera, articles and advertisements from our two-wheeled past. Many of the pieces will date back over 100 years, and will be sourced from our personal collection as well as from various digital archives.
The bicycle, vastly unchanged in over a century, remains as captivating and magnetic as when the tires first hit the road. For my first post, we will look back to January 1893 and Volume 10 of The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review. In it, the article Van Corker Goes For A Scorch -- a 125-year-old account of a spirited Spring ride outside New York City.
Thaddeus Van Corker awoke early one bright Sunday morning last Spring.
It was quite a surprise to Van Corker, for he usually has to be fairly hoisted out of bed with a derrick. He didn't know how to account for it at first, but it finally entered his head that several rays of effulgent, sparkling sunlight were toying with his eyelids and reflecting a searchlight glare all over his mobile countenance. Van Corker yawned and endeavored to cast the beam from his eye, but it wouldn't work. Then as he heard the blithesome chirps of the sparrows, the rattle of the milk wagons, the 'tinkle of bells of the street cars and the roar of the elevated trains, he decided it would be a good day to take a ride. So he made a mighty effort and crawled to the window.
It was what might be described as a glorious day, and Van experienced a feeling of deep exhilaration as he bathed in the effulgent sun rays, sparkling with the peculiar brightness of Spring. So Van Corker attired himself in the habiliments of the street, and after partaking of a sparing breakfast, he walked to his club and donned his riding costume.
Van Corker wasn't a bit of a scorcher. He didn't make any pretensions in that direction, but all the same he dearly loved fast company and never felt fully contented when riding at a leisurely pace. So Van Corker's dress was in keeping with his pace. He wore a rather heavy black Jersey shirt, black tights, and a black cloth cap and the regulation club coat. When Van Corker felt overwarm he always lashed his coat to the handle-bar with a rope or single strap. He of course used rat-trap pedals and cleated shoes, and bestrode the latest model pneumatic of light weight, and carried not an ounce of useless paraphernalia. The thought of using a bell, horn or luggage earner would almost give him a fit.
But Van was rather inclined to laziness in the every-day channels of life, yet as soon as he donned his riding outfit and fitted his shoes to the pedals, hey, presto! his apathetic air and languid indifference disappeared like cracked ice in the morning before the man who has been out with the "boys," and he was all activity and life.
As Van Corker mounted his wheel on this particular morning he soliloquized: "I'm blamed if I know where to go," was the extent of his thoughts. "I'm tired of the Drive, the Park, Yonkers, Tarrytown, Westchester County and Coney Island. By gad! Guess I'll jog over to Jersey for a change."
So down town he pedaled, struck Eight Avenue and bowled along merrily.
"Why don't you sit up straight" shouted a man who was sitting complacently in a big armchair while a chid of sunny Italy was industriously plying a brush to his shoes.
"Go it, young feller! I'll bet on you," said a sporty-looking "gent" at the next corner.
"Go home and dress yourself," yelled a third man a little further on.
But Van Corker only grinned. Sometimes he would be tempted to reply to the epithets hurled at him, but on this day he didn't mind the shouting in the least. The attempts of several urchins to thrust a stick through the spokes of his rear wheel didn't even disturb his serenity.
He whizzed along to Twenty-third Street, turned to the right, and blessed the air tire as he rolled over the cobblestones to the ferry.
Van Corker greatly enjoyed the sail diagonally across the river, and as he watched the sunbeams dance and play with the uneasy water, and noted the sparkling and prismatic colors reflected, he mentally thanked heaven that some of these beams had penetrated into his room and overcome the clutch of Morpheus.
When Jersey City was reached Van Corker placed his machine in the baggage compartment of the smoker, took a seat in the rear end of the car, lighted a cigar, and with his knees as high as his head against the back of the seat in front of him, he felt at peace with all the world. Van Corker dearly loved a cigar, and although he was fond of fast pedaling he could never bring himself to "chuck" smoking. "1 don't think it hurts a man much any way." he would muse; "and if it does I'll go my smoke just the same."
So Van puffed at his weed contentedly, and when he lifted his mount out of the car at a little station near Orange he threw away the smoking butt with a feeling of satisfaction.
"Ah." said he, as he got into the saddle. "now for a day of sport."
As soon as he reached a macadam boulevard he let himself out, up hill and down, until the drops of perspiration were playing tag on his face, and his heart was beating as though it was racing against time. Then Van Corker dismounted, and after swathing his heated brow with a handkerchief, took off his coat and fastened it with a single strap to the handle-bar.
By this time he had regained his wind and started off refreshed. The cool breeze penetrated his jersey shirt and sent a feeling of joyful exhilaration throughout his body, and as he sped along he felt as happy and light-hearted as a bird. "Ah." mused Van Corker, as he straightened up for a minute, "here come a couple of club men. Guess I'll speak to 'em," and he slackened his pace.
"Good morning," shouted Van. "Fine day." "Yes, elegant," returned one of the pair. "Where you bound?" said Van vivaciously. "Haven't decided yet," was the evasive and cold reply as they quickened the pace. "Oh," thought Van, "rather exclusive; think I'm an interloper, I guess," and he, too. plied his legs more vigorously.
The two men in front looked around and put on more speed. Van Corker did likewise, except the looking around. Faster and faster the two in front pedaled, and when they again glanced archly behind, Van Corker was right on their hind wheel, while an amused smile stole over his face. Then the two strangers bent to their work with renewed exertion, while the water dropped from their faces like the drops of a summer shower, and their breath came in short, quick pants; but the amused Van Corker sailed along serenely in their wake, and when they slowed up a bit he gaily glided by them with a mocking little nod.
Van Corker was happy. It was just such experiences as these that he dearly loved. He had his second wind now and felt like riding all day. He was conscious of the fact that there were an unusually large number of riders abroad. He had been passing them right and left for some time, but he had been so taken up with the two that he had left behind that he had paid no particular attention to them. But now he looked about him and rode along leisurely. He was spoken to, pleasantly by some, indifferently by others, but none seemed inclined to a brush. So he became a little disconsolate.
"Ah! here comes my meat," said he, as a rather "horsey" looking man turned out of a side road in a side-bar drawn by a trim looking trotter. Van Corker rode along opposite the gentleman with a liking for horses for awhile, seemingly enrapt with the fine points of the animal. Then he sighed deeply, while a look of pity stole over his features and he increased his pace and gradually drew ahead.
The "horsey gent" evidently noted the action, for he touched up his steed. Then Van Corker let himself out another notch and the sporting gent replied to the challenge by using his whip.
Van Corker was happy again. He permitted the horse to come abreast of him and then bent down to his work. The sporty man applied the whip furiously and used his tongue as well, but Van Corker merely looked over his shoulder and smiled while he steadily increased his lead. The sporty man was mad. Was he going to let that grinning, long-limbed ape beat his $1,500 trotter? Not much, and down came the whip, while the air resounded with his shouts. Van Corker stopped smiling and gave all his attention to his pedals, and when he again glanced over his shoulder, the sporty gent was walking his panting, foam flecked trotter and Van fancied he espied a halo of blue smoke around his head.
"Ah," thought Van, "he'll have more respect for long-limbed, grinning apes in the future," and a smile overspread his countenance. Think I've earned a drink," mused Van as be rode along slowly and espied an inviting looking road house. "Guess I'll go in."
So Van Corker dismounted, left his wheel in the rear of the house and entered the bar. A dozen or so horsemen were discussing the merits of their respective animals and incidentally sundry lubricants intended to tickle the palate and muddle the brain.
Van took a seat at a table, ordered a glass of beer, lighted a cigar and picked up a paper. For ten minutes he drank, puffed at his weed and read. "Bygad!" thought Van, "this is the height of luxury. What fools are they who mope around a house or lay in bed on such a morning as this. What's better than a swift ride, a good sweat, enjoyable exercise and the deep breathing of pure air such as I have had.' How delicious a little liquid refreshment tastes to a man thoroughly warmed by a good old scorch. Here waiter, another glass," this aloud. '' By jove! nobody knows what the full enjoyment of a drink is until he earns it as I have. It is worth scorching for the pleasure of quenching such a thirst as this. Talk about nectar fit for the gods." And he finished his second glass, and tipping back in his chair puffed away at his cigar with true enjoyment.
Van Corker was lost to the world behind a paper when a quartette of cyclists surged into the room. After undergoing the extreme pleasure of oiling their throats, they seated themselves around the same table at which Van Corker was ensconced. Van glanced at the riders, and saw by their flushed faces and general tout en sembh that they were riders after his own heart.
"Hello," said one, "here's a New York man. Where're you bound, if I may ask?" "Don't know," said Van, "anywhere where I can get a decent dinner." "Better come along with us, we're going to a little place about twenty miles away, chimed in one of the strangers. "Short ride and a fair dinner at the end." "Ah, thanks, guess I'll accept your invitation," returned Van with more than usual energy. "Well we'd better be off, it's after eleven now." And the quintette of cyclists took to their wheels.
The pace quickened momentarily from the start and soon every mother's son of 'em were tearing along as though in a road race. They never slackened their pace; up hill and down they pedalled furiously. But the rapid running finally began to tell on some of them. They became spread out, and at last there was but one man ahead of Van Corker.
"Ah," mused he, 'this is something like it.'' He held his own easily, and when he saw by a sign post that but two more miles remained before reaching the destination he let himself out and passed the leader. Van rode along at his best pace, and although the stranger tried his best to keep up with him, he found himself left badly in the rear, and when he reached the hotel Van was wiping his perspiring brow.
The other men arrived within the next five minutes. They looked at Van with surprise, but said nothing. Evidently they were thinking. Then after a wash they sat down to wait for dinner. Other wheelmen had arrived before them and some put in an appearance afterwards. Then they talked. Wheels and wheeling were the subjects. The merits of half the machines on the market were discussed pro and con, and then every one had something to say about pneumatics.
In the midst of a hot debate over the respective merits of two particular makes of machines, dinner was announced. And how it was punished! It takes a stiff ride, pure air, a light breakfast and a clear conscience to have the blessing of such an appetite as these riders possessed—a blessing for which many a man would gladly give a small fortune. They were very nearly an hour at the table and then came pipes, cigars and an hour of solid comfort in easy chairs on the piazza. And what an hour it was! The riders laziness personified, talked, joked, mused and dozed. A light westerly breeze fanned their faces and wafted away the smoke. It was an hour of supreme happiness, and they were in unanimity with Van Corker's thought that life was worth living, for the privilege of that brief glimpse of Utopia and the pleasures of the day.
But everything comes to an end, and so they finally roused themselves, mounted their wheels and started for home. At first the pace was slow, but as they became warmed, and the feeling of slothfulness was cast off, the ride developed into another scorch. And so along good and bad roads, footpaths, up and down hill they sped, making a stop at an inviting well now and then, until they separated for their respective homes.
Van Corker made quite an impression on his companions of one day's acquaintanceship and was invited to meet them on the following Sunday, which invite he accepted. Then he boarded a New York train and returned to the city. Van enjoyed his shower bath at the club-house as greatly as he did his dinner in the country. And when he finally left the club, clothed in the habiliments of every day life, and took himself to a restaurant to satisfy another appetite that had gradually made itself known since he had reached the city, he felt, as he mentally decided, like a king.
"They may talk against scorching, humpback riding and the like all they please," mused Van as he ordered a sirloin steak and trimmings, "but if they could understand the exhilaration, experience my sense of happiness and not become fagged out, they would never again run it down." And Van Corker heaved a sigh of regret to think that the day was over and fell to.
(As published in The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review, Volume 10, January 1893)