This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Second of two parts
By the mid-1890s, thousands of American bicycle enthusiasts known as "wheelmen," "pacemakers," "scorchers" and "cracks" reveled in breakneck speed, competition and sport.
Around the country, cycling club memberships soared. Riding regalia from plug caps and knickerbockers, to low shoes and racing shorts flooded the market. Self-help books, such as "Bicycling for Ladies" by Maria E. Ward, included information on bicycle repair. Relay races, long-distance jaunts and rivalries, especially in Utah, were paramount.
In 1896, William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal, joined Yellow Fellow bicycle manufacturer E. C. Stearns to sponsor a 12-day, 3,500-mile transcontinental relay race in which a packet containing messages to be signed by state representatives would travel from San Francisco to New York. They hired 26-year-old cyclist and Salt Lake City newcomer W.D. (Bill) Rishel to organize the fastest and most direct Nevada-Utah-Wyoming route and to manage its riders.
After cycling from the railroad town of Terrace onto the volatile salt-mud west desert south of the Great Salt Lake toward Salt Lake City, Rishel believed such a run would promote the capital city, stimulate business, and attract hordes of spectators and dignitaries including Utah's first governor since statehood, Heber M. Wells.
Ogden City's "crackerjack" wheelmen were incensed. Such a trail considered a quagmire at best and one that Rishel later confessed he would never do again for a million dollars completely bypassed Ogden. The city fathers too were outraged that they were snubbed. Editorials were published, accusations hurled and local newspapers had a field day.
In an open letter in the Aug. 24, 1896, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden wheelmen charged that Rishel "sacrificed distance and convenience." They proposed to Hearst a shorter route that would shave 14 miles and save face and they sold the idea as "a relay race within a race."
Their plan was to post Ogden wheelmen near Terrace, hijack the Salt Lake packet, cycle around the north end of the lake into Ogden, and head up Weber Canyon toward Echo and Rock Springs, Wyo.
Apparently Hearst and his general manager, A.R. Grant, agreed to the plan, thinking it would fuel a healthy competition between old rivals. According to a follow-up story in the Standard-Examiner, "each city will try for dear life to [hold on to the packet and] beat the other. It will be the most exciting feature of the great event."
Salt Lake wheelmen also devised a plan: one that involved guns, tire punctures, mishaps, misdirection, and a strategy to steal the race back that was derailed by a change of heart when a Salt Lake courier just kept pedaling.
According to Rishel, "the packet went through Terrace without a shot being fired." Relayed by an Ogden rider and taken to the next transfer, the conflict was averted.
Then, nature played its hand. Called the "Bedouin of the Desert" by a Hearst reporter, Rishel cycled on desert and mountain trails for miles and doubled as a substitute rider. But when heavy rains soured any possibility of following the southern route, he redirected the course to the north side of the lake, taking the relay race right into Ogden.
At Ogden's transfer site on Washington Street, Rishel anxiously waited for his overdue couriers, who would then take the packet south to Salt Lake before continuing on to Echo. Thumbing through morning dailies, he was startled by headlines: "Ogden's Merry Bandits" and "Their Bold Coup." The couriers never arrived in the city.
Eleven miles away, several wild card Ogden wheelmen had taken matters into their own hands. Grabbing the packet from a Salt Lake courier, they left Ogden high and dry and raced toward Echo and "heightened glory" to best the Salt Lake wheelmen.
Grant rushed to ensure the packet's safety. A black ribbon was tied to Rishel's Yellow Fellow handlebars. Salt Lake City was indeed beaten. But the consummate sportsman took it on the chin.
Wiring his men to let nothing impede the relay's success, and to take the packet, "however offered," his speediest rider picked it up and passed it on.
Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at email@example.com. Additional Source: Virginia Rishel's "Wheels to Adventure."