The Centuries-Old Horses vs. Bicycles Showdown

Pop Culture
A poster from the late 19th Century promoting a horseman vs. cyclist race promoted by “Buffalo Bill” Cody (pictured at left). (Images Public Domain/WikiMedia Commons)

During the late 19th Century, the United States experienced a bicycle craze, thanks largely to the invention of the “safety bicycle,” which had two wheels of equal size rather than the one giant wheel found on the penny-farthing bikes that preceded it.

These new bikes were easier to ride for men and women alike and their popularity spread like wildfire across the country.

Whippet Safety Bicycle (Science Museum/WikiMedia Commons)

As more bicycles appeared on the roads around America, those who rode horses grew frustrated with having to share the road with them. Friction grew between horse riders and bicyclists during those early days, with many calling for the banishiment of bicycles from the roads. It was in this climate that a wave of bicycle vs. horse races swept America’s racetracks.

Throughout the 1890s, racetracks from coast to coast held exhibition races between bicycles and horses. These races were typically held in relay, consisting of several laps around the track, sometimes over distances of 10 to even 30 miles. The jockeys were allowed to switch horses every half mile or mile, while the cyclists had to keep at it on a single bike. Even still, the results of these races varied from race to race, with the finishes always being incredibly close!

The great showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was so enthralled by the bicycle vs. horse races that he took the act across the ocean to Europe, where he challenged European cyclists to head-to-head races against himself on horseback. Cody always insisted on being able to change horses and setting the amount of time they could race. In Milan, he raced the famed cyclist Romulus Buni for three hours and won after travelling 63 miles to Buni’s 61.

The bicycle craze died down a bit in the 20th Century, but horse vs. bicycle races persisted well into the 1930s as a way to attract fans to the racetrack.

In 1934, champion racer Eddie Testa lost to a horse named Brick in a highly-publicized one-lap race in Los Angeles. But by this time, horse and bicycle racing had become merely a novelty and not nearly as popular as during the bicycle craze of the 1890s.

In recent years there have been a few bicycle vs. horse exhibitions, but mainly at racetracks in Europe. In 2014 at Leopardstown Racecourse in Ireland, Pat Smullen rode Moonbi Creek in a race against Tour de France veteran Nicolas Roche as a fundraiser for a children’s hospital. Moonbi Creek won the race against the 30-year-old cycling veteran with ease.

Perhaps these races persist in Europe because of the continued popularity of both cycling and horse racing, although horse racing is giving cycling a run for its money. Last year, famed cycling gold medalist Victoria Pendleton switched sports from cycling to horse racing, choosing to enter the Cheltenham Festival as a rider. Pendleton is a nine-time cycling world champion, an Olympic gold and silver medalist, and has been appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her cycling accomplishments. She is one of Britain’s most successful female Olympians. Despite all of that, after racing at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016, where she placed fifth in the Foxhunter Chase, she described it as “probably the greatest experience of my life.”

Another victory for the horses.

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