Nerves of steel

Roll up! Roll up! See a cyclist traverse the skies suspended on a wire! Gasp at the lack of a safety net! Gulp at the sheer bravado! Gawp at the clear and present danger…

Cycling tricks and stunts took a great leap forward in the 1970s with the introduction of the BMX, but bicycling acrobatics are as old as cycling itself. In 1868, for instance, a French dare-devil called Blondin rode a specially adapted velocipede across the 160 ft. canyon of the Niagara Falls on a high-wire. Some years later an American cyclist, ‘Professor Arion' (real name Frank Donahue) also crossed the Falls safely – though he later went out in a blaze of glory when he fell to his death from a 75-foot high-wire in Long Island in 1897; the high wire he was on had 500 volts running through it, to illuminate his costume and bicycle.

Such daredevil feats weren't restricted to freelance nutters. Circus proprietors P.T. Barnum and James Bailey had cycling acts before the turn of the century. Among them were Les Frères Ancillotti (the Ancillotti Brothers) who rode loop-the-loops – careening down a steep ramp then riding in a complete circle, similar to modern fairground rides. A double loop also existed – a small within a larger – which required such accurate maneuvering and close timing to avoid injury or death. Like Wall of Death cyclists both then and now, the Ancillotis relied on their momentum and on centrifugal forces to keep them from falling from their wooden tracks.

American A.M. Schreyer was less concerned about staying on his bicycle. Around the turn of the century, he would pedal furiously down a wooden chute before jettisoning his bike and diving into a pool of water – a mere 4 feet deep – 78 feet away.

Stunts were seemingly limited only by imagination. In 1903 Dan Canary erected a Circle of Death in Madison Square Gardens, in which he rode up a helical spiral into a wooden ring and exited like a bullet down an incredibly steep ramp. In 1910, Paris saw La Roue Infernale, a contraption somewhat like a huge hamster wheel in which the cyclist could, and did, loop the loop.

Modern cycling feats have tended to avoid such ‘Heath Robinson' contraptions, but have been no less daring. As recently as 1978 – when he fell to his death in Puerto Rico – Karl Wallenda would perform cycling stunts without a safety net. One of his specialties was to perform tricks while balanced on a pole supported between two cyclists who were themselves balanced on a high wire.

Source: Bike Cult, ISBN 1-56858-027-4