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The Battle of the Bicycles

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America’s love affair with the bicycle began in the 1890s, and Tucson was not immune to its charms. Here Charles Frederick Miller, a member of the Tucson Ramblers cycling club, stands beside his racing bike. Spandex had not yet been invented, but Miller is wearing the latest of racing attire – what appears to be wool-knit shorts and a T-shirt with the club logo on it.

Cochise County’s intrepid sheriff, Scott White, actually rode a bicycle in performance of his duties. In September of 1894, he used his bicycle to pursue a thief who had stolen a Winchester rifle at Fairbank.

The cattle along the road had never seen a man on a bicycle and were so nervous they milled around, boxing him in. It took two cowboys, Frank Gray and Frank Hand, to free him from the melee.

The Tombstone Prospector of April 1, 1895, reported that Sheriff White “came in from Dos Cabezas last night where he went on Thursday on U.S. business. He rode his bicycle there and back, and crossed Sulphur Spring Valley in a sandstorm, which was terrific in the extreme. He came home yesterday against a strong head wind, but with no mishaps. The distance traveled was 120 miles.”

Bicycle racing was popular even before Charles Miller posed for this photograph. In 1888, a rancher and two residents of Silver City, New Mexico, cooked up a race between a velocipede and a horse. (Velocipede was the early term for a bicycle, usually the kind with the high front wheel.)

Planning began on a May morning when Tommy Lyons, a partner in the Lyons and Campbell Cattle Company near Silver City, was having drinks with Doc Bolton, a non-practicing physician, and Jeff Clayton, a big blond simple soul, in River City’s Timmer Hotel. Bolton insisted that the great velocipede racer, H.J. Kennedy, could beat any horse in the world. Lyons said he couldn’t. The argument continued even after Clayton pointed out that Kennedy had already beaten a couple of horses.

Lyons insisted he had a horse and knew a man who could win.

Clayton said he would stake a bet on the cyclist with 2,000 head of prime livestock against what he called Clayton’s 5,000 “crowbaits.” That evening, Lyons added a thousand dollars cash to sweeten the bet.

The men settled on the Fourth of July for the race, but could not get Kennedy to come until early September. The race would start at the Timmer Hotel in Silver City and would end near the Cabinet Saloon in Deming, New Mexico, a course of approximately 50 miles.

Lyons chose the meanest horse on his ranch, an animal named Figure 2 and otherwise called Rattler. The man he chose to ride Figure 2 was Cochise County Deputy Sheriff Billy King.

King was to get $1,000 if he won. Sheriff John Slaughter allowed King time off for the race, and as soon as he entered New Mexico, King adopted an alias. At the race he would be called Johnny Hall. For several weeks he lived it up in the Timmer Hotel and worked with Figure 2.

When the great Kennedy arrived in Silver City, he irritated everyone by bragging about his velocipede record and sneering at the “cow cultivators.”

Race day dawned (September 14) and Silver City filled up with men waiting for the race to begin. Lyons and his cowboys bet on King and Figure 2. Smaller ranchers bet on Kennedy.

With both parties on their mark, Silver City Mayor Jack Fleming fired off his six-shooter. The gunshot spooked Figure 2, who lurched and almost threw off Hall.

Hall got the horse under control and it was off to the races. He let Kennedy lead the race until the pair arrived at Hot Springs, well beyond the view of any spectators. Then he pulled ahead and let Figure 2 kick dirt in his opponent’s face all the way to the finish line.

The crowd broke into a roar as Hall arrived in Deming, a winner by two and a half minutes. Kennedy pedaled into town crying foul. That’s not all that was sour about the race. Clayton reneged on his bet. And out of Lyons’ $1,000, Hall received only $300.

After a week of wild parties, Hall returned to Arizona and reemerged as Cochise County Deputy Sheriff Billy King.

The last heard of Clayton and Bolton was that they were in a Juarez jail in 1890 for killing one of their partners. In 1917, Tommy Lyons was beaten to death in the outskirts of El Paso, Texas.

This Times Past article was first published on June 29, 2001.

Photo courtesy Charles Miller; research by Jane Eppinga. ©Arizona Capitol Times.

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