Freewheeling: The History of Bicycling in Canada


160 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 0-919783-37-6




Reviewed by Robert Barney

Robert Barney was Professor of Physical Education at the University of Western Ontario in London.


William Humber, in this, his second major publication with Boston Mills Press, has combined a personal love for cycling with an extensive search of pictorial material in municipal museums, cycling clubs, and personal, provincial, and national archives to produce an often well-written and logically organized account of what might arguably be called Canada’s most popular sporting / recreational activity. Extrapolating a 1982 American study to Canadian context, Humber tells us that up to one-third of all Canadians own or use a bicycle. A 1974 Canadian study revealed that Canadian bicycling accelerated some 46% between 1969 and 1972. Similarly, the growth in membership in the Canadian Cycling Association increased from an anemic 100 in 1960 to a startling 4500 by 1986. Cycling has indeed reached its “place in the sun” of Canadian national sport prominence.

Humber’s organization of chapters is appropriate for a work of this nature. After introducing the reader to an overview of cycling’s posture in Canadian history, Humber turns his attention to bicycling in the 19th century. Bicycles (velocipedes, the French called them) were said to have been first built in North America in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1866. The builder failed to get a patent for their manufacture. Nevertheless, subsequent homemade models of the “boneshaker” (as bicycles were first referred to in North American jargon) were greeted with wide enough appeal for a modest evolution of cycling activity to occur through the late 1860s and 1870s. Humber claims that the first bicycling in Canada occurred in exhibition fashion in Toronto in 1869. Exhibitions were followed by the opening of several bicycling academies, one of which (the St. George Rink) offered novices the opportunity to try their luck on the “steel steed.” By 1882 the Toronto Wanderer’s Bicycle Club had formed, and it wasn’t long afterward that the activity could be seen in small towns and cities spread clear across Canada.

In succeeding chapters, Humber’s work, at times reflected in baffling prose and paragraph organization, and at other times in genuinely excellent style, deals with the spread of the cycling craze across the Prairies to the rough-and-tumble environments of the Northwest, including the Yukon. Two chapters treat the business aspects of bicycles and bicycles in the wartime activity of Canada during World Wars I and II. The manufacture, sales, repair, and service of bicycles rose to become an important industry long before an automobile even graced a laneway. A chapter devoted to bicycle touring chronicles several bicycle journeys across stretches of Canadian landscape, including tours across the entire country itself. All of the foregoing prepares the reader for the book’s latter third — a narrative on the evolution and development of that aspect of bicycling which might be of greatest appeal to most — competitive racing.

Out of the organization of the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association evolved a national championship competition. The first national winner on record was Willie Ross of Montreal, in 1884. Humber dutifully provides the reader with a chronicle of most of the important races since that historic date. All the Canadian cycle kingdom greats are there — the renowned Butler family of Nova Scotia, Montreal’s Pierre Gauchon, Torchy Peden, Pat Murphy, Jocelyn Lovell, Steve Bauer, Karen Strong-Hearth.

The real strength of Humber’s book lies in his ability to tell a good story in readable prose, and in his initiative and industry in seeking out relevant pictorial support for his narrative. In fact, so abundantly does the graphic dimension of the work outweigh the prose that the book might just as well have been entitled A Pictorial History of Bicycling in Canada. If it had, the work might carry much more credence with the community of sport history scholars here in Canada. Graphic sources, properly and intelligently identified and interpreted, are excellent primary source materials. Humber can be given some acclaim for having come forward with a host of them, almost all properly documented. On the other hand, the lack of such documentation relative to the narrative text is a real weakness. There is not even a bibliographical summary which might guide one to the body of knowledge underpinning Humber’s skeletal work. These are grievous errors for works purporting to be histories. Both Humber and his publishers could have circumvented them with some forethought and extra effort. The result would have been so much more appealing to historians.

There are further weaknesses in the book. In a work of some 150 pages, adorned with hundreds of names, dates, events, places, etc., an index is an absolute necessity. There is none in Freewheeling. Again, both the author and publisher took a shortcut. Humber’s prose is at times weak and imprecise. The book is strewn with one- or two-sentence paragraphs, to the point where the reader gives up trying to fathom a flow of ideas.

The cyclist, the nostalgist, and the enthusiast of coffee-table literature will welcome Humber’s work.



Humber, William, “Freewheeling: The History of Bicycling in Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 20, 2024,