The Great Ontario Adventure of Karl Kron, October, 1883.

Karl Kron (1846-1911), American Bicycling Maven of the Nineteenth Century

If the sport had existed, Karl Kron probably would have been a pretty spectacular randonneur. His book, Ten-Thousand Miles on a Bicycle, reveals that he would have fit into our club very well: like us, he wanted to ride his bicycle far, and, like us, he enjoyed cycling in Ontario. Not that he rode all his 10,000 miles here. Over an approximately six-year period, he toured all over the eastern US, from Kentucky to Illinois, and from Maine to Virginia. He even took his bike to Bermuda. He got around. That he did it all on a penny-farthing bicycle makes it even more impressive. In 1883, he made two rides in Canada. The first, in August, took him through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The second, in October, took him across southern Ontario.

An entirely fictitious illustration of Karl Kron. (Copyright T. Ormond, 2021)

Kron self-published his Ten-Thousand Miles on a Bicycle in 1887, and it is an indispensable primary source for anyone interested in the early days of cycling in North America. In it he recounts all his travels around the United States and Canada. He also describes related matters, like the purchase of his bicycle, the emergence and growth of the first American cycling clubs, bicycle maintenance, and early riding methods, clothing and equipment. Throughout the entire book, Kron discusses the quality of roads in the era before cars (spoiler alert – they were very bad). At over 900 pages in length, Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle feels very authoritative. There is no question that Kron was an experienced and knowledgeable cyclist.

Karl Kron, Bicycling “Crank”

But another thing that emerges, very quickly, is that Kron is an eccentric. He is an unapologetic one, and often descends quite steeply into the ridiculous. First of all, his real name was Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg. He created the pseudonym Karl Kron out of “Col. Chron.,” an abbreviation of “College Chronicle,” the name of his column in World magazine (Norcliffe 158). Second, his entire book takes thoroughness to an absurd extreme. The preface is 107 pages long: it has a meticulously detailed table of contents, a general index, an index of places listing every geographical feature he could have conceivably seen from the road, an index of every single person he encountered, and four addenda. There are countless examples of extraordinary scrupulousness such as these. If there is a circle in Hell reserved for the excessively detailed and pedantic, Kron is most certainly there.

But that is not all: as his title hints, Kron took a keen interest in racking up the miles. Using his brass cyclometer, he recorded them to the nearest quarter mile: in 1879, he rode 742 miles over 47 days; in 1880, it was 1 474 ½ miles in 58 days; in 1882, 1 956 miles in 67 days… etc. But miles ridden are not enough for Kron. No, he also recounts all the miles he traveled with his bicycle in tow, be it on a train (he provides the number and route of each one), on a steamboat, on a canal narrowboat, or in a wagon. He even discusses all the travel he undertook associated with the bicycle’s production.

Lastly, perhaps the strongest example of Kron’s eccentricity is the chapter about his dog, Curl. There is absolutely no connection between his pet and his bicycle. In fact, Curl died ten years before Kron even owned his bicycle. He acknowledges the lack of connection and actually admits that he included the chapter about Curl because he couldn’t get it published anywhere else. The book opens with an illustration of the dog, and follows with this dedication:

Dedication to Curl, his bull-dorg?

I don’t mean to poke fun, but Kron just made me think of a reading dog, one whose heart is breaking as he learns all the details of his owner’s cycling addiction. But I digress.

So, yes, Kron’s Ten-Thousand Miles on a Bicycle is an important source of information about the early days of cycling, but it is one with numerous and sometimes glaring flaws. It is available for free as a pdf on Google Books, but before you download it, consider yourself forewarned. It might be the most unusual book about cycling ever written.

The Great Ontario Adventure of Karl Kron, October 1883

It would be a mistake, however, to completely dismiss Kron. Yes, he was too isolated: he did not know how to share what was universally appealing or interesting about his impressive cycling experiences. True, he was too focused on cataloging details – every single one of them: it never occurred to him that he should be telling a story (and doing it with considerably fewer words). But sometimes, despite himself, Kron does talk about his cycling experiences in an almost relatable way.

One of those occasions is when he describes his ride across southern Ontario. Starting in Windsor, he went eastward, meandering through Huron Chapter country, then straight across Toronto Chapter land, and ending in the domain of the Ottawa Chapter. Yes, he is still verbose and boastful, but it is interesting to read about what cycling in Ontario was like all those years ago.

Reference: Railway Map of Province of Ontario, Shewing Lines Chartered since Confederation, 1875. The Route was plotted on the basis of the work of Glen Norcliffe (164) (Copyright T. Ormond, 2021)

Mechanical difficulties were completely different back then. There were no inner tubes to puncture. There weren’t even any cables or chains to snap. Troubles were much more catastrophic, like large chunks of your bike falling to pieces. This happened to Kron near Georgetown when his handlebars snapped in two. He had to walk into town and get a new set forged. Horses still dominated the countryside in 1883, so blacksmiths were easy to find.

Public electricity was not yet available. This meant the country roads at night were completely dark. Nor were there any viable forms of lighting fixtures for bicycles. Moonlight was essential. Riding in Ontario in the autumn, Kron often had the added benefit of frost, which made the road glimmer in the moonlight and helped him stay out of the ditches. Otherwise, night riding was slow and dangerous. It often meant walking.

Diet was more restricted. There were fewer places to stop for food. Kron often talks about taking quarts of milk, which I suppose means he stopped at farms. He also rode for long periods of time without taking in any food at all.

Kron rarely discusses the landscape. He is only interested in road conditions and the number of miles he can cover on them. His first description of the land only comes on the seventh day of his tour when he passes his first cedar grove in a place called Osprey, near Guelph. The only other comment he has about all the land features between Windsor and Guelph is that the countryside is “open” with “long hills in the teeth of the wind,” “affording fine views of the autumn foliage.” I would prefer to have more descriptions of what the landscape looked like back then, but I think that is asking too much of Kron. If it’s not a road, Kron doesn’t see it.

All his attention on the roads makes one thing very clear: they were bad, very bad. Kron often complains about them:

The 13 miles ending at Goderich at 4:30 P.M. were done in 2 hours, though level roadway (much of it in sight of Lake Huron) was nearly all muddy and difficult (313).

And elsewhere…

My cyclometer said it was 14 miles, I got over it at the rate of 3 miles per hour, with occasional bits of riding (312).

Glen Norcliffe, in his Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900, gives a thorough description of Ontario roads in the late nineteenth century. They were not paved, none of them. Your best chance was to ride on macadam. These were dirt roads covered with compacted gravel that might be mixed with sand and finer gravel. If the road was not macadamized, you had to ride directly on dirt, and then the local topography dictated. Sand was a challenge, especially when it was dry. Clay — wet or dry — was a nightmare. After a rain, clay became slick. When dry, it hardened into ruts made by wagon wheels when the road had been wet. Road conditions also depended on the locality: available raw materials and local attentiveness often determined road surfaces as much as mother nature (Norcliffe 166-8).

So, dismounting and walking your bicycle was an integral part of any ride in the late nineteenth century. Sometimes the walking would carry on for great distances. Stretches of riding “without dismount” are noteworthy. Kron made a thorough preliminary research of road conditions throughout southern Ontario before his arrival. Yes, he includes all his research as a very long footnote (314-6). He wanted to have a sense of the walking to riding ratio before embarking on his tour.

His research revealed that Ontario roads were relatively good, and he came here with the intention of completing 100 miles in one day, an accomplishment that had proven elusive on other tours. It took him four days to get from Windsor to London, but on 11 October he set off at 5:45 am with the aim of completing an imperial century.

Things began inauspiciously with the bridge out at Arva. He spent 15 minutes walking through the sandy creek. Then things quickly improved. Within three hours he had already covered 20 miles. As a reward he stopped for breakfast in Clandeboye. After breakfast, there was a brief dismount “to avoid skittish horses,” but from there he carried on without difficulty to Exeter where he “imbibed two lemonades.” It was now 11:10 am and Kron had already covered 34 miles. Exiting Exeter, he chased a horse and buggy: the driver was trying to outrun Kron and “served very effectively as a pace-maker.” Between Exeter and Bayfield, our intrepid hero covered a distance of 22 miles in 2 hours and 22 minutes, “the swiftest of all my long straightaway stays in the saddle.” He would have been even faster had he not had to halt “as a precaution against frightening a pretty woman’s horse.” It was now 2pm and Kron had covered 56 miles. Road conditions on the approach to Goderich slowed him down considerably, but he persevered. By 5:45pm, he had completed 72 miles, “the longest distance ever done by me in twelve hours.”

Plotting Kron’s route on RWGPS revealed that his cyclometer was wrong. If he started at Tecumseh House in London, as he claims, then he only covered 96 miles by the time he reached Hicks House in Mitchell. Incidentally, Hicks House still stands.

Reference: Maps of Huron, Perth and Middlesex counties sketched from references at the Canadian County Atlas Digital Project. (Copyright T. Ormond, 2021)

The hills he encountered after Goderich took their toll on his morale. He stopped for two hours at a hotel in Holmesville where he bathed, changed his clothes, and had supper. He had now completed 76 miles. It was here that he learned about the hotel in Mitchell, a place called Hicks House. It was 24 miles away: if he reached it before sunrise he would accomplish his 100-mile goal. Anticipating good weather, and counting on a full moon, Kron set off into the late afternoon with the expectation of reaching Mitchell in the wee hours of the morning.

But things did not go according to plan: having reached Clinton by 9:15, the clouds moved in to cover the moon and the wind turned abruptly against him. Kron kicked back a ginger ale to steel himself against these contingencies. He continued on to Seaforth, covering 9 miles in two hours. Conditions did not improve: he bought two more ginger ales. By midnight his cyclometer stood at 91 miles: “the wind blew against me with increasing force, the mist thickened, and the darkness deepened, so that the track grew much more obscure.” He was riding without any sort of lighting to speak of. He found that there were giant rocks in the road and so he walked in order to avoid them. Reaching the hamlet of Dublin at 1am, and with only 6 miles remaining until Mitchell, Kron noticed the road suddenly smoothen beneath his feet. He started riding again. Without light to read his cyclometer, Kron counted wheel revolutions in order to calculate his distance traversed. (Leave it to Kron to bring pi onto a bike ride…) By the time he had counted four miles, he suddenly fell into a mud hole. The road, again, had become too dangerous for night riding. He walked the remaining distance to Mitchell, where he found Hicks House at 2 am. “I had to kick and hammer for a long while before I could arouse the proprietor. Meanwhile the rain began to fall.” Kron had covered his much sought after 100 miles in one day.

His tour across Ontario continued to Prescott, where he crossed the St. Lawrence River and returned to the US at Ogdensburg, NY. Along the way he stopped in Toronto and became acquainted with some of the cycling club luminaries around there. For those curious to read more, his Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle is available on Google Books for free. The relevant chapters about Canadian tours are “Nova Scotia and the Islands Beyond” (282-293), and “Thousand Islands to Natural Bridge” (334-352). I got my information for this article from the first chapter of his book and “A Fortnight in Ontario” (310-333). Glen Norcliffe’s The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 was another important source for this article.

Conclusion. A Feast in the Time of the Plague? … or just a snack?

Karl Kron’s Ten-Thousand Miles lies far outside the norm. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it would be so much easier to tolerate if he were a good writer too. There have been plenty of very oddball authors whose idiosyncrasies have been softened by good craft and the regular employment of le mot juste. Not so in Kron’s case.

There is nevertheless something enjoyable about his book. When taken in small chunks and with several enormous grains of salt, I found it …not quite intolerable. I did genuinely get some vicarious pleasure imagining him with his 46-inch wheeled penny-farthing bicycle touring across southern Ontario with horses on macadam, sand and clay.

And yet, I fear that my diving into the world of Kron might have been a reflex and not a choice. Maybe it is just because of the unusual context I find myself in, it being COVID-19 and all. Under normal circumstances, I might not have downloaded and read this book, written an article about it, and made three illustrations. After all, this is a man that history almost forgot.

Meh. Perhaps it is unwise to dwell on normal circumstances …

There most certainly will be a future, but for now there is lockdown. And if we are in a lockdown then there is time for Karl Kron. The 900-plus pages of his Ten-Thousand Miles on a Bicycle will have to serve as my feast in the time of the plague.

Race Across the West

Randonneurs Ontario member Vaune Davis recently completed the Race Across the West. The following article appears courtesy of Race Across the West and Vic Armijo.

VAUNE DAVIS: “If you had asked me five years ago if I’d be doing this, I would have said you were crazy.”

At age 54 Canadian Vaune Davis became the oldest woman to finish the Race Across the West, completing the 878 miles in 3 days, 14 hours and 26 minutes. “I’m thrilled to have set the record as the oldest woman to ever finish that race,” she wrote in a recent e-mail to RAAM Media, “That was my goal. And doing that while also getting Rookie of the Year is kind of cute!”

Since age 19 Davis suffered joint pain that was diagnosed as psoriatic arthritis: her body’s immune system was literally attacking her joints. She endured decades of pain and extreme fatigue and her feet, hands, elbows, shoulders and neck were all severely damaged. Thankfully a then new biological type of drug was approved 12 years ago that helped her condition, “I went into full remission and within five weeks I had energy spilling out of every pore and no pain,” she said in a pre-race interview with the Toronto Star. Sadly many of her joints were already badly damaged through the years, but her hips and knees still functioned reasonably. So at age 42 she took up cycling and eventually joined a local bike club, “I would go ride with them for an hour and I’d get dropped in the middle of nowhere by myself,” she said. “But that didn’t bother me. I would just continue riding. If they were doing a 75-km ride, I’d do 150. I found I didn’t get tired and I enjoyed getting lost in the ride.”

Since then Davis has become quite the UltraCyclist. A notable recent result came in this year’s 24 Hours of Sebring where she surpassed her previous 24-hour personal best (333 miles) by racking up 353 miles. She’s also earned Ultra Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) World Cup and Ultra Cup age group championships.

Earlier this year she began experiencing knee pain which unfortunately led to a sad realization, “The MRI and blood test results were a shocker: my arthritis had not only figured out how to outwit the $22K-a-year miracle drug, but it was chewing up my knees. I had severe cartilage loss in both, inflammation in my hips and elbows, and a double-knee replacement instead of a double-century in my future.” So far she’s avoided that drastic surgery and instead has relied on biweekly physiotherapy, acupuncture, cortisone shots, synthetic joint fluid, anti-inflammatory drugs, a new drug combo: Humira (an immunosuppressive drug) and a chemotherapy drug called Methotrexate, plus knee and glute-strengthening exercises.

With the help of all that treatment and her coach Peter Oyler (a RAAM and RAW finisher himself) Davis arrived at the RAW start in Oceanside, California fit and ready. “She’s an average person going to do something pretty extraordinary,” Oyler said. She was aided by being as she describes, “One of the best-crewed racers in the field… you’d never know it from my speed.” That crew included Oyler, his 2013 RAAM crew chief Janet Wilson and Team Hoodoo finisher Suzy Nelson, who has also crewed RAW before. “I had an A-Team behind me.” They assured that Davis stuck to her simple plan in Durango, Colorado, “Always stay on the bike, keep moving, don’t stop, whatever you do.” As extraordinary as her story is to others, Davis can’t quite grasp its enormity herself, “If you had asked me five years ago if I’d be doing this, I would have said you were crazy,” Davis said. But in the end, she not only overcame the pain and the challenges of riding across deserts and mountains to reach Durango, she did so with smiles and a cheerful attitude despite the pain and a demeanor that endeared her to the whole RAW and RAAM family, many of whom remember her from back in Oceanside where she had as many riders as she could autograph her white cycling shorts.

She sums up her effort with this, “You don’t have to be the fastest or the strongest but you can compete against yourself and achieve amazing results as long as you focus on what you can do versus what you can’t do.”

Thank you Vaune. Some of us, I feel, must now put aside whatever excuses we’ve been making and go ride our bikes.

Photos can be found at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Race-Across-the-West/162127126721

Tour for Kids Charity Ride

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Photo by Victor Crowl

Ride report by Andrea Ferguson Jones:

Stephen and I just completed our fourth (well, his third since he missed 2011 for PBP) Tour for Kids which ran from August 15th to August 18th. This is a four day event (with a two day option) that supports the Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation and their funding of Camp Oochigeas, Camp Quality and Camp Trillium pediatric oncology camps. These camps give kids living with and beyond cancer as well as their families the opportunity to leave the doctors and hospitals behind and spend time at camp which is excellent therapy itself. The camps have medical staff to maintain treatment protocols and provide any special care needed. For kids who are too sick to travel to one of the camps, Camp Ooch also has an in hospital program at Sick Kids that provides programs for kids while they are still in the hospital.

The ride itself consists of four days with the option to ride 100, 160 or 200 km each day. Two day and one day options are also available. This year we were riding a borrowed tandem so we stuck to the 100 km routes and more than quadrupled our tandem experience over the course of the event (trial by fire!). In previous years, I would usually ride the 100 km routes while Stephen took on the 200 km routes. There is a wide range of people on this ride from those who will never ride more than 100 km to RAAM finishers. The bulk of riders are probably in the moderately strong roadie category with moving average speeds of 25-30 km/h taking on at least one day of 160 km if not more. If you ever wanted to pull off a 6 ½ hour 200, this is the place to do it!

The ride is very well supported with a fantastic team of volunteers staffing full service rest stops and ride marshals on the road to support groups as needed. After being cheered in off the road at a typical lunch stop, you are greeted by volunteers making sure you have sanitized your hands and then you work your way down the multiple food tables as the volunteers load up your plate with whatever you like. The usual fare is wraps, fruit, vegetables, cookies, energy bars, pop, juice, water etc. There are other rest stops on the route with snacks, water and the very important porta potties. Not only are riders thanking the volunteers, but with many of them camp staff, they are thanking the riders.

The routes have changed a few times since we started riding the event. The first couple of years, we rode out of Stouffville up to Peterborough and then onto Haliburton with accommodations at Trent University and Camp White Pine. Last year, we started in King and headed up to Barrie for all three nights at Georgian College. No shortage of hills on either of those sets of routes! This year it was an Oakville start riding out to Waterloo to stay at the University of Waterloo for all three nights. Not a lot of hills on this year’s routes, but they were very nice and people could find their challenges in the distances instead of the terrain. The weather couldn’t have been better and this was the first year we didn’t get wet on at least one day. One year, the longer courses were actually shut down due to tornado warnings!

Of course, this is much more than four great days of riding. As their mantra “Ride Somewhere Meaningful” suggests, it is really about raising money and awareness while riding our bikes. Every morning and evening, we hear from a family that has been touched by childhood cancer and benefited from the programs the ride supports. Many of these stories don’t have a good outcome, but parents share how wonderful it was to give their child a bit of their childhood back through their camp experience. Rides are often dedicated to a child who has lost their battle with cancer. We have ridden for Alex, Stella, Adam, Tamara…the list goes on unfortunately. There are also stories of survival and the role that camp played in a child’s recovery and the health of the whole family. One of our favourite stories is that of Dave who lost his leg to bone cancer like Terry Fox when he was only 8 years old. He didn’t want to learn to use his prosthetic leg and just sat in his wheelchair. He got the opportunity to go to camp and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it changed his life. When he got home, his mother found him in the garage tinkering with his bike to figure out how to ride it with his prosthetic leg. He figured it out and hasn’t stopped riding since including a cross country ride and riding Tour for Kids every year now as a marshal. All the stories inspire and make those hard points in the ride easier to bear.

Plans are already being made for the 2014 Tour for Kids. We are really happy to support Tour for Kids and the fact that 100% of all donations go to the charity. The event runs on rider fees and in-kind corporate donations and the foundation has their own corporate sponsors for their operating costs. If you would like more information about the ride or our team, please check out our website www.teamendurance.ca. We really appreciated the sponsorship support from members of Randonneurs Ontario this year and we hope that more than a few of you will join us on the ride next year. The tentative dates for 2014 are August 14th-17th. Please email me at andrea@teamendurance.ca if you might be interested in joining the team.

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Photo by Victor Crowl