Jim Hurd began collecting bikes 15 years ago, after concluding he wasn’t cut out to ride a ten-speed racer. “I rode it three times and realized it was not designed for me and vice versa,” he says. So he bought a comfortable 1950s Schwinn B6 cruiser and was searching for a headlight cover when he came across four other old cruisers in the basement of a bike shop. Hurd, a former auto collector, decided to buy the lot.

But now he was the owner of five vintage bikes, and rather than selling the extras he soon was buying more, actively hunting for rarer models. “It became an addiction,” he admits. Once he even bought a collection of 300 bikes to get the two or three he wanted–including a futuristic-looking 1960 Bowden Spacelander.

Hurd’s collection grew to become a centerpiece of the Bicycle Museum of America, which also includes the Schwinn family’s collection. Hurd’s a curator and founder of the museum, as well as one of the world’s experts on antique and classic bicycles. Teaming up with Jay Pridmore, who writes about museums for the Tribune, Hurd recently published The American Bicycle, the first book of its kind to focus specifically on U.S. bikes, with more than 200 photos illustrating the crisp, punchy prose.

Chicago played a prominent role in the bike industry’s heyday of the 1890s as the home of Arnold, Schwinn & Co. and numerous other bike makers. In fact, half of the 1.2 million bikes made in the U.S. in 1899 were manufactured in Chicago, when Lake Street was known as Bicycle Alley.

“The bike is like an unsung hero,” says Hurd. “It got a young lady out of a corset and into bloomers. It got women off the front porch and away from the chaperon. Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle gave a woman the chance to have a job without needing a man to hitch a ride from.”

In the days before the automobile, bikes were a popular form of transportation and cost about $100. But the boom didn’t last. “The auto came along, and America lost its fascination with the bicycle,” says Hurd. “In 1911, you could buy a Model T for $375. America fell in love with the car, and the bicycle became a child’s toy.”

Today, few bike makers remain in Chicago. Schwinn was purchased in 1992 by Boulder-based Scott Sports Group (backed by Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell). But the Chicago Bicycle Company on Erie Street continues to make comfortable cruiser bikes, and Sram Corporation, makers of Grip Shift components, is headquartered here.

Understandably, bicycle design has tended to reflect automotive trends. After World War II, everything had chrome, fenders, and whitewalls. In the 1970s Schwinn Stingrays had stick shifts and slick tires, reminiscent of dragsters and Corvettes. Hurd and Pridmore point out that today’s mountain bikes parallel the popularity of Jeeps and other off-road vehicles.

The ubiquitous mountain bike finds its roots in Colorado and California. In the mid-70s, Marin County pioneers Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher began riding hopped-up Schwinn cruisers, which were the only bikes tough enough to withstand downhill punishment. The two added fancy gearing and changed the geometry and makeup of the frame. Their innovations eventually created another boom in the bicycle industry as adults replaced the ten-speeds in their garages with versions of the mountain bike.

Hurd has his own prediction about the next trend in bikes. “Urban bicycles,” he says, referring to a resurgence in comfortable, balloon-tire bicycles. “You’ll see 50-year-old women getting on a bike again. You’ll also see more 13-year-olds using their imagination and making low riders” with mag tires, dragster-style forks, high handlebars, and banana seats.

Hurd and Pridmore are currently working on a new book focusing on 100 years of Schwinn bicycles. And as for Hurd, he remains the number one fan of two-wheelers, maintaining that they’re environmentally sound (“It’s good for the planet”), therapeutic (“It’s cheaper than psychiatry”), and cost-effective (“Dollarwise, bikes are a better buy today than they were in the 1890s”).

The American Bicycle is published by Motorbooks International and costs $29.95. It’s available in the bookstore of the Bicycle Museum of America at North Pier, 435 E. Illinois, or by calling 800-826-6600.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.