OPINION: Racers from the Tunnel City bicycle club once brought Sarnia fame

Sarnia’s Angus McLeod, seen here in 1894, was a professional bicylist champion who set three national speed records. Photo courtesy of Glen C. Phillips, Sarnia: A Picture History of the Imperial City

Phil Egan

Fifty-eight years after I thought I had put it away for good, I’m riding my bicycle again.

Mind you, it’s not the same balloon-tired delight I owned back in the late ‘50s and pedalled all over the city. The south-end alleys were our highways, and every day I pedalled down Stuart and Emma streets hurling folded copies of the Windsor Star, the London Free Press or the Sarnia Observer onto house porches. The thump of the newspaper against the door told homeowners their newspaper had arrived.

Every Friday, two dozen of us would bike across town in a convoy from St. Joseph’s School for “manual labour” classes – sheet metal and woodworking classes – at Our Lady of Mercy School. We would fill the bicycle racks, and after class would all pedal over to Sarnia Fish & Chips, across from what was then Victoria Park, for lunch.

Visual impairment resulted in me surrendering my driver’s licence a few years ago, so buses and bicycles now get me around town.

As an historian, I was intrigued to discover Sarnia’s cyclists included three national champions who brought the city acclaim as one of the foremost cycling town in the nation.

Back in the Gilded Age when the community was known across Canada as ‘Tunnel Town’ for the engineering wonder that was the St. Clair Tunnel, bicycle racing was all the rage. In the final decade of the 19th century Sarnia’s racing team included many young competitors and also some of the town’s elite professionals – doctors, lawyers and leading merchants.

The now-disappeared Bayview Park, which was swallowed up by Highway 402 construction, contained a bicycle oval at which four Canadian speed records were set in 1892. The club, which practiced there, produced a pair of highly celebrated champions.

Fred Lougheed won a five-mile Dominion Tandem Championship in Canada in 1898. His partner was T.B. McCarthy of Sarnia. Lougheed also won several “American Wheelman” trophies while racing in the United States.

Another Sarnia racer, Angus McLeod, held the half-mile, one-mile and five-mile Canadian records. McLeod competed in an 1898 matched tandem race in Montreal with McCarthy. Facing two world champion racers from Germany, the Sarnians won two out of three heats.

The arrival of the automobile in the early 20th century saw the sport of competitive bicycle racing begin to wane, but, like sculling, it was a popular sporting pastime 120 years ago.

My battered old bicycle is not of the same calibre as the old-time racing bikes that once brought Sarnia honour and fame. It’s not flashy and will move only as fast as my 70-year-old legs will pedal.

But it gets me where I need to go, and that’s good enough for me.