During the summer of 1896, 20 members of the all-black 25th Infantry set out on bicycles from Fort Missoula, Montana to travel on a near 2,000 mile journey to St. Louis, Missouri. The Infantry had been volunteered by their white commanding officer, 2nd Lt. James Moss. The trip was to study the use of bicycles in the military, unlike the use of horses the bicycles would not require water, food, nor rest.
The ride was a difficult one, the weather conditions was punishing and the water at times poisonous. The men of the 25th were selected for the experiment, frankly, because as soldiers, they were worth little to the U.S. military.
Many of the men had never been on a bike, and learned how to ride only a few days prior to the trip. There were only five men who had previous experience riding. Most of the men were amazed by their new exciting machines with big wheels.
The bicycles for the experiment were donated by the Spalding company. They were designed with steel rims and no gears (those hadn’t been invented yet). Each bicycle weighed in at 59 pounds, without gear. A heavy one-speed bike is just fine on a breezy ride through the country. But these men were traveling over mountains.
The route to St. Louis was selected because the men would encounter diverse terrain — perfect for a test of military feasibility. The company traveled from the steep slopes of Montana through the dry, sandy roads of Nebraska. They encountered snow, rocks, mud, and punishing winds. They even crossed the rivers on foot, multiple times, holding their bikes over their heads. Once in Nebraska, they were drinking water that had dangerously high levels of alkali and cholera.
Although roads did exist during that time, they were worn down from wagon wheels creating deep rutted paths. The men would ride their bikes on the train tracks which was not much better. They were always in fear of being flipped off their bikes. Each soldier was required to carry their 55 pounds of gear on their bike. The gear consisted of, a half tent, bedroll, underwear, socks, food, tools, and a rifle. They were allowed to stop every 100 miles to refill their supplies. The men rode 35 full days of the 41-day journey.
When the men reached St. Louis they were greeted by the city’s people with a warm welcome. 2nd Lt. Moss and the 25th were escorted to a hotel just outside of town by a local bicycle club. Later, they performed maneuvers in a St. Louis parade, where 10,000 people came to cheer for them. Sadly, not a single military officer was there to greet them.