In the summer of 1897, 20 Black US Army infantrymen cycled 1,900 miles on fixed-gear, state-of-the-art bikes from Fort Missoula, Mont., to St. Louis. The Army ordered the grueling expedition to see whether soldiers could form a bicycle corps. Newspapers chronicled their progress as they pedaled 50 miles a day in mud and sand, through Montana’s snowy mountains and across Nebraska’s burning plains. The 41-day undertaking was a bit of lost military history until Erick Cedeño, a long-distance cyclist and a model based in Santa Monica, Calif., reenacted it in June of last year, on the expedition’s 125th anniversary.
“I’ve always been fascinated with history,” said Mr. Cedeño, 49, who has spent years gathering photos and documents related to the infantrymen and their journey. It was on a cycling trip from Miami to New York, about 10 years ago, when he decided he wanted to learn more about the history of long-distance cycling. His curiosity led him to the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps.
“It was the first time that I saw a Black man from that time traveling by bike,” he said, referring to the historical photos of the soldiers on their bicycles.
The soldiers were part of the 25th Infantry Regiment, one of the African American units whose members were also known as Buffalo Soldiers. The 20 selected men, who were joined by a physician and a journalist on the expedition, were led by Lieutenant James Moss, who was fascinated by bikes, and proposed creating a bicycle corps. Lt. Moss, who was white, had graduated last in his class at West Point (the United States Military Academy), just three years before the expedition.
“Most of the people did not want to work west of the Mississippi,” Mr. Cedeño said. “So west of the Mississippi was left to the last in the class. And most of the time, west of the Mississippi meant that you had to work with African American troops.”
It was these troops who achieved a remarkable feat in both Black and cycling history — one that Mr. Cedeño has drawn new attention to by following in their bicycle tracks and telling their stories. I spoke to him about it in February, after he gave a talk about the journey at the Explorers’ Club, a members-only society in New York City.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You reenacted this journey. What were the highs and lows for you?
I started my expedition at 5:30 am on June 14, 2022, precisely the hour and date the soldiers set off. It was 42 degrees when I was riding in Montana, and as someone who lives in Southern California, that’s pretty cold. It was windy but there was no snow, which they dealt with. On the lower plains into Nebraska, it became really hot, about 105, 106 degrees almost every day. Luckily for me, I wasn’t on an army expedition, so I was able to take my shirt off. Every 10 miles, I would go into a convenience store and ask if I could go into the beer cooler. I would eat my snacks inside the beer cooler. People were so great. Once I told people what I was doing, they were like, ‘yeah, please, whatever you want!’ The soldiers didn’t have that opportunity to go into a beer cooler. They also rode in uniform and carried heavy rifles on their backs. These guys were almost superheroes, you know, like superpowered.
Tell me a little bit about the bikes.
They had the latest bike at the time, an 1897 Special Spalding that cost about $75, which at that time was a lot of money for a bike. The Spalding company donated the bikes in the hope that the Army would buy more if it worked out. So, single speed. In 1886, the bikes had wooden wheels and no chain guards. In 1897, they saw that ‘if we’re going through snow and rain, we’re going to have to change the wooden wheels to steel wheels and add the chain guard.’ Which they did.
How did they manage to feed and hydrate themselves?
There was a water issue that started when they crossed Wyoming to South Dakota. They drank some contaminated water and a few of them got ill. Regardless of what was going on, they had to keep moving. There were times when they rode almost 50 miles without water. They had bacon, flour, coffee, left at drop-offs near the railroad every 100 miles. Along the way, they would buy meat and eggs from farmers.
The racist response to the men increased as they moved east and south. Why was it so much easier to be a Black man in Montana at that time?
I don’t know if it was better. I mean, they still dealt with some racism there, but they were part of the community, and they did so much for the communities that people realized they had to give them respect. The 25th Infantry Regiment was stationed out there doing Army things, like helping restore order during mining strikes.
They encountered increasing racism as they got farther east and south, especially in Missouri. But then when they got to St. Louis, over 10,000 people showed up to celebrate them. Some 300 cyclists rode the last few miles with them. That made me happy.
What happened to the corps? You learned that at least one of the men — the mechanic — was buried in an unmarked grave.
The Army never created a corps, although I hear they tried them in Poland and India. In 1898, some of the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to fight the Spanish War in Cuba. Some returned to Missoula, Mont. Some were sent to Brownsville, Texas. In 1906, there was an incident there for which the Black soldiers were wrongly blamed. They were cleared by local law enforcement, but Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged them anyway. First Sergeant Mingo Sanders, the oldest rider in the expedition, was near retirement and pension. I have seen a letter to the President pleading that he not be discharged. But hey what. That hurts me a lot.
This is only 41 years after slavery, where some of their dads, their moms, were enslaved. And for the first time, they had a job. They felt like part of society. They felt like, we’re equal. They’re fighting for this country. They just came from war. We have the names of 20 riders. These men are somebody’s grandparents, somebody’s great-grandparents. They don’t know how badass they were. I want everyone to know.
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