Like many a Milwaukee-area child, Tammy Simonson looked forward to the city’s Great Circus Parade. Beyond the candy and clowns, Tammy was drawn to one parade feature in particular, a group known as the Wheelmen who rode antique-style bicycles.
“They were always the first unit to go through, and after that, the parade was disappointing to me,” Simonson said. “I always drew back to that, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
After college, Simonson bought a bike of her own, complete with an oversized front wheel.
“It’s an 1880-ish, Singer high-wheel, and it’s from Coventry England,” Simonson said. “It’s got some upgrades to it, but it’s a lot of fun. I had some help putting it back together. It came from a bike shop in New York, and a gentleman in Michigan bought it, and then I bought it from him.”
When riding her bicycle, Simonson often gets questions from those she passes by, usually questions about how to get on the bike.
“There’s a small step on the back of the bike, and you kind of scoot along on a scooter to get on, and once you kind of have momentum, that’s when you hop up into the saddle,” Simonson said. “To get off, it’s all in reverse. You just kind of reach your leg back and find that step, and kind of come off. So there’s really no brakes on the bike … you’re able to slow down with the bike, but you’ve really got to kind of jump off.”
Bicycles like these were popular from the late 1870s through the early 20th Century. In those days, women were often discouraged from riding bicycles.
“Women were not supposed to be riding bikes. If they did go out, they had to have someone with them or they rode a bike that was adjusted for their skirts,” Simonson said. “But they wanted to get out just as badly as the guys did … and I think that kind of moved women forward in history … through the bicycle, just the freedom of the bike.”
These days, Simonson and other women are welcome in groups of antique bicycle riders. After riding on her own for a few years, Simonson traveled to a meet of the Wheelmen, the group that first inspired her interest in classic bicycles. The meet was held in New Jersey.
“It’s like I met all my family members that I didn’t know I had, because everyone has this passion for high-wheels and for biking,” Simonson said. “It was an instant connection. It was awesome.”
Now, other members of Simonson’s family ride big-wheeled bicycles with her as well, including her sister and three nieces.
“It’s always a happy day when you’re riding a high-wheel because everyone’s smiling and waving and … asking questions,” Simonson said.