On April 26, 1886, the first bicycle race in the United States took place on the "Belt Road". The route followed a loop that reflects portions of present day local highways and Scenic Byway 79. Every hotel in Clarksville, Missouri was filled to bursting, with some people even sleeping four to a bed. Participants came via steamboat from as far away as Colorado and New York. Ten men competed in this 50 mile race, with George E. Weber as the winner.
The second big bicycle race in Clarksville occurred on May 23, 1887. On Sunday, the day before the great event, the steamboat "Hudson" brought about two hundred wheelmen from St. Louis to Clarksville. In the thrilling end to this race, Robert Nielson from Boston beat out William A. Rhodes, also from Boston, by only 24 seconds! That evening a banquet had to be cancelled on the "Hudson" because half the crowd could not be seated, but the ball took place as scheduled.
The farewell to Clarksville was impressive and dramatic. Amidst hurrahs from the shore and boat, the "Hudson" sailed with the band out on deck striking up the stirring song of "Dixie". The two hundred wheelmen on board joined in the chorus that could be heard a mile away. Out into the stream went the vessel, with the echo of "Dixie" caught up by the crowd on the shore. Further and further yet the "Hudson" went, until the sounds of the song trailed off in the distance.
For many years after the races, wheelmen returned to Clarksville. Often, as many as a hundred and fifty would come here to spend their Sundays riding on the Belt Road. As late as 1909, thirty-five cyclists came from St. Louis to Clarksville for a spin on the gravel road that had been the location of the two great bicycle races. Our bike racing tradition is now going to be re-ignited in honor of Clarksville's bicentennial. Beginning in 2017, we plan to sponsor bike races again in our fair town. Stay tuned for race dates and more information as it becomes available.
Bicyclists continue to use Highway 79 through Clarksville as a scenic biking route. A bike ride along the "Little Dixie Highway" with its wide variety of wildlife can still be enjoyed today.