After an evening of high wire acts and aerialists, death-defying stunts and feats ofstrength,

the audience at the Sailor Circus roars with applause as a lone rider on a bicycle rolls onto the stage. Wheeling in a slow circle, the music begins and two young costumed performers appear from the wings, catching the rider and climbing aboard two “stages” affixed to the axles—platforms the size of a playing card—where they plant their feet and pose. Two more appear, chasing down the moving trio and clambering to the top. Then two more join the fray, positioning themselves in front and behind the driver—bringing the total to seven performers atop the moving bicycle with nary a wobble. At a command, the mass shifts, with the driver tucking his feet back as the performer in front inverts to pedal with her hands and the one behind winds up riding the driver’s back to strike a final triumphant pose as they circle the stage to another round of applause. Next to some of the more obviously dangerous acts in the repertoire, such a performance may seem quaint, though undeniably difficult, but, more than anything else, the act truly speaks to the circus history that the volunteer coaches and professionals seek to preserve in the next generation. And it’s a history hopelessly intertwined with the bicycle.

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The bicycle goes hand-in-hand with the circus,” says Scott O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World Baraboo up in Baraboo, WI, where the Ringling brothers first opened their own circus in 1884, just two years after the town’s founding. And it’s a relationship built on something far more fundamental than the spectacle of bears and chimpanzees on bikes or elephants on trikes or even unicycles on the high wire. “Many people forget that the circus had the great distinction of introducing the latest in technology and societal innovation to America,” says O’Donnell. “The automobile, recorded sound, electricity, flying machines—those were all attractions in the circus at different points throughout the years.” In a time before cell phones and YouTube, the circus brought the world to whatever town it visited, and while this meant entertainment, it also meant an education of sorts as to the latest in scientific breakthroughs and mechanical contraptions. And as the American traveling circus came to be in the early 19th century, slowly perfected by the time P.T. Barnum rolled around in 1871 and the Ringling brothers a decade later, so did the bicycle begin to catch the imagination of riders everywhere.

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No single inventor holds credit for the invention of the bicycle as it appeared in the early 1800s, but a few important patents and developments can be nailed down as it developed from an un-steerable two-wheeled contraption into something recognizable today. In 1818, a German baron named Karl von Drais received a patent for his addition of a front wheel that could be used for steering, a padded seat and forward armrests, naming his machine the velocipede, a moniker that would stick until 1869. The velocipede caught on briefly, but riding waned until 1863, when pedals were added to the front wheel, allowing the rider to power the machine rather than relying on inclines. The addition proved wildly popular, particularly among young Harvard and Yale students, but ultimately failed as well, due to a cumbersome weight and awkwardness in both steering and pedaling with the front wheel. It was right around the time of Barnum that the classic high-wheeled bicycle took off, but a high center of gravity made riders prone to “headers,” i.e. flying headfirst over the handlebars like an early human cannonball, and the bike that every kid recognizes today was adapted, with a chain, gears and two wheels of the same size, just in time for the Ringling brothers.

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Just as the greater population latched on to the bicycle and the mobility and freedom it gave (also playing a prominent role in the Suffragette Movement), so did the circus in its search for new acts. “The bicycle expands the opportunities of what you can do,” says O’Donnell, “whether it’s on the ground or 35 feet up in the air on a high wire.” Performers pushed the limits as they always had—wheeling across the high wire, riding on their heads and pedaling with their hands and cramming 35 people on one bike. Elephants and bears were trained to ride, combining spectacles into something that could be sold as the greatest show on Earth. Some performers even became superstars. Charles Kilpatrick, the one-legged stunt cyclist, toured the world with his act and in 1899 became the subject of a 12-second film, Kilpatrick’s Ride, capturing his mounted descent down a large set of stairs. And in the 1970s and 80s, cycling performer Lilly Yokoi and her gold-plated bicycle held the distinction of being the highest-paid and most in-demand performer of her time, with circuses around the world waiting years to book a single show. “And that’s a person with a bicycle,” says O’Donnell. “That’s not a human cannonball or an elephant trainer—just an extraordinary performer who did extraordinary things on a bicycle.”

But the bicycle’s place in the heart of the circus comes from more than its ability for extreme stunts, but in its closeness to the everyday experience of the audience. “One of the things about the circus that’s always instilled wonder in the audience is taking something that seems normal and breathing something extraordinary into it,” says O’Donnell. “There’s a connection because there’s a point of reference, and that’s an important element that makes the circus what it is.” And so as the audience oohs and ahs at the high-flying maneuvers, they laugh just as hard when the clowns on their breakaway bikes lose their handlebars mid-ride. Especially at a time when the machine continued to be improved and modified (and was perhaps less than reliable), the prospect of the bike coming apart beneath one’s seat remained more of a realistic concern. One of the breakaway bike’s most esteemed practitioners, Joe Jackson, Sr., even conceived of the act during his time as a champion Austrian cyclist, when the handlebars of his bike came loose in the home stretch of a race and the audience roared with laughter as he waved his hands in despair. Leaving the competitive cycling life, Jackson toured the world and performed at the New York World’s Fair before turning the handlebars over to his son, Joe Jackson, Jr., who performed his father’s act exactly, gesture-for-gesture. Performing intermittently in his older age, Jackson, Sr. died in 1942, backstage after five curtain calls while the applause still rang.

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And so when Mark and Cheryl Reina, two volunteer coaches at Sailor Circus Academy, spend hours teaching their young charges to mount the bicycle and climb over each other again and again and again, it’s about more than the single trick, but a shared history. Mark and Cheryl actually met performing on the bicycle with Florida State University’s student circus, giving them not only personal insight into the instruction but also the tradition that lives on in the people as much as the bicycle itself. 

Will there ever be a circus without a bicycle? The Reinas suppose not entirely. “The circus is ever-evolving,” says Mark, and one day he imagines the bicycle will no longer hold sway as it has for the last hundred years or so. But at the same time, he looks to BMX stunt riders at Cirque de Soleil and Sarasota’s own Nik Wallenda, still commanding crowds, and sees a possible future. “There will be some way for some form of bicycle act to perform,” he says. “I’m sure.” O’Donnell agrees. “If you’ve been to a circus any time in the past 130–140 years,” he says, “chances are you’ve seen a bicycle in that performance, and the bicycle has been a valued family member for all of those years.”