One ordinary Sunday morning in 1971, a group of cyclists decided to meet outside Broadway Bank for the first time. The small group, who later dubbed themselves the San Antonio Wheelmen, shared a single, simple intention– to form an organized cycling group in San Antonio.
The group has grown over the last 45 years to become a full-fledged 330-member cyclist organization with bi-weekly rides, instructional classes and advocacy efforts. As the organization expanded, the founders faded into the background, allowing a new generation of avid cyclists to take over.
It all started with a flyer. Local architect Neal Collins hung a flyer from the notice board of the Charles A. James Bicycle Co. asking if anyone wanted to go biking together in the San Antonio area. Dr. Ralph Wells and Dr. Elliot Weser, the two remaining co-founders, said they responded to the flyer and the San Antonio Wheelmen were born.
“There hadn’t been any organized cycling for a number of years,” Wells said. “This was right on the leading edge of when bicycles started to get popular again.”
Collins, who has since passed away, spearheaded the group with Wells and Weser, calling themselves the San Antonio Wheelmen after the local cycling club that operated in the 1890s, the Alamo Wheelmen.
Wells can still name and describe each of the cyclists, men and women, who regularly joined them in the early years. He said the group was an eclectic array of professionals who were dedicated to cycling.
“The enjoyment of cycling was really the primary feature between us humans, who really didn’t grow up together, but somehow could talk about things using the common appreciation for cycling as a toner, which in a way, made us more tolerant I suppose,” Weser said.
In 1974, Wells and Weser, both prominent gastroenterologists, were forced to stop riding with the Wheelmen to focus on their respective careers.
“After it got rolling, we didn’t count so much anymore,” Weser said. “It started to run on its own steam. It suddenly took on a life of its own and didn’t need the initiative of a few people who were excited anymore.
“That made it a success story. It’s what everybody wishes for when you create something and initiate it – that it starts to grow and eventually you step out. We became a part of something bigger than we thought in the beginning.”
Wells and Weser reluctantly moved on, but their colleague Donald Schwarz picked up the reins. Schwartz played an active role in the organization for most of his life until he died at the age of 86 in 2009.
Today, the Wheelmen organize two rides per week, ranging in length and difficulty. Many of their rides are considered “no-drops,” meaning the lead cyclist periodically regroups the bikers to ensure no one gets “dropped.” Bill Blackford, current San Antonio Wheelmen president, emphasizes the organization is open to riders of all skill levels.
David Levinson, a 63-year-old lawyer, joined the Wheelmen last summer after he bought his first bike in March. Five miles into Levinson’s first no-drop ride with the group and he was feeling dead. Blackford left his position as lead cyclist, and circled back to ride by Levinson’s side the rest of the way– 34 miles.
After months of weekend rides, Levinson now considers himself a fanatic. He’s lost weight, feels healthier and is currently training for a 200-mile ride from Seattle to Portland.
“I really enjoy riding,” Levinson said. “It gives me a sense of serenity, a sense of peace. It’s a stress-reducer. It’s just been a great experience, and the group has really enhanced the experience for me.”
Carrie Mendoza, a middle-school English teacher, also joined the Wheelmen as a beginner. Inspired after watching the Tour de France on television, Mendoza enrolled in the Wheelmen’s five-week “Road Riding 101” class where she met Bernard Mendoza, a pharmacy technician who became her husband two years later.
“I am not a competitive rider,” Mendoza said. “I wanted a group that had an educational focus because I was completely new to the sport– I didn’t know what shoes to buy; I didn’t know how to shift gears; I didn’t know riding etiquette. That is what attracted me to the Wheelmen and what kept me with them.”
The Wheelmen work to improve bicycle mobility in the city through their permanent seat on the Bicycle Mobility Advisory Committee which supports the San Antonio – Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization on bicycle-related issues. Since its creation in 1995, the organization has published bike maps of the city, purchased helmets to distribute to cyclists observed without one, and won City Council approval for the Bicycle Master Plan. The master plan is an extensive document that outlines the facilities necessary to make San Antonio a more bike-friendly city.
The San Antonio Wheelman has transformed from its humble beginnings as an informal gathering of cyclists to a extensive, multi-purpose organization, but their focus has remained the same – uniting locals with a shared love for cycling.
“People get together for the companionship and because they have a common interest in cycling,” Blackford said. “(The Wheelmen)is a social organization. We want to become an organization where people can come and be with other people if that’s what they choose.”
*Top image: SA Wheelmen gear up for the Fiesta 100, a 2-day, 100-mile organized ride in 1973. Courtesy photo.
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