First Flight Bicycles

National magazine recognizes First Flight as ‘Hallowed Ground’

posted on: 07/15/2015

First Flight Bicycles is not only the best-known bike shop in Statesville or Iredell County or North Carolina.

According to Bicycling Magazine, the South Center Street staple is part of a collection of bike stores throughout the United States it calls “Hallowed Ground” in a feature in this month’s edition.

And that’s mostly owed to the history of bicycling infused in every aspect of First Flight.

It’s a relatively well-known fact that before changing the course of world transportation with the invention of the first fixed-wing, heavier-than-air manned air flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.

It’s a fact not lost on Jeff Archer, the owner of First Flight Bicycles and a longtime resident of North Carolina and Ohio — states that both celebrate ties to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their famous invention, which allowed people, as one poet put it, to “slip the surly bonds of earth.”

What is lesser known about the Wright Brothers is that they got into the bike business when the penny-farthing bicycle — easily identified by the very large wheel at the front and the relatively smaller one in the back — fell out of favor with the rise of what was known as the “safety” bicycle. The name was so used to celebrate the fact that it was far less dangerous than the penny-farthing, whose front tire — the “penny” portion — could be as high as 5 feet and the saddle (bike-speak for seat) was located on top of the that tire.

As the safety bike proliferated, the Wright Brothers saw a business opportunity. And it could be argued that without the first real modern bicycle, aviation would have a very different history.

But there is no question the history of aviation is now forever linked with the history of the bicycle and Archer’s shop name is reflective of that fact. At his downtown bike store, two-wheeled machines range in price from a kid’s bike in the mid $200s to something close to $5,000 that can deliver air-cushioned comfort on any terrain.

But First Flight Bicycles is more than a place to purchase bicycles and accessories and have the old pedal-powered piece of equipment tuned up. That is why this month’s edition of Bicycling Magazine recently noted that while the sleek and colorful and fancy eye-catching products can be found on the First Flight sales floor, their historical antecedents are elevated.

“First Flight encourages its visitors to look up,” the article notes in a feature on a number of bike shops around the nation that the magazine refers to collectively as “Hallowed Ground.”

If folks do look up they will see not only a vintage penny-farthing but a very early model of the kind of safety bike that lured the Wright Brothers into the business. They will also see something called a “boneshaker” that was popular in the 1860s.

“Think about it,” Archer said of the interesting moniker.

The boneshaker was essentially composed of wooden wheels held together by a rigid metal frame with handlebars and a seat.

“It is what it does,” Archer added.

Archer said riding a bicycle in the late 1800s required more than a modicum of moxie. He noted that Mark Twain authored an essay on the topic called “Taming the Bicycle,” in which the humorist wrote that before he took his first bike-riding lesson he “bought a barrel of Pond’s Extract,” which was a popular soothing balm at the time and sold, by the way, in jars, not barrels.

The collection that circles the upper walls of First Flight’s showroom is displayed in chronological order and spans about 100 years. The group from the 1960s includes the banana-seated; ape-hanger handle-barred; sissy bar-backed Stingrays or so-called “wheelie bikes” that seemingly every able-bodied boy in America was riding during the LBJ and Nixon years.

First Flight is also home to the Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology — MOMBAT — which includes bicycles covering the full expanse of the approximately half-century history of that sub-sport, this includes bicycles actually ridden by athletes in the Olympic Games of 1984 and 1988.

Archer said his collection started sometime in the early 1990s and that by 1992 it numbered “about 20 bikes.” It’s now well into the hundreds and Archer is considering an exhibit that could include bringing Iredell Museums on-board.

“It never really occurred to me to do something like that until I saw what Leroy Plyler did with his musical boxes,” Archer said in referring to a recent exhibit at the Court Street Gallery in Statesville. “Now, I don’t know. It’s something to think about.”

First Flight Bicycles is located at 216 S. Center St. in the heart of downtown Statesville.