Meet the first stunt bicyclist. He did tricks in the 1880s and invented the wheelie

A hundred years before extreme sports got big, there were stunt bikers taking big risks and drawing bigger crowds. The trick? They did their work on old-fashioned bikes with large front wheels. Old-timey bikes used to be an extreme sport—and a man named Daniel J. Canary was one of the best.

In 1897, one of the nation’s top stunt bicyclists called Canary “the father of us all.” He did amazing tricks on the high-wheel, and when he got to the type of bike we know today, he did even more: he invented the wheelie.

They called him a fancy-rider

Long before he did the first wheelie, Daniel Canary rode the ordinary bike. Old-fashioned bikes were usually called ordinaries in the 1880s and 90s because they were the standard ride, but Daniel J. Carey made them extraordinary (if you’re curious about ordinary bikes, you can read our FAQ about old-fashioned bikes).

In 1879, he was just a telegraph messenger in Meriden, Connecticut. He got his first bike when he was a newsboy because it was too hard for the previous owner to ride, but that didn’t deter Canary from trying crazy stunts. Canary quickly became a sensation on the bike, starting in local races and then developing tricks that went international. And he could do a lot.

Though he got his start in racing, hitting the tracks in the early 1880s, he soon became familiar enough with the wheel that he tried tricks. He started giving exhibitions in skating rinks and his fame grew far beyond Connecticut.

In 1883, the Washington Evening Star described Canary’s amazing selection of tricks. He was twenty at the time but had already gained an international reputation for what writers called “fancy-riding.” He could ride an ordinary with folded arms and the tiny back wheel lifted up. He could set it upside down and then flip it up, getting on at the same time. He could even ride on the big front wheel by itself and spin around, turning it into an incredible unicycle.

By the next year, he was already writing back to his hometown paper about mishaps in Paris. Just before he was going to set his bicycle on a stack of tables and chairs, he realized he didn’t know how to communicate with the stage manager. He was forced to gesture wildly while still on his bike, and the entire audience rushed the stage.

Stunt bicyclist with publicity stunt chops

1884 was a banner year for Canary. He earned amazing PR in Washington and issued a major smackdown in Chicago.

His fame grew thanks to a stunt at the U.S. Capitol building. On May 20th, 1884, he rode down the steps of the Capitol on an ordinary bicycle (a feat that wasn’t just difficult, but incredibly dangerous). That created enough of a story that two papers covered his plan to ride down the East side steps on just a front wheel, but the police stopped him before he could make it down. He and other “fancy riders” still did “a number of difficult and fancy maneuvers.” Almost 500 people gathered to see it happen, and when it didn’t, it probably helped his reputation just as much.

He followed that with an 1884 smackdown by challenging Chicago bicyclist Warren Wood to a face-off. He penned a public letter in the Chicago Tribune, throwing down the challenge. Wood accepted (he had challenged Canary before) and the two met in a public hall. News traveled as far as New York when Canary won the challenge.

From there, his fame only grew, though his greatest accomplishment hasn’t been understood until today.

How Dan Canary invented the wheelie

Canary wasn’t bound to the ordinary bike. Safety bikes (the type of bike we use today) were still uncomfortable—Canary described one of the first chain bikes as like “riding over a corduroy road”—but they were getting better thanks to improvements in form and tires. So when Canary returned from a European tour in 1890, he didn’t just adapt to the safety bike. He excelled.

In fact, he invented the wheelie.

As the Tribune reports, Canary tried out the bike at Niagara Falls. The article is clear:

“[He] performed the feat, then regarded as impossible, of riding on the rear wheel, with the front wheel elevated. Mr. Canary believes he was the first rider to perform the feat.”

That’s right—Dan Canary invented the wheelie.

Can we be certain it’s true? A few things make it plausible. First, Canary was the foremost trick rider of his time, so he’s likely to have tried it early. Second, the safety bike was almost brand new, and earlier bikes were probably too heavy to wheelie because of their wooden frames and metal tires. Finally, the same article mentions the Capitol stunt that the police canceled, so it appears Canary didn’t lie about his accomplishments. He was the first to do a wheelie, and millions have followed in his path.

Going out West and racing

Canary’s career took him all around the world and across the country. Unconfirmed stunts include a ride around a loop in Madison Square Garden, as well as another tumble down the stairs. In 1894, he impressed San Franciscans by riding down three flights of stairs without handlebars and pedals, balancing on just one wheel. The same year, Sacramento bike fans were treated to an exhibition in fancy and trick riding while others were racing. In Los Angeles, he made his name as “the noted trick bicycle rider of Chicago.

The same bravery that led him to switch from the ordinary to the safety took him into other sports. As his trick riding career died down, in 1900 he appeared above the results of a bicycle match for tying in a golf game, and he later won another club tournament. In 1905, it even seemed like he was on the verge of a new career when he told The Motor Way he was interested in cars and was going to “start at the racing game and I am going at it for all I am worth.

Making a fortune on the fad that replaced bikes

But Canary wasn’t stuck in the past, and for someone who rode old-fashioned bikes, he was incredibly forward thinking. His dabbling in racing led him the the world of automobiles and business.

He started one of Chicago’s first cab companies, the Canary Cab Company, and became a local authority on the new invention. In 1909, he sold his stake and, by all reports, became quite wealthy. In 1917, he was so rich that he bought a house in St. Petersburg without even seeing it first. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles and probably died around died around 1925. By then, old-fashioned bicycle riders like Dan Canary had been forgotten.

But it’s better to remember an earlier moment in his life, when bicycle riders of old were already nostalgia. In 1911, the Chicago Tribune reported on a reunion of the “Old Time Wheelsmen.” Apparently, a few of the old-timers tried out their stunts but “found to their sorrow they had lost the knack of handling the machine.”

Dan Canary wasn’t one of them. He was still able to do his old stunts, just like he had thirty years before.

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