The black soldiers who biked 2,000 miles over the mountains and out of American history.

If you don't know, now you know.

As the sun set on their first day, the men of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps were cold, tired, and soaking wet. And they still had nearly 1,900 miles to go.

It was summer 1896. The 20 members of the 25th Infantry, an all-black company out of Fort Missoula, Montana, had been volunteered by their white commanding officer, 2nd Lt. James Moss, to study the feasibility of using bicycles in the military, which, unlike horses, required no food, water, or rest.

Moss was allowed to lead his men on a near-2,000-mile journey from Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri. The weather was punishing, the ride grueling, and the water poisonous. The men of the 25th were selected for the experiment, frankly, because as soldiers, they were worth little to the U.S. military.


Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

But odds are you haven't heard of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. Their story was quickly forgotten, barely earning a mention in the pages of history books.

But in reality, these men were unsung heroes. Don't believe me? Here are nine reasons why.

1. Before the journey, many of the men didn't even know how to ride a bike.

Only five of the 20 soldiers were experienced bicycle riders ahead of the cross-country trek. One learned how to ride just a week prior. At the time, safety bicycles (the new model with two wheels of the same size as opposed to the large wheel on the front) were relatively new and exciting.

Photo of Pvt. John Findley, one of the few men in the company with any cycling experience. Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

2. The bicycles selected for the journey were on loan and extremely clunky.

The Spalding company donated bicycles for the experiment. The bikes had steel rims and no gears (those hadn't been invented yet). Each bicycle weighed in at 59 pounds, without gear. A heavy one-speed bike is just fine on a breezy ride through the country. But these men were traveling over mountains.

Are your legs tired yet?


Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

3. You know when your grandparents say they had to walk uphill both ways? This was the journey for the 25th. Only true.

The route to St. Louis was selected because the men would encounter diverse terrain — perfect for a test of military feasibility. The company traveled from the steep slopes of Montana through the dry, sandy roads of Nebraska. They encountered snow, rocks, mud, and punishing winds. They even crossed the rivers on foot, multiple times, holding their bikes over their heads.

"We were wet, cold and hungry, and a more jaded set of men never existed," wrote Edward Boos, a correspondent for the Daily Missoulian and an avid bicyclist who traveled with the 25th to report on their experiences.

Why didn't they just ride on the road? Good question.


The 25th riding past Old Faithful at Yellowstone. Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

4. The roads were so bad, the men often resorted to riding on train tracks.

The roads that existed at the time were worn down from wagon wheels creating deep rutted paths. And when it rained, they were washed away, replaced with thick mud. Instead, at times the men rode their bikes on the train tracks, which weren't much better considering there was nothing between the railroad ties but deep holes. The men held tight to their handlebars to keep from flipping over, resulting in hand numbness and intense shoulder pain for miles.

And you thought you were sore after a 50-minute spin class.

Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

5. Each soldier carried 55 pounds of gear on his bike.

Their supplies included half a tent, a bedroll, a pair of underwear, an undershirt, socks a toothbrush, two days worth of food (burnt bread, beans, bacon or canned beef, and coffee), various tools, and a rifle. Every 100 miles or so, the men would stop at posts to refill their supplies.

The supplies were kept in white rolls on the handlebars and in small custom leather or metal pouches attached to the bicycle frame. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

6. They barely got any rest, and at times when they did, it was amid cacti.

The men rode 35 full days of the 41-day journey. Considering the terrain, there weren't many good places to stop and rest. They often made camp in fields of prickly pear cactus, though few men reported being poked.

Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

7. And, oh yeah, the water was poisonous.

Because a 2,000-mile journey on a one-speed bike isn't tricky enough, once the soldiers got to Nebraska, they were drinking from water that had dangerously high levels of alkali and even cholera.

Vapors from the dusty terrain made the men sick, too. 2nd Lt. Moss even began to hallucinate.


Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

8. Because they were black, the 25th were often considered second-rate soldiers, but they were anything but.

The 25th Infantry were one of four all-black infantry regiments created by Congress after the Civil War. The army moved the unit out west to help tame the wild frontier, where they picked up the name "Buffalo Soldiers" from the Cheyenne.

The men were given slow horses, rotten food, and shoddy gear for the task. Despite the miserable treatment and conditions, though, black companies had some of the lowest desertion rates of regiments out west. And between 1870 and 1898, 23 black soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

9. But when they reached St. Louis, the men received a warm welcome from the city's people.

2nd Lt. Moss and the 25th were escorted to a hotel just outside of town by a local bicycle club. Later, they performed maneuvers in a St. Louis parade, where 10,000 people came to cheer for them. Sadly, not a single military officer was there to greet them.


Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

The men had done it — traveling 1,900 miles in 41 days across some of the country's most punishing terrain. Moss wanted to continue the trip and travel to St. Paul, Minnesota. But he was told to return the bikes and send his men back to Montana on the train.

Despite a successful journey, the experiment was over.

The story of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps is one of those unique, surprising moments in U.S. history.

After the journey Boos wrote, "This hard work was too much. It could not prove anything about a bicycle and was merely a test of physical endurance of which we had quite sufficient."

120 years later, this story is about so much more than a bicycle. It's about adventure, guts, and mental and physical fortitude. Other than the all-black cast, it has all the makings of a big-budget Hollywood movie. (I kid, I kid.)

Image via The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country/YouTube.

Learn more about the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps from historians and their descendants in this documentary.


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Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

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