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Women’s (Bike) History: Phyllis Harmon
To say the history of the League of American Bicyclists is incomplete without recognizing Phyllis Harmon is an understatement.
There simply would be no modern history of the League to write if it weren’t for Harmon, a human dynamo with a passion for cycling – and the League – that will likely never be equaled.
For starters, she joined the League in 1937. Riding with the Evanston Bicycle Touring Club, she became a fixture on club runs (often in conjunction with a train ride to Wisconsin) and was editor of the League’s newsletter for nearly 20 years; even through the war years. The League was inactive from 1955-64; although I somehow doubt the same was true for Harmon. Under threat of having the State of Illinois claim the League’s funds from an inactive bank account, a last-hurrah dinner actually provided the spark to revive the League.
Harmon once again took on the publication of the bulletin — and the League started to grow. She was the first paid employee of the organization in 1972 and became executive director (temporarily, for four years) in 1975. After the League moved to Baltimore, Harmon took an honorary role on the board (and is still the emeritus editor of American Bicyclist in recognition of her enormous contribution) and remained a force to be reckoned within the organization for many more years.
Harmon was also a powerful influence in the Chicago-area cycling scene. This year, the Wheeling Wheelmen (founded by none other than Phyllis Harmon) celebrates the 44th annual Harmon 100 ride on September 8 with rides of 25-100 miles starting in Wlimot, Wis., and the promise of excellent food at the rest stops. I had the privilege of accompanying Harmon to the ceremonies in Newport, Rhode Island to mark the 125th anniversary of the League in 2005 – she was there for the 100th and shows every sign of making it to the 150th at this rate.
It was a huge honor for me to introduce Harmon at her (well-deserved) induction into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame just a couple of years ago. True to form Harmon kept riding well into her 70s — not just around town but across the country and leading tours in New Zealand.
In her later years – by which I mean the upper 80s and early 90s — she wasn’t able to ride because of size and fit reasons. Until, I was told, she sat on a recumbent at a local bike store and she just took off, discovering the joys of cycling all over again!
Click here for a 2011 interview with Harmon (“The Grand Dame of Chicago Bicycling”) on Grid Chicago.