“Sacramento always has and always will be dead, they’ll tell you in San Francisco, and they sure are right!”
Carl Stearns Clancy had been given this advice in June of 1913, upon leaving San Francisco where he had found a lively and avid motorcycling community. Clancy was starting the last leg of the first motorcycle ride around the world, to cross North America.
He had become a “special sales agent” for a backrest (Friel’s) that affixed to the rear of the seat of his motorcycle, a 1912 Henderson, and had hoped to sell some through Sacramento motorcycle dealers. He made a tour of all the motorcycle shops in town to demonstrate the backrests but reported “not a single dealer was live enough to put in a sample” in their shop or showroom. He attributed the natives’ sleepiness to the heat, it not having rained for two months.
While riding his Henderson from shop to shop, he did arouse one dealer enough to have the non-Henderson motorcycle dealer challenge him to a hill-climb the following morning.
To the 22-year-old Clancy, having been on the road for nine months and having faced numerous obstacles ranging from being abandoned by his wingman in Paris to a broken connecting rod in a country where there were no Henderson dealers or spare parts, the adventure of risking harm to himself and his motorcycle was a challenge he could not pass.
Setting aside his goal of being the first motorcyclist to circumnavigate the globe, he and the dealer, “accompanied by a half-dozen sporting skeptics,” went two miles beyond the city to a hill that was up the side of a lofty railroad embankment with a 35% grade, noting that there were “no real hills in the whole district.”
A rock pile at the bottom of the hill made a running start impossible, so the test was to ease the motorcycle into first gear and start up the incline. The dealer was using a “well-known twin” cylinder motorcycle whereas Clancy was on his global roads-weary (14,000 miles with 4,000 yet to go), one gear, 7 horsepower four-cylinder Henderson.
The local dealer made two runs up the hill, both times getting stuck near the top. Clancy whispered into what he called “the old boy’s ear” to do his best, referring to his motorcycle as one would a horse and not only reached the top but continued over the railroad track.
While I was researching the book about Clancy and his being the first motorcyclist (motorcycle adventurer) to circle the globe in 1912-1913 an element of pushing the adventure envelope of both a motorcycle and a man surfaced after reading about his Sacramento hill-climb. Off the table was the often used saying “It’s the journey,” as was “ride to eat, eat to ride.”
Where Clancy was told of, and found, a sleepy colony of motorcyclists and dealers in Sacramento, he stopped the journey and risked not only himself but also his motorcycle to make an adventure. And contrary to what he had been told in San Francisco, he found a half-dozen skeptics to watch him beat the local competition, after which he said he “gracefully withdrew” and continued on his journey to New York.
One hundred years after Clancy topped the hill in Sacramento I found myself with a riding companion in Sacramento. While it was a Sunday, I saw numerous motorcycles in and around town. One couple on a Gold Wing I spoke with said Sacramento was likely as active as San Francisco because they had better riding weather and far less rain.
While I was trading road tales with a Harley-Davidson owner at a gas station and trying to get some directions to where the hill was that Clancy topped 100 years earlier, my other rider was saying, “Let’s roll! It’s getting towards 5 o’clock and I want to get to the motel, check-in and get on the Net.”
I said, “We don’t have to ride up the hill (Clancy described it as “the pet test hill of the town”), just take a look at what he faced 100 years ago and take a few photographs.”
“Nah, I can find it with Google once we’ve checked in and logged on, get all the pictures you want from there.”
For my companion that day the journey had been set aside for the Internet, whereas for Clancy the journey was a hill-climbing adventure.
I thought, “What a difference 100 years makes.” One hundred years earlier Clancy was stirring up the adventure pot in sleepy Sacramento whereas my guy was thumbing, scrolling, and on Skype extolling to his listener how good his Internet connection was while trying to find a pet test hill.
Clancy had made a memorable adventure of being in Sacramento, one that haunts me for not at least trying to top the hill with my modern twin cylinder motorcycle. That adventure remains on my list for my next pass through Sacramento, if I can find the pet test hill, which the Internet addict could not.
This story originally appeared in our June 2018 issue, which you can read in all its glory here.