America's (True) First Cycling Champion

He won the race—then was lost to history David V. Herlihy

For more than a century, Van Nest was entirely lost to history. La Nazione, the primary source of information about the race, misspelled his name and thus no historian had ever pieced together his profile. When I started researching the event, I remembered that a collector friend of mine, Ed Berry Jr., had purchased the original winner's certificate 15 years earlier at the annual antique bicycle auction in Copake, New York. Scrutinizing that document, I discovered the mistake, and was then able to trace Van Nest's trail.
His father, the reverend Abraham Rynier Van Nest, came from a distinguished Dutch American family. (The Van Nest neighborhood in the Bronx is named after a relative.) Rynier's mother, Margaret Willett, was also from a prominent family with American roots dating to Colonial times. In 1863, in the midst of the US Civil War, Van Nest Sr. was offered a chance to preside over the American Chapel in Paris, and moved there along with his wife, older son George Willett, and Rynier. When the elder Van Nest found out he would have to share the pulpit there, he began dividing his time with a Protestant church in Rome. In 1866 he settled in Florence to run the American Union Church.Rynier may have initially encountered the velocipede in Paris, home to the original Michaux company, the maker of the bicycle he'd raced to Pistoia, or perhaps in Rome. In any case, he would have seen at least a few elegant sportsmen trundling about Florence on their bicycles, a year or so before his landmark achievement.
Although I could find no indication of a subsequent cycling career, his doctoral thesis, submitted to the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1880, suggests that he retained the same progressive spirit and love of the outdoors that had originally attracted him to the fledgling sport. Writing about "asylums," or institutions for the mentally ill, Rynier decried the rampant abuse and overcrowding of patients. And he insisted that facilities should be located in the pure air of the country. Scattered records affirm that he remained close to his family, and never started one of his own. He settled in New York City, where he practiced medicine and led a privileged but low-key life. He died in 1931, leaving his small fortune to his German-born housekeeper and his prized music books to the New York Public Library. In Brooklyn's leafy Green-Wood Cemetery, by the graves of his parents, brother, and an infant sister, America's first cycling champion lies beneath an unadorned tombstone that makes no mention of his place in history.
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