Van Meerbeke is described at a young
athlete from the New York City area who, Karl Kron (Ten Thousand
Miles on a Bicycle, 1887) believed, was born about 1865. He must
have been a dedicated cyclist for, although it was not given press
coverage at the time, he is thought to have made a round trip ride
between New York and Denver in 1885 (Kron, xcvii). Not wishing to cover
much of this route again on a transcontinental ride in 1886, he took a
southern route west. He began the ride from the New York City Hall at
noon on March 1 on a Columbia ordinary with the hope of reaching San
Francisco in 150 days.
His ride took him through Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lynchville, Danville,
Atlanta, Montgomery, Mobile, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, Del Rio,
El Paso, Deming, Benson, Tucson, Yuma, Los Angeles, Mojave, and Goshen.
He was forced to be ferried or "ride the cars" (take a train) because of
floods near Mobile and Yuma and a bicycle breakdown near Del Rio.
He arrived in San Francisco about September 9th (Admission Day), having
covered more than 4,000 miles in slightly over 190 days. The San
Francisco Chronicle of September 11, 1886 reported that, "He had no
hair-breath escapes by flood or field beyond having to be ferried across
a piece of flooded roadway near Mobile, and getting badly scared in
Arizona by sighting a band of Mexicans whom he mistook for Apaches on
the warpath. He followed the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad for
the most part. During the trip he wore out six pairs of trousers, five
pairs of shoes, a couple of coats, and two hats." The Daily Alta
California of September 10, 1886 added, "The gentleman looked pretty
rough in his old clothes with his knapsack and canteens strapped on, but
he was feeling good. He was introduced to the audience (at a bicycle
race) who gave him many hearty cheers and much applause. Afterwards in
company with Captain O'Callahan and T. L. Hill, the traveler took a
jaunt around the course." A bountiful feast followed the track
appearance. The Los Angles Express of August 29, 1886 also gave
an account of his ride and stated that he was 20 years old and weighed
135 pounds when he began his ride.
There are only scattered accounts of his life after his 1886 journey. It
was reported that he planned a long two-year return journey with his
brother Frank and a friend from New York, C. W. Listman. He probably
returned by train since there is no evidence that this trip
materialized. The Wheel of August 12, 1887 reported that Van
Meerbeke planned to reside in Patterson, New Jersey and work in a silk
mill. On June 29, 1888 the New York Times noted that Van Meerbeke
had embarked on an extended bicycle tour in Pennsylvania and adjacent
areas of New York State.
Apparently Van Meerbeke did not want publicity, for other than a few
newspaper reports like the ones cited above, there is no known account
of his bicycle trips. Karl Kron (p. xcvii) tells us that he sent three
letters to Van Meerbeke seeking information about the transcontinental
ride, but received no response.