04 July 2012

Six Days Of American Ascendancy

When people think of "American" sports, baseball, basketball and what we call "football" usually come to mind.  

The Six Day Bicycle Race (1935) by William L'Engle

On the other hand, very few people would think of bicycle racing, in spite of wins by American riders over the past quarter-century.  One reason why so few people still think of bicycle racing as an American sport is that no living person can recall the time when the US was one of the dominant cycling nations.  Also, there's almost nobody alive who can remember when one of the dominant forms of racing was the one that was most associated with riders who carried the Stars and Stripes.

Six Day Bike Race (1924) by Alexander Calder

I'm talking about the six-day race.  Although it began in England, it really became one of the prominent forms, if not the most dominant type, of cycle-racing after Madison Square Garden began to host them in 1891.  Those races did much to make cycle racing one of the most popular sports among spectators for four decades afterward.  Well into the 1930's, the only American professional athletes who made more money were the best baseball players.  Nearly all cities had velodromes; in fact, bicycle-racing tracks outnumbered all other kinds of athletic arenae with the possible exception of baseball fields.

Start of Six-Day Race In Madison Square Garden, 1936.  Note Jimmy Durante at far left.   From Reminisce.

As important as they were, six-day races--and bicycle racing in general--were all but forgotten in the US for a generation or so after World War II.  Interest in the sport wasn't rekindled until the 1980's, when American riders became competitive with the best of Europe and other parts of the world.  

Major Taylor (center) and other prominent Six-Day Racers.  Photo montage by  Michael Neubert.

Perhaps some future historian will write about the significant role bicycle racing--and the six-day variety in particular--played in a country that was in the process of becoming the world's dominant economic, political and cultural force.


  1. They vanished while I was not looking...

    In my youth all cycling publications had reports of six day events and the mind boggled at what professional cyclists had to do to earn a living. Not least was cycling with lungs full of tobacco smoke which notoriously filled the air of these popular cycleodromes. I could never have spent a minute in such an atmosphere so never saw one in action.

  2. Coline--Isn't it amazing that people who rode so much and so hard got anywhere near tobacco? At one time, it was thought smoking was beneficial because it was said to open the lungs.