26 May 2018

When Nutley Ruled The (Cycling) World

Even during mountain biking's peak of popularity--about a quarter-century ago--most mountain bikes never saw a trail or dirt, let alone a mountain.

These days, something similar might be said about track bikes.  If someone is obsessed with building a bike that's NJS-compliant, chances are that it will never go anywhere near a velodrome.

It's just as ironic that as track or fixed-gear bikes have grown in popularity, interest in track racing, as a participant or spectator sport, doesn't seem to be on the rise.  Most fans, at least here in the US, seem to focus their attention on major road races like the Tour, Giro and Vuelta.

Time was, though, when track racing was more popular than any other sport in the 'States, with the possible exception of baseball.  In fact, the top cyclists earned even more money than guys who could hit or throw spheres of stitched horsehide.

There are few remnants of that time because, for one thing, most of the great riders of that time have passed on.  Also, most of the venues in which they rode are gone.

One of them was located about a morning's ride--half an hour on a ferry and two on a bike--from my apartment.  In its day, it hosted some of the best cyclists of the day--including Alfred Letourneur, the French rider who set speed records on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as local heroes like Charlie Jaeger and Frank Kramer.

Jaeger and Kramer hailed from Newark, then a major cycling center.  After that city's velodrome closed in 1930, a businessman and cycling enthusiast from neighboring East Orange tried to keep the torch burning, if you will, and built a new velodrome on the site of a former quarry.

Joseph Miele's track, the Nutley Velodrome, opened on 4 June 1933.  Twelve thousand fans turned out that day to see Letourneur and Jaeger, as well as other star riders like Italy's Giovanni Manera, Belgian Gerard Debaets, Franz Deulberg of Germany and Brooklyn's own Paul Croley.

For two years, Nutley was "an international dateline," according to Michael Gabriele, whose book, The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing in New Jersey was published in 2011.  "All the wire services covered the events," he explained.

But around 1936 or 1937, the popularity of six-day and other track races declined, and the velodrome was used for boxing matches, midget car racing and other sports.  The venue's last event was held on 15 September 1940, and it was demolished in 1942.

A few months before the Nutley Velodrome's last event, another event was held that would continue New Jersey's status as one of cycling's US centers:  the Tour of Somerville.  For decades, it was the single most prestigious bike race in America, and one of the few that attracted riders from abroad.  It also ignited the popularity of the criterium, which continues to be the most popular type of cycling race.

Though the Nutley Velodrome, which opened 85 years ago next month, lasted less than a decade, it still holds an important place in American cycling.  Nutley provided thrills for thousands of people, but in recent years the city has done more to calm people down:  Until 2013, it hosted the US headquarters of Hoffman-Laroche, where Valium and Librium were developed. 

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