I sometimes sit and wonder about the career my great grandfather and grandfather and other relatives before me had. Could I have endured what they did? Their job was often more exciting and often more dangerous than the average job. They rode a bicycle for six days straight and covered well over 2000 miles in less than a week, at times sprinting for cash and prizes at all hours of the night. They would try to avoid nasty crashes or crawl out of them to continue racing. Then if they had the chance they would lay their heads to rest for an a hour or two on a nice cot before setting off again. Their workplace, an oval wooden track or veldrome as it’s often called, located inside some of the greatest sports arenas in America and even Europe.
Six-Day bicycle races or sixes were a huge style of bicycle racing at the tail end of the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s. With just a partner and the rabid cheers and jeers from thousands of fans, they pedaled their way around this oval track for six days straight in hopes of gaining that extra lap or point to earn themselves a paycheck. Did they love it? I sure believe so.
The first international six-day bicycle race got its start inside the Madison Square Garden, New York in 1891, and for every year until about 1898 it was a one man race-they had no teammate to work with, they had to ride for as long as they could, then rest for a while, then continue on for about 142 hours. The first six-day winner was “Plugger” Bill Martin. He won riding the high wheel style bicycle and was awarded $2000.00 at the time when the average worker earned $500.00 annually. The high wheeler or penny-farthing was no longer used after1893 when Albert Shock of Germany won riding the “new” safety bicycle much like what we ride today.
In 1898 the State of New York decided this style of racing/endurance event was inhuman and decreed that all participants could ride for no more than twelve hours in a twenty-four hour period. Bill Brady, Broadway producer and manager of world heavy weight champions “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and “Boilermaker” Jeffries, was outraged and figured that if two riders each rode twelve hours a day then the six day racing could continue. The rested rider would then relieve his partner by pulling alongside him and thus they became known as madisons. The first team to win the new style of six-days was Miller and Waller. They covered 2733.4 miles, about 456 miles a day divided between two riders, farther than the Tour de France which lasts three weeks.
These sixes were hosted by Madison Square Garden once a year until 1920 when they were expanded to two a year. The New York Times reported in March 1921, “Men and women enthusiasts, thrilled by the spectacle of the cyclists tearing around the pine saucer at breakneck speed, yelled themselves hoarse in a din which transformed the Garden into bedlam.” The sixes became so popular that between November and March Six-day racers commuted by train on a circuit of races that included Chicago, Boston, Buffalo, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and many other cities. There were also as many Sixes in North America as there were in Europe.
Each winter when not motor pace racing his bicycle, Bobby Walthour I (my great grandfather) would compete in the sixes. In 1903 paired with his partner Benny Monroe of Memphis they won the Garden’s six-day for the second year in a row. The French team of Lucian Petit-Breton and French national champion Henri Contenet came in sixth place. Petit-Breton returned to France and won the Tour de France twice, in 1907 and 1908.
To make it fair each of the cyclists had almost the same exact equipment. The bicycles they used had no brakes or coasters which means that the wheels constantly turned, even if the rider wanted to stop. They also had their feet strapped into the pedals with toe straps which helped give them power for a perfect pedal stroke instead of just jamming down on the pedals at every stroke.
On the track the riders had to circle at a speed of approximately twenty-five miles per hour in order to just stay on the steeply banked wooden oval or saucer as it was sometimes called. Fifteen teams often competed in the Sixes. One rider maintained the team’s place, while his partner would leave the hectic, often dangerous race, to eat, nap or even shower. When it was time to change partners, called the “pick up”, the rested rider would mount his bike on the flat part of the track right in front of where he may have slept. A trainer would then push him off and the rider would gradually pedal and increase his speed until he fell in with the other riders. Now he would locate his partner in the high-speed pack and ride along side him. His partner would generally reach for his hand and pull him forward like a slingshot. The spent rider continued circling the track, gradually slowing down and making his way to the flat part of the track where he glided to the bunk area.
In these races the sudden launch of a rider shooting out of the pack to try and “steal” a lap caused a rapid chase, called a “jam.” The other riders would react immediately, because it only took about 10 seconds to fly around the track. The jams would often bring the spectators to their feet, as the riders would often reach speeds of fifty miles per hour.
During these jams it wasn’t unusual for riders to have spills and fall onto the wooden boards in a mangled mess of steel and flesh,.Sometimes riders were even thrown to their death. When a rider was injured a bell was sounded and the race was temporarily held up until the rider or riders cleared the track. At this time no rider could lap another, much like auto racing. If a rider broke a bone or fractured a collarbone (a most frequent injury) the rider would often have to go to the hospital. This would require his unhurt partner to find another “orphaned” rider to team up with and continue the race.
During the course of the sixes there were often races within the main race. Sprints were held about five or seven times a day. They were spilt up into a series of either five or ten sprints. The majority of the sprints were held in the evening when most spectators were present. The sprints were a distance of two miles (twenty laps), with six or ten points awarded to the winner, four points for second, two for third and one for fourth. For about the last hour of the race there was a sprint every mile to the finish, with seventy-two points going to the winner. Generally, the ultimate winners of the sixes were the teams who stole the most laps and covered the most distances during the week. If at the end of the week there was a tie in the number of laps gained and miles covered, the race was decided by points scored throughout the week.
Sixes in the 1920’s were one of the most popular spectator sports, often filling Madison Square Garden and other arenas. It wouldn’t be unusal to see such celebrities as Jimmy Durante, Bing Cosby and Ed Sullivan as well as famous writers. Earnest Hemingway was once quoted as saying “ I’ll never forget the time I set up operations in a box at the finish line of the six day bike races, to work on proofs of “A Farewell to Arms.” Well-known sports writer Grantland Rice (who coined the name for Notre Dame’s backfield; the Four horseman) once wrote of my great grandfather; “It was a dash such as thrills one to the very marrow, one that should live in the history of cycling annals, for track records were smashed to smithereens and the big crowd lifted to its feet in the wildest outburst of enthusiasm that has ever echoed and re-echoed throughout the walls of the coliseum”
It was known that top riders of the day who would fill the stands of any race or any city they visited could earn nearly one thousand dollars per race, or more than twenty thousand dollars a year. The big stars of the sixes were making even more, and this is when Babe Ruth earned about $20,000 a year in his first year with the Yankees and professional football players were making around $5000.00 a season. Sixes were an American sports tradition in the 1920’s, basketball was still only a college sport and National Football League franchises went on sale for $100 each. The Madison Square Garden was earning $250,000 a week during the heyday of Six Day bike races.
The sixes still exist today but mostly their popularity is in Belgium and Germany. The style is still the same and the tracks have live music, restaurants and bars. Some even have many fun events outside the tracks.
This is just a little bit of the unique and interesting history about six day bike racing. There are so many interesting stories of great feats and even worse falls, so if this account has peaked your interest in what was once America’s premier sport, check out some of the following resourses. One popular movie was “Six Day Bike Rider” starring 1930’s comedian Joe E. Brown. More recently a great book about the sixes is called “The Six-Day Bicycle Races” written by Peter Nye. The book also has a DVD counterpart.