Monday, December 6, 2021

The Legend of Bobby Walthour Sr., part II

Bobby Walthour, circa 1905. Buck Peacock Collection. Submitted photos

Bobby Walthour, circa 1905. Buck Peacock Collection. Submitted photos


By Jane Marlowe

The first installment of our story about Bobby Walthour, Sr., a legendary champion bicyclist in the early 1900’s, left him cycling furiously in the inaugural race at Park Square Garden in Boston. We return to the end of the first day of the race, approaching midnight on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1900.

“Fifteen minutes before the clock struck midnight, the biggest New Year’s Eve party in Boston celebrated wildly as the big pack of riders whirled on at high speed. The crowd counted down from 60 seconds and then 10,9,8 and Walthour summoned a power within him, electrified by the cheering, and went into the lead like a man possessed. The noise shook the building to its foundations and the atmosphere escalated into an impossible frenzy. Walthour crossed the finish in first place, a wheel ahead of the local boy, Will Stinson, and Frenchman, Jean Gougoltz.” It was January 1, his twenty-third birthday.

The race went on for the second and third days at a considerably slower pace. Walthour suddenly sprinted forward on the third night and advanced 60 yards. The riders chased after him, closed the gap and the tired bikers slowed down again.

Suddenly, Harry Elkes’s big German pacing motorcycle revved up and surged forward. Elkes caught up to his pacer and rode so close to the machine it looked like it was pulling him along. He rode the mile in one minute, forty-two seconds. The crowd was thrilled!

On the fifth night, Frenchman, Albert Champion, wearing a white silk racing suit, his arm healing from a recent injury, rode one mile in one minute, thirty-seven seconds beating Harry Elkes’s time by five seconds.

After 60 hours of racing seven riders tied for first place. They had traveled 1,098 miles, one mile to go. Walthour was third.

“The riders rose out of their saddles, pushing their bikes violently from side to side. Walthour turned loose a fury of speed and despite the strongest effort of Archie McEachern, a well regarded Toronto rider, he passed the big Canadian in a dramatic surge of speed and won.”

Bobby won $750($19,800). He made more money in six days than during the entire season to that date. He also made headline news across the United States and this time his name was not misspelled!

1901 was a year of recognition for Bobby. He worked out in Florida with some of the best racers and trainers in cycling. He raced in competitions increasing his winnings and in spite of rebukes from the NCA for scheduling conflicts he remained very popular with his fellow cyclists and fans.

During the summer of 1901 Bobby competed against Harry Elkes, considered one of the best pacers in the games. The race was the first in a series of three for a purse of $3,000. Walthour took the early lead but Elkes passed him quickly. Bobby put on a burst of speed and finally won by half a mile.

The year had brought many accidents caused by the increased speed of the tandem motorcycles and the danger their great size

Gussie Lawson was Walthour’s pacer and friend until an accident claimed his life.

Gussie Lawson was Walthour’s pacer and friend until an accident claimed his life.

threatened in the event of a crash. Johnny Nelson, who was leading the battle for the motor paced championship in 1901, died following a horrific accident in Madison Square Garden in September. He was twenty-three years old.

Bobby and Archie McEachern teamed for the six-day race at Madison Square Garden in December, 1901 and Bobby sprinted ahead in the tenth and final lap winning the race. Fans and newspapermen noticed that Bobby drank from a brown jug when he came off the track to rest. After the race was over, he responded to their questions.

“Now that the thing is over I don’t mind letting all of you in on a secret. That was Coca-Cola. I drank it because it refreshed me and at the same time there are no after effects like there are in other stimulants. You see those other fellows resorted to different kinds of drugs, but I took none at all. When I felt tired and worn out I just drank a glass of Coca-Cola and went back to work. It gave me strength, brightened me up and made me feel generally better.”

Bobby raced throughout the new year including many events at the new indoor track at the Piedmont Coliseum in Atlanta built by his friend, Jack Prince.  In November, 1902, Bobby broke his shoulder in a racing accident and could not enter the six-day race at Madison Square Garden.  He had been declared the official American motor-paced champion for 1902 and during his convalescence he was challenged for the title by Harry “The Manchester Giant” Caldwell.

The six foot six 200 pound Caldwell arrived in Atlanta in March wearing a Colt .45 on one side and a big Bowie knife on the other. He declared himself to be a genuine Yankee and even called his pacing motorcycle the Monitor after the Civil War ironclad.

The race was the best of three five-mile heats and Walthour and Caldwell battled for the lead. “At first Walthour had trouble keeping within the slipstream of the pacing motorcycle and nearly lost his pace.  He put his head down and rose off the seat, rocking his bike back and forth furiously as he pedaled faster and faster. …Walthour made up the quarter-lap difference unbelievably quickly and proceeded to gain half a lap on The Manchester Giant.”

Walthour had one more race in Atlanta before heading north to join the motor-pacing season. Harry Elkes had preceded Bobby as the American motor-paced champion and wanted to win back the title. Elkes had gone to Europe to compete for several months winning thousands of dollars. He wanted to retire a “wealthy and happy man.” He had become engaged and worried about the dangers of cycling.

The race was set for Memorial Day, 1903 at the redesigned Charles River track in Boston. The event was a twenty mile pace with four riders before a crowd of 15,000 who screamed their approval of the lightning speed and roar of the motorcycle pacers. Bobby pulled back from his machine as the pace quickened but Harry Elkes called for more speed from

Skeleton pacer with those who died in the sport.

Skeleton pacer with those who died in the sport.

his pacer. At mile sixteen, Harry called for more speed again from Franz Hoffman, his motorman, but Hoffman turned around to tell him they were going fast enough.

“At that moment Elkes’s bicycle chain snapped… His broken chain became entangled in the spokes of his back wheel and he was thrown off his bicycle in the path of a pacing motorcycle which could not avoid him.” Harry died on the way to the hospital at the age of 25. Another rider and pacer recovered from their injuries. The Boston Globe called the race at the new Charles River track “a baptism of blood.”

Bobby resumed racing within weeks of Elkes’s death but it was several weeks before he blazed around the Charles River track winning at nearly 50 miles an hour for five minutes.

Henri Desgrange, editor of L’Auto, a Parisian sports journal, and director of the Parc de Princes, invited Bobby and Frank Kramer, 3 times winner of the American sprint title, to come to France to race against Europe’s best bicyclists. Georges Lefevre was Desgranges’s chief cycling reporter and the man who  suggested the idea for the Tour de France. L’Auto was printed on yellow paper and today the leader’s yellow jersey, maillot jaune, is a symbol representing “the yellow papers of L’Auto and the highest echelons of sporting excellence.”

Bobby trained for weeks under the supervision of Dr. James W. Barton and when he sailed for Europe he was in great physical condition. When his little group arrived in France their greeters were amazed that Bobby declined a tour of the beautiful city of Paris. Rather, two hours after docking, Bobby was at the Buffalo Velodrome, named for Buffalo Bill Cody who performed there, meeting other riders and touring the beautiful track.

Bobby won over Paul Dangla in the best of three heats although the Frenchman was the overwhelming favorite. He received quiet, restrained applause. Three days later Bobby went up against France’s national motor-pacing champion, Henri Contenet. Bobby led in the first heat but the chain broke under the stress. In the second heat again the bicycle chain broke and Continet sped ahead. On a fresh bicycle Bobby called for more speed from Gussie Lawson and pushing himself to the limit. He won the second twenty-five mile heat at an average of 44 miles an hour. In the third heat Continet left the track at the half way mark and Bobby won.

He traveled to Berlin where he won over Germany’s motor-pacing champion, Thaddeus Robl. In all Walthour came home with a purse of some $15,000 ($373,000 in today’s dollars.) Bobby suffered numerous injuries and saw many friends crash and die on the tracks. He had chosen his life’s work, however, and was undeterred.

In 1904 he won the Grand Prize of Europe in a one-hundred kilometer race in Berlin beating the very best riders from England, Holland and Germany. The German spectators carried him around the track giving him a great ovation. He tried unsuccessfully to leave the grounds but the crowds would not allow him to go. Finally he escaped by crawling out a window!

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