The 1898 Madison Square Garden 6-Day Race

NOTE: This article used to be located at (4/1/2007)

Just before midnight on the fourth of December 1898, thirty-one men stepped onto Madison Square Garden's wooden velodrome track in front of a crowd of thousands, ready to begin six days of racing. Bicycle racing had become a national obsession during the 1890s, and this was the sport as its most obsessive. For a continuous six days and nights the racers would circle the small track tens of thousands of times until their bodies collapsed and their minds became a blur.

During the 1890s, bicycle racing mania had swept across America. While most racers were content with an occasional "Century" (100 mile) ride, the most lunatic of the lunatic fringe raced in Six Day races, possibly the most mind boggling endurance sport ever held. Racers simply had to ride around a steeply banked track for six days, sometimes riding more than 400 miles in an entirely sleepless day. By 1898, howls of protest were beginning to be heard from cycling's governing bodies, who felt that the six day races were mere freak shows which made a mockery of the sport. This, then, was the last hurrah for one of the most absurdly dif?cult sporting contests ever devised.

The ?rst race at Madison Square Garden was held in 1891, and with each year it grew in popularity. The race attracted top riders from around the world, and the racers' mileage increased yearly. The races also had become a major social event, and attracted a wide spectrum of social classes, from the pickpockets who "hid beneath the stands," to the socialites with their own private boxes. The size of the crowd ebbed and ?owed throughout the week. During the evenings it was difficult to get a seat in the 15,000 capacity auditorium. A few hundred die-hards never left the race, sleeping in their seats and eating at the Garden's restaurant.

After a few days, cigar smoke and dust began to rise, making it difficult to see the track from the higher seats. The crowds were vocal and demonstrative, cheering loudly for their favorite racers, and likewise taunting the others. There was a circus atmosphere in the stands which often had more action than the endless circling which was going on on the tracks. Bands (sometimes several at a time) sat in the stands, providing continuous accompaniment to the racers, adapting their repertoire to match the drama of the race.

The League of American Wheelmen, cyc1ing's governing body, had traditionally opposed racing on Sundays, so the races began just after midnight on Monday morning, and ended at 10:00pm on Saturday night. The L.A.W. argued that the endurance races did not promote legitimate bicycle racing, but rather attracted a motley group of showoff racers, cruel managers and voyeurs who watched the racers ride well past the point of exhaustion. The journal "Le Velo" also protested the "cruel" and "lamentable" event. Participants in the 1898 race were all fined by the League, which had become more and more irrelevant to the big money sport that professional cycling had become.

The 1898 race was the last of its kind at Madison Square Garden, because soon afterwards the New York state legislature passed a law forbidding cyclists from riding more than twelve hours a day. Beginning in 1899, the race was run by two-man teams. The race ?ourished into the 20th century, reaching its peak in the 191O's and 1920's before coming to an end in 1939.

The racers of 1898 came from around the world, with representatives from Switzerland, Ireland, France, Australia and Sweden. Two former champions were entered: Teddy Hale, who had won the 1896 contest, and Charles Miller, who had ridden a record 2,093 miles the previous year. The crowd, which had been gathering since 8:00 in the evening, numbered about 5,000 when Eddie Bald, one of the country's premier racers, shouted "Go," and sent the racers off.

The cyclists took off with a sprint, despite the countless miles which lay ahead of them. Miller completed his ?rst mile in two minutes and thirty-seven seconds, and after one hour the leaders had covered more than twenty-one miles. The fast pace continued throughout the ?rst day. Miller held the lead throughout the morning, but lost it when he took a half hour break. He fought back to catch the leaders, only to fall back again when he took his second rest just before midnight. At the end of the first day, Canadian racer Burns Pierce led, with a record setting pace of more than 400 miles. The fast pace, and perhaps also the realization of what remained, forced several riders out of the race. The ?rst to quit was Bert Leslie of Chicago, who had ridden a meager 51 miles in 3 hours and 37 minutes. Shortly before 5:00am, Joe Rice, a "stocky little coal miner from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania" also dropped out. Rice had come in second place in both 1896 and 1897, despite the fact that at one point he was hallucinating that racers were throwing sticks and bricks at him. By the end of the first day, ?ve more racers had retired, including E.C. Smith of Saratoga, New York, who was ordered off the track by his doctor and managers after they learned that he had suffered a fractured rib and a spinal concussion in a spill.

There were many crashes throughout the day, the most serious of which involved a rider named McDufee who had been brought in to ride a ?ve mile exhibition ride alongside the other racers. The six day men, who did not want to be upstaged, began to sprint with McDuffee, and a rider crashed into the tandem bike which was pacing him, sending half a dozen racers crashing to the track.

Charles Miller's ?ancee, Genevieve Hanson, was watching the race from a box on the north side of the auditorium, smiling at him "every time he passed around the track." Miller had already announced that he planned to win the race and then settle down with his new bride, who had "made the wedding conditional on his ?nishing ?rst." The race managers, never missing an opportunity to make a buck, had already begun negotiating with the couple to instead get married in the Garden on the last day of the race. Miller was reportedly willing, but Miss Hanson was understandably reluctant.

The three leaders, Pierce, Miller and George Waller, continued their furious pace throughout the second day. Pierce took a twenty-nine minute break at noon, and a ?fty minute rest at 7:00 in the evening. When he got off his bike again at 11:00 in the evening, he had ridden a total of 804 miles. Miller, however, remained only a few miles behind. Burns Pierce continued his record setting pace into the third day, buoyed by a telegram stating that his ailing wife's health had stabilized. Mrs. Pierce had fallen ill and been told by her doctor that she should leave Canada for warmer climes during the winter months. Pierce, however, could not afford such a trip and had entered the race in order to win enough money to send his with south. Most of the other riders' wives were attending the race, with several of them down on the track, personally taking care of their husbands.

Wednesday and Thursday were usually the worst days for the racers. Their ankles began to swell, their muscles ache, and general exhaustion began to set in. These were the most tense times between the racers, who begged to quit, and the trainers, who demanded that they continue. Miller, after his winning ride in 1897, said "about Wednesday it was a hard job to keep at it. All I could see was the black mark ahead of me and a dim wall around the track. Every little obstacle, even a railhead, jarred me fearfully, seeming to shake my bones apart." The more prominent racers were supplied with rooms in the Garden, while others were housed in tents in the horse stables along the Fourth Avenue wall. The tents were small, just big enough to hold a cot, a chair, an oil stove for cooking, and extra bicycles. Most meals were eaten while on the bicycle, from pots the racers balanced on their handlebars. After his victory in the 1897 race, the New York Times reported that Charles Miller's diet during the race had consisted of "three pounds of boiled rice, one pound of oatmeal, one half pound of barley, ?ve dozen apples, a few grapes, an orange or two, ?ve dozen pints of kermiss, twenty quarts of boiled milk and three gallons of strong coffee." Amazingly, Miller's manager said that the 100 pound racer had only lost four pounds during the week.

The head of the New York Board of Health announced that he was sending inspectors to the race, to ensure the health and safety of the riders. In previous years, racers would become so fatigued that they began hallucinating, and there were frequent ?ghts between the racers who wanted to quit, and their managers, who forced them to continue riding. Patrick Powers, president of the American Cycle Racing Association, welcomed the Health Board inspectors, feeling that their presence would prove to the public that there was "nothing dangerous or brutal" about the race, and this day the doctors found that the leaders all had normal temperatures, with pulse rates around 80. During the third day, two racers were ordered out of the race, and one other dropped out on his own, saying that it was too hot to continue.

Although most of the attention was focused on the leaders, the rest of the pace continued to trudge along. "Doggy" Stevens, a l9-year-old racer, did not take his ?rst race until the third day. Fred Foster, a local racer was "wheeling aimlessly around the track" until the Garden band struck up the "Star Spangled Banner." Upon hearing this, Foster took off sprinting, inspiring several other riders to join him, keeping up the pace for about two miles. During the third day, Miller and Pierce exchanged the lead several times, taking advantage of the others' rest periods. Pierce's pace of the ?rst three days proved to be too much for him, though, and by 1:00am Thursday he had fallen to fourth, behind Miller, Waller and Frank Albert.

During the fourth day it became clear that the race would be between Miller and Waller, who were separated by only a few miles after having ridden more than 1,400. Miller, though still in the lead, was increasingly worried about Waller's determination and lasting sprinting abilities. Waller was in an "ugly mood," purposely knocking down another rider, and could not be restrained by his handlers or by his wife. Waller used peppermint as a stimulant, soaking sponges in it, then riding around with the sponges in his mouth.

On Thursday, race management announced that Genevieve Hanson had agreed to marry Miller in the midst of the race on Saturday afternoon. Eddie "the Cannon" Bald was to be the best man, and Miss Hanson's mother was on her way from Chicago to give the bride away.

The battle between Miller and Waller came to a head on Friday morning. Waller was ahead by four miles when the two picked up the pace and began sprinting. The two collided and both went crashing to the track. Neither was hurt, and both continued the race. Before long, however, Waller ran off the bottom of the track, and while trying to get back on, slipped and crashed again. At 8:30am Waller, "riding around the Garden half asleep," suffered his third spill when he crashed into the inside railing which separated the scorers from the track. Waller was forced to take a two hour and forty minute rest to treat his bruises, during which time Miller built up a seemingly insurmountable lead of thirty miles. Miller continued riding steadily, then at l0:40pm on Friday it was announced that he was bettering his record setting pace of the previous year.

The sixth day was a relatively easy one for Miller, who needed only to stay ahead of Waller and beat his 1897 record of l,983 miles, thereby earning him an extra $200 in prize money. Miller left the track at 3:00 in the afternoon to prepare for his wedding ceremony. An hour and a half later the band struck up "The Wedding March," and the standing-room-only crowd went wild with enthusiasm. The wedding party consisted of Pat Powers of the Racing Association, Arthur Gardiner, a prominent cyclist, Mrs. Fred Schineer, whose husband had dropped out of the race a few days before, and the bride's mother, who had arrived from Chicago. Waller had originally planned to keep racing during the wedding, but he eventually agreed to join the other races in attending the ceremony.

It had been previously announced that Miss Hanson would not agree to the ceremony unless Miller would wear a frock coat, but when Miller appeared he took off his bathrobe and underneath was wearing a racing suit which consisted of shorts with one white leg and one pink, and a shirt which had the colors reversed. On his back was an embroidered eagle, and a silk American flag was wrapped around his waist. The short ceremony was performed by a Brooklyn alderman and was followed by a brief reception during which Waller rushed up to the bride and gave her "a kiss that could be heard halfway across the Garden." Miller then jumped on his bicycle and rode a few laps in front of the adoring crowd. Miller returned to the track at 6:00pm to break his old record. He rode until just past 8:00pm, when he retired after having ridden a total of 2,006 miles. During the 142 hours of racing, Miller was off the track for a total of ?fteen hours, nine and a half of which were spent sleeping.

Just before the official end of the race on Saturday night, the twelve remaining racers returned to the track to take their victory laps. At the end of the night, Mr. & Mrs. Miller then went to the Waldorf-Astoria for their wedding dinner. Miller had won $1,500 plus another $950 in bonuses and gifts, including $500 for his wedding, and $200 from the manufacturer of his bicycle. Pierce, who ended up in third place, won $600.