The Concept Of The 6-Day Cycling Show-Circus In The 1930's

The Star Showman, 'Torchy' Peden
By Richard Browne
University of Western Ontario
from the "CANADIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY SPORT" Volume XVII, Number 2, 1986, Student Essay

The adversity of the Depression in Canada during the late 1920s, through to the 1930s caused a new taste for entertainment. Endurance and the six-day bicycle race was the food. For fifty cents, one could watch the show, for any amount of time (up to six days). It fit the demand of the desperate and hopeless spectators, who wanted to get away from it all. Endurance activities, swimming, flagpole sitting, running, walking and dancing, were all highly popular; however, none involved as much money or had such elevated attendance as cycling around a track for thousands of miles during one week. The star and commanding performer of this was William "Torchy" Peden (the nickname "Torchy" came from his locks of red hair).

This essay verifies that professional six-day cycling races were transformed in the 1930's from legitimate cycle competition into a circus show. There are eight major arguments backing this statement. Torchy was the impressive crowd pleaser, the "circus leader", and this was the basis of his popularity. Judging and officiating had the instrument of unclear and obscure rules, used to influence the outcome of races. The riders' agreements and "armistice" among themselves made chance and skill less influential, increasing the riders' control of races. The Depression changed values, making the show highly entertaining; the athletics became unimportant. Gambling and money played a big part, heading to fixed races, and then to organized crime. The atmosphere and spectacle was more on the lines of a circus. Injuries occurred often, making the activity a survival test. Promotion was the leading factor in the race's popularity and controlled outcomes, cyclist lives, and all aspects of the race.

The center of attention was the weird atmosphere of the arenas, where for six days and six nights, teams of two would revolve around a small pine board track, steeply angled on either side. At any time, only one rider of a team could be counted for laps. At the end of certain laps, sprints would be held where points and prizes could be won. If no team had gained a lap at the end of a race, the sprint points would determine the winning team. The riders slept and ate on the infield, the spectators sat in stands above the track, with some in the infield. A spectator paid a small entrance fee, where by he could enter and stay as long as he pleased (women were admitted free of charge) .

The history was taken primarily from the newspapers, and secondarily from interviews, periodicals, race programs, and letters, stemming from William Peden and his career. The information from William Peden had been studied with the assumption that Peden wanted the legitimacy of the six-day race upheld. This assumption spread to almost all material found, including articles written by the Sports Hall of Fame curators (Torchy Peden is an inducted Hero of the Hall). Another assumption taken into account, was that during the 1930's, a lot of newspaper material was over colorized by so called lackys' of the editor. Problems arose since most race officials, promoters, and competitors, including Torchy Peden are deceased. This made present day interviews impossible.

Torchy the Crowd Pleaser

Torchy was the impressive crowd pleaser, the "circus leader". He could entertain the cash paying fans. This was the basis of his popularity. He played with the gallery, especially during the stale periods, and clowned around with the fans continually. The crowds also enjoyed when Peden used his double sprint tactics to break up the monotony, shaking up his competitors, who grew to dislike Peden. He used humour to increase the excitement of the show; "I liked to play to the crowd. It was depression and people needed a laugh. So, just to liven things up a bit, I'd grab a hat off a spectator's head and ride a few laps before giving it back."1 The humour got laughs from the fans, but just curses from his competitors.2 Similarly, Torchy would flaunt exhibitions of one-legged riding, by steering his bike with his left leg, pedaling with his right and writing a letter at the same time.3 Some of his efforts to entertain included wearing scarves from women in the crowd, or his pink corsets and other colorful paraphernalia.4 Torchy would throw peanuts and small objects into the crowd, trying to initiate reactions from the excited spectators.5 Torchy's entire "show" took away from the legitimacy of the race, similarly to the way lax rules and officiating had the same effect.

Judges and Rules

The six-day race was governed by an extensive set of rules. These were vague, allowing judges to make many decisions, which influenced the outcome of the race. If rules did not satisfy the judges, who were usually connected with promoters, they could disobey them. In one race, referees took off one lap from the field, since the winning team chosen couldn't catch up.6 Their reason to the public was that the field was not "trying hard enough".7 Peden said, "Behind the scenes lap gains are juggled, certain races fixed, favored teams do not cover the mileage credited to them, and unpopular competitors are deliberately fouled."8 This illustrates that they competed in illegitimate, fixed races. Judges also had all the say if there was a crash. After such an occurrence, a judge had the power to add a lap to the fallen riders or take off laps from any riders he thought influenced the spill.9 Disqualification by a board of referees could eventuate for any number of reasons; unfair riding, unskilled riding, poor attitude, etc.10 There were rules for sprint point spreads, with the first place being heavily weighted: seventy-three points for first, four points for second, then two and one point for third and fourth.11 This caused frenzied attempts and many spills with serious injuries. Judging and their rules worked together to maximize the show appeal, much to the dismay of the riders. The race officials could fix a race easily, yet the riders had that same power.

Collusion of Riders

The cyclist competed with only short rest periods between races. They often competed in the same races across North America. It was inevitable that most became friends; leading to agreements on outcomes of the races. The enmity became so high that before the race, the riders would agree to split the money won by any of them.12 If lap prizes came up, possibly one rider would surge ahead, the two other riders swaying back and fourth, protecting the leader from any sprinting challengers.13 Agreements between riders child be for a slower pace, to inhibit a better rider, or even for someone to win an entire race.14 In all races a Riders Armistice would go into effect at 4:30 in the morning. This occurred when the spectators went home, and the teams would all slow down and relax, still going round slowly. Their partners showered, ate, slept, and changed clothing.15 The partners would take turns, usually keeping their bike moving. The rule was stated that one racer per team had to be on the track at all times.16 While cycling slowly some read mail, picked winners of other gambling tracks, and some even dozed off.17 There was also the belief that at this time, when judges were not present, (and even when they were) the entire race would stop; however, this could never be proven.18 The cycling speeds were very slow in the morning; Torchy stated, "Some would ride with one foot up on the handlebars, the other pedaling leisurely."19 It seems this lazy riding technique was used often. Promoters made sure at this time, that riders would slow down to save their energy when no paid admission was there watching.20 "Once there was a rider who got drunk and lapped the field fifty times in the middle of the night. But the judge had gone to breakfast or was busy playing Solitaire."21 This cyclist would have won five sprint races and probably the entire race if there was some legitimate judging. It explains that referees and judges didn't care, especially when the paying fan was not there to witness the show. The riders took part in a great deal of collusion, but some were desperate, like the spectators, in the heartless depression.

The Depression

During the 1930's, hard times hit. It was the underlying effects of the Depression which made six-day races popular. Fans of the races had a great deal of time on their hands and this entertainment kept them occupied. Money for entertainment, however, was scarce. But for twenty-five to fifty cents, one could watch the show for an hour, a day or as long as he wanted.22 Other entertainment sources, the Vaudeville, were slowly dying. The movies were too expensive and too brief, radio was in its infancy, and television was twenty years away.23 The Prohibition had also left the population bored with nothing to do. They wanted entertainment, a show, and this is where six-day races fulfilled the need. The show gave people a view of themselves; the enduring battle through life.24 The show personified hopes of glory, food, and the monetary reward. That is entertainment. They watched for, "some kind of diversion, for a lot of people spent their time lining up for a bowl of soup."25 These spectators included drunks and drifters, who came with nowhere to go; the warmth of the arenas and bootleg liquor was enough to satisfy them.26

Gambling and Money

The fifth argument, gambling and money, seems to have been the prominent element in many sports of this era. It was one of the reasons endurance events were so popular. In the six-day bike race, gambling was widespread and eventually took complete control. The bike race turned into a poor man's gambling casino. A spectator could walk into an arena, put up twenty-five to one hundred dollars for a sprint, then turn around accept money from others, making a profit, from the side bets.27 Then came the organized crime leaders controlling and using the race for a gambling racket.28 At first, a leader such as Al Capone, would give a nod for sprints with two hundred dollars on the line, his men collecting side bets, like other spectators did.29 Then in 1935, "Scarface" Al Capone restricted Peden from competing for one year.30 This explains that Peden refused to follow Capone's "fixing tactics" but it also shows that other riders could be "bought" to follow Capone's orders. Capone's men then started to hold up box office, or create second six-day circuits to rival against those legitimate races.31 This was followed by a group of gangsters who pursued and "persuaded" riders to change their race schedules to the new circuit.32 The fixed race was a money-making business, controlled by criminals who had the power of refusing athletes participation. But did the spectators really come to see who would win a race, or did they come for the show?

The Show Atmosphere

In the 1930's, people looked for more than a race. Their demand shifted the race towards showmanship, leading to the creation of the six-day circus. A quote from a sportswriter, "In fact the things that make a circus great are the features that tend to create a demand for this unique sport".33 The people wanted national fervor, the element of danger, the extravagant publicity.34 One could see the spectators' demands being met by walking into the bike arena. The stage was set with a huge pine track sloping 60o at the ends; in the middle were the bunk beds, the make-shift kitchens and the living space.35 This was the six-day house for the riders. A sportswriter describes the mood, "The smokey heat of the arena, the figurations of untidy hotdog stands decked with flags, the white-coated larkers, the throbbing beat of jazz bands--this is the six-day circus".36 These jazz bands came from nightclubs or cabarets, and would entertain the spectators from the midfield. Some other entertainment included Fifi the Clown, sometimes the highlight of the evening, and nightly wrestling matches with Charlie Winter.37 Singing of Treasure Island accompanied by Ted Emery and his orchestra, always well done, provided plenty of laughs from the midfield.38 Ballads and barnyard or mechanical imitations rounded out the evening's entertainment.39 Another entertaining morning feature was the calling of ambitious amateurs to start the shows' festivities.40 Similar entertainment was wrestling matches on the infield. One popular match was 1932, the "Big Train" Lionel Conacher fought lan McKailoff.41 Torchy stated, "All the picks of the game were brought forth in an effort to impress the customers".42 Even the spectators were famous, increasing the spectacle. Spectators came to see other famous stars of stage and screen. These people came to watch the race, desiring increased publicity. High society leaders also made up the spectators, dressed in their best. The public loved the show.

Any aspect of the racer's life, which deviated from the norm, created vast amounts of publicity. This was done both in part by exaggerating competitors and the media. Eating was a big part and was often publicized. Peden, being the big star, seemed to eat the most. He had for breakfast, it was written: five pounds of meat, twelve eggs, cereal, half a gallon of juice, a loaf of bread, twelve lamb chops, apple pie and ice-cream.43 This was eaten in a morning of racing but was exaggerated as Peden said it was "more promotional gimmickry".44 Another favorite snack eaten while on the rack was ground-up steak with a dozen egg yolks salted on a slice of whole-wheat bread.45 Instead of "heavy water", they drank gallons of unpasteurized milk and ginger ale.46 The entire food consumption or "menu" of a race was often publicized. Some highlights were 400 steaks, four barrels of spinach, 700 quarts of milk, and 1,000 oranges.47 The average racer consumed four times the amount of an office worker and the estimated food bill for him was around $100 (a large amount at that time).48 The riders were similar to animals in a circus, their diets examined with awe.

Finally, another popular "circus" attraction was motor pacing. This entailed motorcycles creating drafts in front of cyclists, allowing for great speeds. This aspect had nothing to do with the actual six-day race, so why did they do it? It was thrilling and it was part of the whole show. The fans enjoyed the circus atmosphere, but one of the major reasons for the popularity stemmed from reoccurring spills and crashes.

Spills and Injuries

In juries became the norm with the six-day race, transformed into a survival test. If this was a legitimate race, rules, regulations and better track barrier design would have evolved. Torchy Peden's injuries included a six-time smashed collarbone, gnarled fingers, and most teeth lost.49 Other lists of injuries from varied competitors: fractured ribs, broken shoulders, severe concussions, large lacerations, bruises, dislocated collarbone, cracked vertebrae.50 There was usually one serious accident per race. If injuries weren't bad enough, the racer's "never say die" attitude was. After a four-bicycle pile-up, a rider's nose broke, but he was back on the track, his nose bound in adhesive tape.51 The same rider then got entangled in another crash, this time resulting in a damaged skull.52 He then continued the race wearing a football helmet on his injured head.53 Many riders, especially if not injured, would just fall over in a faint, but might also return back on the track, like McNamara did after just two minutes.54 This famous Australian rider, Reggie McNamara, once misjudged a curve, went over the rail and crashed into a box.55 His injuries were a broken nose, a fractured skull, and a jaw cracked in three places.56 Reggie was back racing after six weeks.57 Accidents and penalties would often decrease the field to half its original size. The sport was much like "show" wrestling, with gashes, lacerated mouths, torn nostrils and riders "crashing to the mat".58 To tend with injuries promoters brought medical supplies in quantity that could stock a drugstore. The time when most crashes and serious accidents occurred was the last hour of the marathon. Struggling riders, at this time, would often be drugged with amphetamines, caffeine, strychnine or ether, to make a bid at the leaders.60 The riders would descend down from the corners, and cut through narrow openings.61 These techniques all increased the danger. Many riders had fist fights to even the odds.62 The injuries could have been controlled, but to the promoter who controlled everything except this, injuries only increased attendance.


Promotion of the six-day race, was the deciding factor in its popularity. Promoters referred to the sport as the racing racket, as if it was a gambling business. In this racket, it was the promoters who controlled the riders' activities, what they wore, what they did, and how they lived. Torchy Peden was one of those marketable controlled riders. A bike company C.C.M. gave Torchy an eight hundred dollar gold plated bike for his exhibitions.63 Peden's jersey was designed by promoters to increase the ' show appeal' .64 It was specially made with a black background, white stripes, and a white maple leaf to stand out prominently in photographs.65 Usually jerseys were worn bearing national colours, like Torchy's maple leaf, elevating nationalism.66 This pitted countries against each other, in an effort to increase rivalries of riders, some of whom had no connection with the colours on their back.67 All of this promotional activity increased attendance but very little was done to improve the quality of the actual race. Another reason for Peden's popularity came from his showman stature. He was larger than his competitors at six foot three inches, weighing 220 pounds.68 This led to premature wear of his tires and increased stresses placed on his frame; a statement repeatedly published.69 This exposure increased the show attention of many riders. The promotion went so far as cyclists began pulling wild stunts. One was Peden's record in 1931; riding furiously behind a car, equipped to drafting screens, Torchy traveled to eighty one miles per hour.70 He stated after, "I did it to build some interest in a race that was coming up in Minneapolis."71 Peden didn't do the world record for its own sake. This demonstrates that promotion controlled most of his career. Promotion also publicized an engagement of Torchy Peden with Countess Fern Andra.72 The countess had a great deal of controversy attached with her as she finally married the brother of the Red Baron and was said to have spied for the British.73 Torchy expressed that this was just another promotional stunt.74 The Brother act of the Pedens accentuated Torchy's show appeal'. They were the first brother team to win a six day race; a reporter wrote on their win, "Surcharged with the sheer satisfaction of riding, colourful and entertaining."75 This statement illustrates that the brothers were good entertainers but says nothing about their performance. Promotion is important, but in the 1930's its power had increased.

Promoters could and did fix the outcome of races, by their choice of teams.76 This often caused a great deal of dispute. The teams were often made up of two riders who had never before ridden together. This does not land itself to true competition; it's as if teams were thrown together just for show. Some teams were paired not so much for riding ability (weak riders were supposed to ride with strong riders - if this was true why did Torchy win so often) as for promotional appeal.77 One such team of Cesare Moretti and Jubes Audy, the German team, was set up for elevated rivalry and entertainment. They competed close to World War II, causing severe arguments, harsh riding tactics and spills.78 The unbeatable pair of Gustav Killian and Heinze Vopel caused a publicized challenge, but were finally beaten by the Peden brothers.

Promoters controlled riders race schedule, salaries, their actions, and their speeds; whatever wasn't controlled the riders used the race for their advantage. This continually drained the legitimacy of the race. Promoters could stop certain riders from riding.78 During the Spencer Chapman feud (two promoters) this happened.79 It caused Spencer riders to become restricted from the big Madison Square Gardens races.80 Promoters also had the control of salaries. They paid not on ability but the riders' marketability; "It was up to each man to get as much as he could (money) and it was based on each man's ability to draw people into the building."81 Peden's quote explains why he was paid so well. The speed of the rider was determined by the promoter.82 They forced riders to push hard only during the peak hours at night when the paying crowds were watching.83 Laxity of the promoters however permitted riders to take over, to form combines, and also to fight over partners.84 Another inconsistent promoter's decision happened when a big spill, with riders getting seriously injured, occurred. The promoter had the power to combine existing riders to form a new team.85 This isn't competition it's a game, a show that must go on. The promoter had a lot of pressure to do these things since 125,000 dollars could be made in one race.85 The race snowballed into increasing promotion, and away from legitimacy: the promoters started it, the racers wanted it, the newspapers used it, and the people accepted it. Torchy Peden personified well the influence of promotion. "Promotion of six-day racing was almost as important as the track itself."87


People watched these races because it was entertaining. They came because professional six-day cycling was transformed in the 1930's from legitimate cycle competition, into circus-shows. The demand on the part of he paying fans had been fulfilled: an impressive crowd pleaser and 'circus leader' Torchy Peden, unclear rules and inconsistent officiating, cohesion of riders regulating the race, a fulfillment of demands which the Depression presented, frequent gambling activities, the show atmosphere and spectacle of a circus, numerous spills resulted in serious injuries, and a planned out show controlled by promoters to maximize the attraction. The 1930's brought Depression and despair. The riders needed to eat, the promoters risked their money, the fans wanted 'the greatest show on earth'. It was inevitable for the race to become a show. The Depression, which made the race so popular, had now ended. By 1950 the long grind of six-day racing was finished. But its appropriate that a revival in Canada of endurance sports, including cycling, is occurring. Now, instead fans watching the showman, they have themselves become the showman. The endurance boom of today is one with the emphasis on participation.


1 Tom Peacock, "The Man Who Rode Circles Around the World", Canadian, October 1975, p. 19.
2 Ibid., p. 21.
3 "Peden Again Shines in Drove Thrillers", Toronto Star, 19 June 1929, p. 510.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Tom West, "Looking Back to the 1920's", Sports Canada, October 1983, p. 41.
7 Ibid.
8 "Montreal Forum Race Program", Peden Scrapbooks Sports Hall of, October 1933, p. 5.
9 Ibid., p. 7.
10 Ibid., p. 6.
11 Ibid., p. 20.
12 William Pedens, Letter to Tom West, "Peden Scrapbooks Sports Hall of Fame, April 29.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid
15 Andy O'Brien, "The Cleaning Women Saw the Greatest Race", Weekend, April 1967, p. 14.
16 Pedens, "Letter to Tom West".
17 "Six Day Bike Races Return", Daily Sentinel Review, 4 July 1978, p. SS.
18 William McNeil, "Champion Cyclist Torchy Peden", Early Canadian life July 1980, p. 45.
19 0'Brien, "Cleaning women Saw the Race".
20 McNeil, "Champion, Peden".
21 "Peden Again Stars at the Cycledrome, "Toronto Star" 26 June 1929, p. S9.
22 "Peddling 6 Day Bicycle Races", Globe and Mail, 27 May 1982, p. 53,
23 Peacock, "Circles Around World", p. 19.
24 McNeil, "Champion Peden", D. 45.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Henry Roxborough, Great Days in Canadian Sport , (Toronto:Ryerson Press, 1957), p. 157.
28 "Peddling 6 Day Bicycle Races".
29 Peacock, "Circles Around World", p. 19.
30 McNeil, "Champion Peden".
31 Peacock, "Circles Around World", p. 21.
32 McNeil, "Champion Peden".
33 H, H. Roxborough, "6-Cay Champ", MacLean, June 1932, p. 11.
34 Ibid
35 Ibid., p. 64.
36 "Montreal Race Program", p. 23.
37 "Six Day Grinders Ready for Home Stretch Battle", Toronto Star, May 1936, p. 512.
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid
40 Ibid.
41 "Peden-Lepage Pulls Ahead", Toronto Star, 4 May 1932, p. S11.
42 Ibid.
43 "Torchy Pedens Again Brings Home Bacon", Toronto Star, 22 June 1929, p. 510.
44 Roxborough, "6-Day Champ", p. 64.
45 Trent, "King Marathons", p. 40.
46 "Bike Fans go Wild When Peden Triumphs", Toronto Star, 16 June 1929, p. 510.
48 Ibid.
49 Ibid.
50 Roxborough, "6-Day Champ", p. 11.
51 "Torchy Peden Wins Cycling Crown as Forum Meet Ends", Montreal Gazette, 10 June 1929, p. 138.
52 Ibid
53 Ibid.
54 "McNamara's Team Wins Six-Day Race", New York Times, 6 March 1932, p. 53.
55 Roxborough, Great Sport, p. 149.
56 Ibid., p. 150.
57 Ibid.
58 "McNamara Wins Race".
59 Ibid.
60 Doug Fisher, and Wise, Sydney, Canada's Sporting Heroes(Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1974), 171.
61 Ibid.
62 Roxborough, "6-Day Champ", p. 11.
63 Trent, "King of Marathons", p. 16.
64 Ibid.
65 Ibid., p. 40.
66 "Torchy Wins Crown".
67 Peacock, "Circles Around World", D. 19.
68 "Boogmans is Hero of One Hour Team Contest at Forum", Montreal Gazette, 8 June 1929, p. 136.
69 "Lepage-Peden Hold Bike Race Lead By Virtue of Points", Montreal Gazette, 23 April 1931, p. 97.
70 "Peden, McNamara Win Bicycle Grind", Toronto Star, 7 March 1932 p. 510.
71 "Four Teams Share Lead on Distance In Six-Day Grind", Montreal Gazette, 25 April 1932, p. 99.
72 Peacock, "Circles Around World", D. 21.
73 Ibid
74 Ibid., p. 18.
75 "The Babe Ruth of Bicycle Racing Sees Return of Six Day Events" Toronto Sun, 26 August 1961, p. 55.
76 "Torchy Peden in Hospital", Toronto Sun, 24 January 1980, p. $2.
77 Peacock, "Circles Around World", p. 19.
78 O'Brien, "Cleaning Women saw Race".
79 Ibid.
80 Trent, "King of Marathons", p. 16.
81 Ibid , p. 40.
82 Ibid.
83 Ibid., p. 16.
84 Ibid.
85 "Peden-Lepage Pulls Ahead".
86 "Peden in Hospital".
87 Peacock, "Circles Around World", p. 21.