US Cycling - A Slanted View

I'm not sure where this article came from. If anyone knows, please contact me so I may add the name as the reference.

US bicycle racing started out the same as European cycling except that professional sports promoters quickly gained control and took it in a different direction. The promoters realized the income potentials of bike racing in relation to gambling as was common with horse racing in the US. They quickly began to make large sums of money from a form of track racing called Six Day Racing with the fans placing bets on the riders.

Six Day Racing started out in the US during the mid to late 1800's as an individual super marathon event where a pack of riders would literally ride, non-stop for six days with seven jam sessions lasting from four to six hours. The races would start on Sunday night with the first jam session and finish with the seventh jam session on Saturday night so that the races were actually six days plus four to six hours long. During the six day races, the riders never stopped unless they were willing to lose laps. Sprints or primes for cash would be announced constantly during the jam sessions so that it was like four to six hours of interval training. The record for the most miles ridden on a bicycle without stopping still stands from the late 1800's at about 1,250 miles ridden during a six day race.

Each rider was completely on his own for the entire event and could stop any time they wanted but they quickly learned that the more determined riders wouldn't stop to rest. The events were so difficult that riders began taking drugs just to stay awake and would occasionally ride themselves to death. This resulted in changing the six day race into a two rider team sport where at least one rider had to be on the track all the time or the team would lose laps to the other teams. A key rule required that no rider could ride more than 18 hours in any 24 hour period of time so that each rider would race 18 hours per day and rest 6 hours with the two riders for each team taking turns resting. It quickly developed into an unwritten rule that no one could attack during this rest period of 12 hours. The riders on the track would just ride slowly in a pack while their team mates rested.

Other than that, the basic format didn't change with steady aerobic riding during the off time and four to six hour jam sessions. I learned from an old guy who attended college in the late 1930's something the history books don't tell you about six day racing. There was actually a second jam session each day called a matinee where, for 25 cents US, you could attend a noon time jam session of from one to two hours Monday through Saturday. This provided extra income for both the promoters and riders and meant the riders had to do sprints for another six to 12 hours per week. I dare you to name a sport as tough.

It is important to note that the six day promoters saw the success of European road racing and realized that road racing was a threat to six day racing. They also heard the constant complaining by citizens about reckless street racing in the big cities and used these complaints and their political influence to get laws passed to make road racing illegal in the eastern states. Many of these laws are still on the books today. This prevented the growth of road racing in the US and came back to haunt six day racing later.

If you watch US television, you are constantly bombarded by the idea that baseball was the nation's most popular sport prior to World War II. This is false. There were a number of sports which were more popular than baseball with six day racing being the most popular sport in the US.

Most people don't know that the existing Madison Square Garden is the third Garden to be built. The first two Gardens were built exclusively for bicycle six day racing. Prior to World War II, there were more than 100 velodromes scattered around the US hosting professional six day racing. Years before Babe Ruth became the highest paid professional baseball player in the US making an incredible $17,000 a year, a good, not great or the best, just a good six day racer could make up to $1,000 in just one jam session. The same rider could easily make from $5,000 to $7,000 for one six day race. If you consider that they could ride a six day race every other week and, if they only rode during the normal 40 weeks of today's road racing season, it should be obvious that a good six day rider could easily make up to $100,000 dollars a year or better than five times what Babe Ruth made. Remember that this was not a great six day racer or the best six day racer. This was at a time when the average American only made $15 per week or about $750 per year. In today's terms, a good pro six day rider was making the equivalent of millions of dollars per year. They were the best paid athletes in the world.

There was so much money in US six day racing that few American pro's traveled to Europe to do road races and quite a few Europeans came to the US for six day racing. The US was the financial cycling center of the world until World War II.

Even basketball players were making more than the baseball players prior to World War II. I knew a man we called pop who was ranked number one in the US in 1933 when he played for the Celtics. He was paid over $30,000 that year, almost twice what Babe Ruth made a few years later.

So how did baseball become the top sport in America following World War II? In the early 1900's, it became a rich man's fad for US Senators to purchase and own their own professional baseball teams. Baseball was competing with the other sports and six day racing for fans so the Senators abused their power and took advantage of World War II to force baseball into the lead. They declared that the US needed its athletes to fight for America, cancelled all professional sports in the US except for baseball, and drafted the other professional athletes into the military until the end of the war. Every one was forced to follow baseball for almost five years or do without professional sports. Of course, by the time the war ended, baseball was the nation's most popular professional sport or favorite past time.

After the war, all of the old six day racers had either been killed, wounded, or were so out of shape they couldn't ride a six day race and events like six day racing are heavily dependent on house hold names to promote the sport. With nothing but new names, the promoters couldn't get people to come out and watch the events. Most of the old six day racers like Andy Granitelly (I'm not sure about the spelling of his name) turned to car racing and the sport of bicycle racing died in the US.

This killed bicycle racing in the US until the late 1960's and early 1970's when there was an explosion in the popularity of bicycling. It is interesting that the sport is now naturally going in the direction of bicycle road racing just as it did in Europe.