Whirl to Nowhere

Time.com - February 04, 1957

Riding high on a banked turn of the bike track that circled Cleveland's Arena, Australian Alfred Strom bent low over his handlebars, cut loose with a nerve-jangling yowl and pedaled furiously to the front of the pack. The first "jam" of the first six-day bicycle race in six years was under way. The crowd came alive as relief riders piled onto the track to take over from tiring teammates. The race itself became a wheeled madhouse as the hard-pumping Aussies tried to steal a lap on two-man teams representing the U.S. and eight other countries.

The trouble was, cycling fans who turned up in Cleveland last week were so untutored in the tactics of six-day racing that they could not tell the leaders from the losers. The best they could do as they tried to untangle the action was wait for the tangible excitement of big spills - and there were plenty. At week's end seven teams were within a lap of the lead, but the fans seemed to care more for spectacle than speed.

From the turn of the century until World War II cut off the supply of foreign riders, six-day grinds were a big-time sport with big-town sports. The races used to pack such vast arenas as Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, and the smoke-heavy air vibrated with cheers for Italy's Maurice Brocco, Belgium's Gerard Debaets or Australia's iron man, Reggie McNamara. Song pluggers used the occasions to intone their wares. Pickpockets, purse snatchers, coat grabbers and assorted Broadway hoodlums worked overtime all week. Such flashy spenders as Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Movie Magnate William Fox dropped in to offer "premes" (premiums) that ran as high as $1,000 for winners of impromptu sprints. Al Capone was a regular (but his highest preme was only a $10 bill).

The promoter of last week's Cleveland venture, George Harvey, an ex-racer, was hoping to rekindle some of the excitement of those gone days. But as he looked at the puzzled faces in the small nightly crowds, he shook his head doubtfully and saw little hope that his patrons would pick up some of the germs that had infected him long ago. For bike racing, he says, "is a disease. Once it's got you, nothing stops you." He has grand plans for future races in Chicago, St. Louis and New York, but there is a lot of pedaling ahead before the six-day whirl to nowhere comes back from the limbo that has swallowed marathon dances, flagpole sitting, bunion derbies and other rowdy remnants of sport's daffier days.