"The Dizzy Whirl To Nowhere"
Born on March 15, 1915 in Toronto, Albert Heaton is an 89 year old former 6-day bicycle racer living with his wife Lucie, son Paul and grandson in Alton, Ontario. Al Heaton was an all around athlete and sportsman. He started his athletic career as a speed skater, then road cyclist and also taught horseback riding. When the opportunity arose to ride in an amateur 6-day race Albert took the chance and was found to have both the speed and endurance necessary to be a winner. Eclectic in his sports interests Albert was also involved in auto racing and boxing.
Albert’s athletic skill, sharp wit and racing insight were best put to use participating in 6-day races. Albert raced in 6-day events as both an amateur and professional between 1936 and 1938. He participated in 14 events in both the USA and Canada and won a 6-day event in Ottawa as a member of a trio team with Bobby Walthour Jr. and Roy MacDonald. Albert was still riding his bike until his 87th birthday.
The tracks were constructed for both speed and safety but spills were still part of the race. Albert spoke of how the pine wooden track would become almost polished after several days of racing. The track maintenance officials would have to take a sander to the track to roughen up the surface and make it less slippery. In this race, Albert crashed going around the corner and sliding sideways down the track. Some of the crashes were very serious where a rider would collide with other riders or in some cases literally go flying over the top, on the corners of the track. When Albert won the Ottawa 6-day race in 1936 he stated that he fell several times skinning his knees on the wooded track. In the October 1937 6-day race at the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto, Albert Heaton was paired with Freddie Zach as the Canadian-Swiss team. There were many spills and crashes from the start of this event. Within the first hour of competition Lew Elder and his partner, Ted Harper crashed on the steep bank of the track that was called ‘suicide bluffs’ and suffered track burns. On Monday night during an all out jam Elder crashed into the right straightway and went tumbling down with his bicycle to the bottom of the track. Elder had a deep gash on his leg and was forced to retire from the competition.
Of the thirteen two man teams there were always 5 or 6 teams that were "in the Race" and the other teams in most cases were "at the race". 6-day bike racing was a business, professionals doing their job. The working agreements and money allotments were different for each rider and was something that the riders worked out with the promoter. In the three years that Albert raced the 6-day circuit he worked out several contracts with the promoters. Albert mentioned that money was not something that was talked openly as the riders were happy to ride for their paychecks. The 6-day racers would move by truck and car from city to city and had to work hard assisting to move equipment and set up the track.
Heaton described how important it was to be fit in order to be competitive. He spoke of the jams, which were events that would go on for 45 minutes to an hour or more at an intensive pace, as the riders would sprint for "primes". Premiums could be money or merchandise such as a refrigerator. The racers would discuss amongst themselves who would be competing for the "primes".
The stress of such a high level competition that a 6-day race demanded, the riders needed to have both power and speed for the sprints as well as endurance for the constant riding of the multi-lap events. In some instances just like today the racers would use performance enhancing drugs to cope with the stress. Heaton described one famous racer as being "goofy and crazy" at times, "three planks short of a load". Some racers had "tool kits" that includes special medicines like essence of peppermint to assist them at competitions.
In 1937, Heaton and Zach stormed the first hour of the International Toronto 6-Day Bike Race in front of close to 5,000 fans at the Mutual Street Arena. At the end of Day 2 Heaton and Zach were in third place 2 laps behind Torchy and Doug Peden, who were in second and Jimmy Walthour and Laurent Gadou in first place.
Hal Walker, a sports reporter with the Toronto Globe and Mail described Albert’s effort at the 1937 Toronto 6-day in the following manner. The headline read "Walthour-Gadou Retain Lead, Only Sprint Points Separate Peden from First Place... Heaton’s Aggressiveness a Feature. " One lap behind the leaders is the Swiss-Canadian combination of Al Heaton of Toronto and Freddie Zach. They have 133 points, more than any other team in the race. Heaton’s spectacular work has been one of the main reasons this duo is so close on the leaders.
At the half way mark of the Toronto 6-day event, Heaton and Zach were now tied for second place with Peden brothers and the team of Russ Fielding and Al Crossley. All three teams had completed 1,232 miles and 5 laps and were one lap behind Laurent Gadou and Jimmy Walthour. Heaton and Zach led the points category with 204 points.
Day four of the Toronto 6-day event saw Heaton and Zach in the lead and setting the pace winning sprints and taking an eight point virtual lead over the Peden brothers 283 points to 275 points. Gadou/Walthour and Fielding/Crossley were in third and fourth place, respectively. All four teams were tied in the miles completed with 1,702 miles.
The last two days of the Toronto 6-day bike event saw the Peden Brothers of Torchy and Doug crush the other riders in the points division... 1443 points to the nearest rivals, Gadou and Walthour, at 620 points. The Pedens’ completed the race with 2,437 miles and 6 laps tied with Gadou and Walthour and thus winning on points. Tied for second were Fielding and Crossley with Heaton and Zach only one lap behind the winners.
While Albert and his teammate did not win this Toronto 6-day event they did show that they had the skill, ability and tough attitude to power those straight-aways, maneuver though tight corners and stay in competition for the win.
Albert Heaton was interviewed for this article in the fall of 2004. He still is very interested in sports and bicycle racing. He had excellent observations on Canada’s performance on the track at the Athens Olympics. When he was going through his address book looking for a contact, he mentioned they might have more information on the 1930's 6-day racing.
He showed me the address and telephone number of a friend who was an up and coming boxer in the late 1960's. His name was Cassius Clay.
Albert Heaton is still a 6-day racer at heart, speaking of the energy, excitement and thrills. He hopes that one day the spectacle
of 6-day racing will return to Canadian tracks. We hope so too!