It is hard to imagine, but professional cycling was once one of America’s most popular spectator sports. As I sift through various histories of cycling’s Golden Age, I am struck by just how big cycling was in the 1920s. The only sport that was arguably more popular was boxing. That’s it.
Here are some facts which some of you may actually find of slight interest:
– In the 1920s, National Football League franchises could be purchased for about $100. The entire league was worth about $1,100. That is what a good cyclist could earn in a single night. Cyclists were the best paid athletes in the world.
– By WWII, there were over 100 velodromes in the United States. The main circuit consisted of Philadelphia, Newark, NYC, and Boston. Other cities like Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake City had thriving operations as well. A group of 50-60 riders would travel between Boston and Philadelphia, racing every day for seven months a year. This was the racing capital of the world. Few Americans raced overseas because the money was so much better in the U.S. The best Europeans and Australians traveled to the U.S. to race for big prizes of thousands of dollars.
– Many people are not aware that the current Madison Square Garden is the fourth incarnation of that edifice. The first two were purpose-built as velodromes. The modern track cycling discipline of “Madison” takes its name from The Garden, which hosted an annual six-day race that was about as popular as the Super Bowl is today. 16,000 people would continuously cram into MSG for the event and fire marshals were required to cordon off the building to prevent too many people from entering.
– Babe Ruth was invited to fire the starter’s pistol in the 1922 six-day race. That year, he earned and $22,000 to play baseball for the Yankees. Alf Goullet, a champion six-day racer, earned approximately $100,000 that year.
Six-Day Races. The nightly races tended to focus on sprints and relatively short lengths of a mile or two. However once or twice a year, the larger venues would host epic six-day races, which pitted up to 16 two-man teams in a non-stop endurance event that strains credulity. Each team was required to have a man on the track at all times. At most times, both were on the track as drafting helped the cyclists go faster. During peak hours of fan attendance (usually the evenings), sprints would be arranged for extra cash prizes. The 1914 race was won by Australian Alf Goullet and Tasmanian Alfred Grenda, who covered a distance of 2,759.2 miles, a record which still stands. By way of comparison, the 2011 Tour de France will 2,156.8 miles and the riders will have 22 days to complete the Tour. Goullet and Grenda rode 600 miles further in 16 fewer days.
Speaking of Goullet, the man was a beast. In that 1914 Six-Day Race, he finished the last hour by himself because his partner had an attack of appendicitis. In addition to winning the event, he won the race’s final sprint. Alone. By 1925, he had won over 400 races, including The Garden’s Six-Day Race eight times. He was paid $50,000 alone for winning the 1924 race. To induce him to participate in the 1925 race, the organizers gave him a whopping $10,000 as an appearance fee.
In addition to his feats at the Garden, Goullet won six-day races in Melbourne, Sydney, the inaugural Paris six-day (where he beat two prominent Tour de France winners), Boston, Newark, and Chicago. He was the US sprint champion twice. He set world records at the 1912 Olympics in Salt Lake City for 2/3 of a mile, 3/4 of a mile and the mile. He set a speed record for 50 miles of 1 hour and 49 minutes (try it sometime!) that lasted for 50 years.
In short, Alf Goullet was one of the greatest, most famous, and richest athletes in the world for about 15 years. It’s a pity that most people today have never heard of him.
The Great Depression and World War II effectively ended the mass appeal of velodrome cycling in America. Recreational cycling had already suffered sharp declines in popularity and bicycles were viewed as children’s toys. It would be forty years before the sport enjoyed a resurgence in America. By then, the stars of yesteryear were largely forgotten. That’s a shame, as there were some truly amazing events and cyclists in this era.