“They’re off!” shouted fifteen thousand cycle-mad New Yorkers in unison at seven minutes past midnight on Monday morning. This marked the very moment that Congressman Timothy Daniel Sullivan (“Big Tim”) fired the shot that sent off eighteen colorfully clad two-man teams to circle the yellow pine saucer for six straight days. Amid the mass of sounds, a great ball of blue tobacco smoke and the smell of hot dogs, the walls of Madison Square Garden shook as the great international six-day race got underway on December 5th. Those who had not been to a Garden six-day, including some of the riders, were afraid the roof might cave in. The initiated simply smiled. Enthusiastic youths in the upper gallery with tin horns and grinding rattles attempted to drown out the band performing ragtime tunes. The World reported: “Every seat was taken and the center of the track was almost impassable until it looked as though not another fan could squeeze into the enclosure. But still they continued to arrive and got in somehow to add a little more noise to the turmoil that reigned.”

Words: Andrew Homan
Image: Yuzuru Sunada

That was 1904 and Bobby Walthour Sr. was trying for his third victory in four years. Decades later, Walthour’s son, Bobby Jr., won in front of larger and noisier crowds at the “new” Garden which held more than twenty-thousand spectators.

The first-ever six-day was raced in Birmingham, England in 1889. Two years later the event stormed into America and “Plugger” Bill Martin covered more than 1,400 miles on a high-wheel, winning $2,000, and beating out twenty-six competitors inside Madison Square Garden. In the 1893 six-day Albert Schock demonstrated the superiority of the diamond-framed “safety” bicycle, crushing his high-wheel competitors.

Six-day races began as individual events. Charles Miller, a tireless racer from Chicago, won the Garden six-day in 1897 and 1898, riding more than 330 miles a day. Men hallucinated and became delusional trying to keep up with Miller. Some fell asleep at the wheel and went crashing to the boards. Miller ran his competitors into such a state of exhaustion that the New York Legislature outlawed individual riders from competing more than twelve hours in a day. But to circumvent the new law, the managers of the race, Patrick Powers and James Kennedy, quickly conceived a brilliant idea—they devised two-man teams.

The first two-man team event was held in 1899, and Miller won a third year in a row with his partner, Frank “Dutch” Waller. They covered 2,733 miles, which stood as a record until 1908. Considering the lack of today’s modern training methods, nutrition and technology, the distances covered more than 110 years ago—especially Miller—were astonishing.

Two-man teams changed the race to a more exciting and up-tempo game where gaining just one lap was crucial. During a lull in speed, fans sensed that a “jam” would start any second. A jam was the pack’s chase after a team that was attempting to put a lap on the field. Six-day racer Alf Goullet said of a jam that “you could no more prevent one from happening than you could keep rain from falling. I knew that if I were riding in that race I would be sneaking up toward the head of the line, and when I got ready I’d shoot out on a sprint in the hope that my jump would take me half way around the track before the others woke up.”

Sammy Gasman, who rode twenty-two six-day races in the 1920s, said in an interview that Alf Goullet was the “greatest rider to ever sit on a bicycle. He could sprint, and he could do the long ones. You can’t do both. But Goullet did. He was a hell of a bike rider.”

Goullet first arrived in the United States in 1910 as a nineteen-year-old professional. “Coming here from Australia to ride was like entering the big league from the bushes,” Goullet said. “The riders in America were smarter and the racing was faster and harder.” By the time of his retirement fifteen years later, he had raced in twenty-four “infernal grinds,” as he called them, and was victorious in twelve. He said the race “takes a toll of every muscle in the body, of the stomach, of the heart and, while it is being ridden, of the mind.” Goullet lived until 1995—missing his 104th birthday by one month.

Riders rode on bicycles built for sprinting: eighteen-pound fixed-gear rigs with steel frames, steel components, and lightweight wooden rims. The riders’ leather shoes were wedged into pedal straps. For every six-day race at the Garden dozens of workers constructed a new one-tenth mile track, highly banked with spruce uprights that supported a smooth pine riding surface.

In 1920, New York City expanded its annual six-day in Madison Square Garden to twice a year, adding a race in March to its traditional December calendar. By 1925, several cities in the United States hosted six-day races, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City.

Millionaire Harry Payne Whitney was considered to be the father of the “prime” because, in 1906, he introduced the practice of offering $300 prizes at the Garden six-day for any team gaining a lap. These prizes continued at subsequent six-day races. With an aggressive clang of the bell, and the announcer yelling at the top of his lungs, everyone knew something was up for grabs. Most were awarded for informal sprints and all were subject to management approval. In the early 1930s, Bobby Walthour Jr. won a brand-new $5,000 (more than $100,000 today) Pierce Arrow luxury car in a prime. As a child, Bob Walthour, III remembered riding from city to city doing schoolwork in the huge automobile—and it was the car he first learned to drive.

Six-day races had great cross sections of fans, from unwashed and unsupervised youths in golf caps and turtleneck sweaters all the way down to the trackside box seats with distinguished men in white shirts and ties. Politicians, movies stars and famous professional athletes attended six-day races, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Bing Crosby, the Marx Brothers, and heavyweight boxing champions James J. Corbett, Jack Johnson, John L. Sullivan, and Jack Dempsey.

The color of one’s skin at the Garden didn’t matter either—only that the riders were the best professional cyclists in the world. More than fifty years before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line, Major Taylor, the first African-American cycling world champion, made his professional debut at the Madison Square Garden six-day race in 1896 at the tender age of eighteen. In 1903, a team of African-American riders, Woodie Hedspeth and Melvin Dove, raced against seventeen teams, including the southern “Dixie Flyer” team of Walthour and Munroe.

There were Frenchmen, Belgians, Italians, Canadians, Australians, Swiss, Germans, Englishmen, and, of course, Americans. Although none did particularly well, every winner from the Tour de France between 1905 and 1910 raced at the Garden six-day. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, hundreds of cycling professionals rode the six-day circuit all over the United States and were making fabulous money.

Although the New York fans were generally good-natured, occasional fights broke out and police struggled to control the arena. In 1903, much to the amusement of the surrounding fans, two women got into an altercation; one had a large chunk of brown hair torn from her head, and the other women suffered from a deep cut on her lip from flying debris being thrown at them. Police separated the women but then were forced to run upstairs to break up another fight between two men on the second balcony. One officer was taken to the hospital after having been bitten on the thumb.

A favorite pastime of thieves was to steal overcoats. A fan, excited by a jam, would stand up to cheer and sit back down to find his overcoat had disappeared. According to a 1926 article in The Saturday Evening Post, self-appointed announcers would rise to give overcoat scores for the night: “Ladies and gents”—out of the corner of a hard mouth—“it gives me great pleasure to announce dat sixteen bennies was copped dis evenin’, breakin’ de record made last year for de thoid day by two bennies.”

When jams were not on, riders on each two-man team traded places every two hours or so. The rider not on the track would go to his tent-like shelter to eat, to towel off, get a rubdown and try for some shut-eye. If a jam started during a catnap, the rider’s trainer shook him awake and readied him to get to the track and on his bike as quickly as possible. Riders slept in fresh uniforms and with their racing shoes on.

The tiny yellow track was circled day and night, in a long, unbroken line, with legs pumping in an unceasing rhythm. The low whirring sound of the tires produced a hypnotic effect. Sleepy riders got a little punchy. Some rode with women’s wigs and giant hats. For more laughs they threw wet sponges at each other and at the fans. Bennie Munroe, Bobby Walthour’s partner in 1903 and 1904, attached an automobile horn to his handlebars and honked it continuously, yelling for riders to “clear the way.” Within the track enclosure trainers argued, and sometimes fought over, the simplest things—like water bottles.

The riders were tough and rode after horrific crashes, enduring unimaginable pain. None was tougher though, and more durable, than the “Ironman,” Reggie McNamara. Like Goullet, McNamara was a transplanted Australian and he raced competitively nearly into his 50s. In the film The Six-Day Bicycle Races: America’s Jazz-Age Sport, Bob Walthour III remembered seeing McNamara after a crash that resulted in a track splinter going right into his stomach and out the other side. “They had to slide it out of him,” recalled Walthour, “I was right there as a little kid, with the crowd around him, and he says, ‘Take it easy! Me guts are hangin’ out.’” McNamara went on to race the next six-day.

Jimmy Walthour Jr., the third member of the greatest American cycling dynasty (the nephew of Bobby Walthour Sr. and cousin of Bobby Jr.), points out that, “Six-day races began to fade in 1938. It was about the time when the skater Sonja Henie was given preference to appearance dates in Madison Square Garden.” Then World War II started and six-day racing became even less important. By the late 1940s virtually all cities in the United States gave up on six-day racing. In New York City, several revival attempts were made in the 1950s and 1960s but none were commercially successful. The end of a great sporting era was complete.

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Six-Day Racing Today

Today, the six-day tradition continues—but only in Europe. Ghent, Berlin, Copenhagen, Zurich, and Rotterdam have annual six-day races, and there is a great history behind them. The first six-day in Berlin was held in March 1909 in the presence of Germany’s crown prince and an immense throng of spectators. The American team of Floyd MacFarland and James Moran took first place and received a tremendous ovation along with the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Only in the last ten years have Americans raced on the six-day circuit, beginning with Marty Nothstein and James Carney who raced as teammates for a full season of sixes in 2002. Up until then, Nothstein and Carney had been fierce competitors on the track. Since they got along well as six-day partners, they looked like a fabulous team for the rigors of six-day racing. However, Carney got very sick and the team fizzled out. In subsequent years, Nothstein took on different partners.

Today’s races are not contests to ride the farthest twenty-four hours a day for six straight days. Rather, a typical program “day” starts at 7:00 p.m. and ends the next morning at 2:00 a.m. The same program is then repeated on five more consecutive nights. The race is won by the team going the farthest distance overall for the combined six days.

There are the races within the race: awards, money, and even points toward overall time are won. Each night is typically built around two big chases—a long one and a short one. The bell will ring and if the lap counter is displayed brightly with “300” in red numbers, they’re in for a long one.

This year, Americans Daniel Holloway (below left) and Colby Pearce (below right) will combine as a six-day team on the European circuit as they have for the last few years. Fans in the U.S. may be aware that Holloway, riding for Bissell last year, was the first American to cross the line in the U.S. Professional Criterium Championships. This year he rides for Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth. In March he crashed in Malaysia, fracturing three ribs and receiving a contusion on his lung. Pearce is a multiple national champion in Team Pursuit and Madison, and also competed in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Pearce has raced in virtually every cycling discipline, including road, mountain bike, and cyclocross. But his heart is with the track.

Two other riders, Guy East and Austin Carroll, began racing in the amateur six-day circuit and in 2009 they became the first American team to win the International UIV Cup Championship. Immediately thereafter the two received their first professional contracts. East credits USA Cycling and Clay Worthington for their generous support, especially since the two didn’t start the 2008 circuit very well.

European crowds of more than 10,000 pay to watch great bicycle racing for hours on end. There is a festive and party-like atmosphere with beer and music—just as it was inside Madison Square Garden 100 years ago. Although today’s six-day races are shorter than decades past, they still demand great discipline and preparation. But the riders have fun, too. At Copenhagen, Holloway dressed in a chicken suit during Sunday afternoon, a time to give appreciation to the children in the stands. “I love the sixes,” says Holloway, “everything about them is awesome—from how old-school traditions are still alive, and how they incorporate the entertainment parts. Once you are in the six-day family, you’re in; it’s an atmosphere like nothing else I have been part of.”

East calls the sixes “a beautiful thing” and loves the camaraderie of the riders. “It helps to be a bit of a showman too,” he explains. “Holloway is great at it—and I’m not bad either.” Promoters are not just looking for results on the podium. They offer contracts to riders who can win and entertain.

Names like Bruno Risi (below left forefront), Franco Marvulli, Rolf Aldag and Robert Bartko have been big favorites on the European six-day circuit. According to cycling historian and six-day fan, Renate Franz, many hoped that after his road days were over, Jan Ullrich would race the sixes. But instead he is “persona non grata” and not riding anymore.

In 2009, Erik Zabel, who had a stellar career both on the road and on the six-day circuit, made his farewell six-day tour to adoring fans inside European velodromes. A sofa was carried out to the infield, where Zabel and his wife sat while a video highlighting his career went up on the big screen. Afterwards, he gave an interview, and according to Colby Pearce, many people cried when Zabel said his last goodbye.

The Americans are very enthusiastic about the prospect of six-day racing being revived here in the United States. “I definitely think that six-days can come back in the United States,” said Holloway, “We have the fan base; we have some good young talent; and from what I’ve heard, the Euro guys would love to come over and do them. All we need is a good promoter and a solid sponsor.” Pearce pointed out that if you’re a track rider riding a non-Olympic discipline, financial support is difficult. “But if we had a big six-day program going,” he said, “and you do sub-events that cater to sprinters—it would keep people happy and put money in everyone’s pockets.”

The financial strain of road races here in the states is plain enough, with the Tour de Georgia and the Tour of Missouri now gone. Cities sponsoring the Amgen Tour of California struggle with expenses that outweigh revenues.

One big problem here in the United States, however, is that only two indoor velodromes exist with a seating capacity of more than 2,500—Los Angeles and Indianapolis. These venues would not do, because a proper six-day race requires seating for at least 10,000 fans. Portable tracks can be put up inside basketball and hockey arenas and, though less desirable to ride on than permanent velodromes, most six-day races in Europe use these tracks.

Back in 2008, there was speculation that a six-day race in Las Vegas would coincide with the Interbike tradeshow in September. A risky adventure it would have been. But a big profit potential existed with willing bike geeks from around the United States—already there at the tradeshow—who would have paid good money to see great cycling action and entertainment in one spot. I know I would have been there!