Saturday, May 24, 2008

No Banana Seats And Handle-Bar Streamers Here

Long before Cleveland welcomed the modern day Gravity Games a different breed of athlete rolled into town for a week, got paid handsomely, then wheeled off to another big city just as fans were getting to know them. It was the 1920s and 30s. The period defined as the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this breed of athlete competed in what was known as the ultimate sport of the day: Six-Day Bicycle Racing - indoors!

The sport was in its heyday throughout major US cities during the 20s and 30s, but could trace its origins back to the 1880s. Outdoor bicycle races were already popular in Europe near the end of the 19th century but England adopted indoor racing as its venue because their roads were in fairly poor condition. Competing on wooden tracks called velodromes, dozens of bicyclists whipped around steep banked ovals in front of large crowds in the name of sport and notoriety.

A phenomenon this good had to cross the Atlantic eventually and so it did in 1891 at Madison Square Garden. The first seven years featured individual riders spinning like well-oiled hamster wheels night and day hoping to log the most miles and be crowned champion. Starting in 1898 the sport adopted 2-man relay teams. This enabled teammates to take turns racing while the other took naps, ate, or simply remained loose until it was his turn to take over.

Before long the Six-Day Bicycle Race spread to other major US cities like Cleveland. Sports-starved fans packed the seats of Public Hall, Grays Armory, and the Cleveland Arena in pursuit of some much needed action. Fans were hungry because the college football season at nearby John Carroll University was over and Cleveland Indian baseball at League Park was still a good six weeks away.

Unlike Madison Square Garden which was originally designed as an indoor bicycle arena, most US cities like Cleveland constructed their velodromes over the course of one night at a cost of about $2,500 and placed them in makeshift arenas like Public Hall. The track was laid out and the riders poured in as the last nail was driven in. As many as 2,500 miles later, while the victorious team polished its medals and pulled splinters out of their seats, the track was dismantled and sold as firewood. In some cases the track would remain in storage until next year's race.

Even though the face-painted, squid-tossing, shirtless fan had not come into existence yet, the Six-Day Bicycle Race drew a unique following of its own. Young women called Flappers cut their hair short, wore lots of makeup, and showed off their legs from the knees down. They traveled with their boyfriends, known back then as Sheiks. Even suspected gangsters took time away from stealing, loan-sharking, and climbing the godfather ladder to attend the Six-Days. Add the mix of local comedians, jugglers, and nightclub bands which entertained as the bicyclists whipped by and you had the making of six fun-filled days and nights without having to leave land.

The sport enjoyed popularity unmatched by any other during the 20s and 30s. The Depression pushed on, money was scarce, and people had a lot of time on their hands. Some fans watched the races for days, most popped in for the important parts like the highly anticipated start and the final stretches of the race. Even though the fans were hurting for money, the athletes were among the highest paid sports stars of their time. But this and the fact that race promoters spent lots of money on building these huge shows did not stop ordinary people from buying tickets. People needed comfort and assurance during these tough times. The races provided excitement and a chance for "everyday joes" to see famous athletes and mix with celebrities. It was not uncommon for local celebs to act as official starters of the races. Some years later a new generation of Six-Day enthusiasts would witness Indians pitching ace Bob Feller start the 1951 race at the Cleveland Arena.

The phenomenon of the Six-Day Bicycle Race in Cleveland was marked by the countless duos of physically fit athletes competing for six straight days and nights with little sleep and food. Fans witnessed 146 hours of non-stop action but on the track the riders endured fatigue and exhaustion. Crashes happened frequently and injured riders and their bent bikes had to be carefully plucked from the track. Hushed crowds stood by patiently waiting for word that their favorite rider would be okay. Just then another rider would "steal" a lap boldly tempting the rest of the field to pursue him and the chase was on! Catching every moment of these spectacles were reporters from the Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer. The sport was that big. Picture the Tour de France with more miles and less head wind. Not to mention the Flappers, gangsters, and Sheiks oh my!

The Six-Day Bicycle Races came and went every Cleveland winter even as World War II waged on. Sadly, the sport faded away during the 1950s not only in Cleveland but elsewhere. Race promoters could not keep people interested as more and more fans paid attention to football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. What was once revered as America's greatest indoor sport soon dwindled to a recreational activity. In recent years, however, the concept of bicycling indoors has resurfaced. There is talk of proposed arenas where riders of all skill levels can go during the winter months to ride and work out. Perhaps even one in downtown Cleveland? We can put it right next to the proposed medical mart. That ought to bring all of those Flappers out of hiding!

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