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Tracing the History of the Bicycle and Its Impact on Society (November 2016): Bicycle Racing

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Bicycle Racing

Given humans’ competitive nature, bicycle racing began with the earliest bicycles. While velocipedes and high wheel bicycles were predominantly the domain of athletic young men, some women did ride and race. In the 1890s, bicycle racing represented one of the most popular sports in the United States and Europe, drawing huge crowds. Races took place on the open road and on specially built wooden tracks or velodromes. From Charles M. Murphy, who in 1899 rode behind a modified railroad car to become the first person to cover one mile in under sixty seconds, to Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg, who took silver and gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in “the first ever women’s cycling event—a 49.9 mile road race,” Peter Nye’s Hearts of Lions: The History of American Bicycle Racing is an excellent overview.1

Nye also covers the grueling six-day races that began in London in 1878. New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosted America’s first six-day race in 1891. Popular through the 1930s with a brief revival in the 1950s and 1960s, they attracted tens of thousands of spectators as teams of cyclists leisurely circled the track between breakneck sprints.

Andrew M. Homan offers not only a biography in Iron Mac: The Legend of Roughhouse Cyclist Reggie McNamara, but also a very readable and exciting history of six-day racing. Over a thirty-year career, McNamara not only won seventeen six-day races along with innumerable others, he overcame alcohol addiction to become an early hero of Alcoholics Anonymous.

According to the League of American Bicyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen), African American bicyclists are one of the fastest-growing groups of cyclists. This was not always the case. Founded in 1878, the league oversaw all things cycling, including racing, where it barred persons of color from league-sanctioned races. Marshall “Major” Taylor, an African American from Indiana, won his first national championship in 1896 and became world champion in 1899. His overwhelming popularity forced racing promoters to relax their prohibition in order to bring in the crowds (and their ticket proceeds). Though largely forgotten, Taylor was undoubtedly one of the most popular sports figures of the day. Andrew Ritchie’s Major Taylor draws on extensive research and interviews with Taylor’s daughter. Though Taylor did some road racing, his forte was track sprinting. Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame, by Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber, details the incredible racism Taylor overcame to reach his goals. Unlike the better-known Jack Johnson, Taylor demonstrated a strong code of conduct. In later life, to support himself Taylor wrote and self-published his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. Unfortunately, he had no ability to manage money, dying penniless in a charity hospital ward.

Christopher S. Thompson’s The Tour de France is the definitive history of sport’s most demanding and grueling competition. Begun in 1903 as a means to boost circulation for L’Auto-Velo, the tour has come to symbolize both the pinnacle of bicycle racing and, to some extent, France itself. Thompson combines a history of the tour with France’s ability to overcome its challenges in the twentieth century. Examining both individual racers and the long-standing issue of performance-enhancing drugs, he details the changing image of cycle racing and the tour.

The English are close followers of the tour, as demonstrated by Martin Smith in The Daily Telegraph Book of the Tour de France. The London-based newspaper The Daily Telegraph has followed the tour since its inception, and Smith has collected stories of triumph and heartbreak to offer an intimate portrait of the racers who thrill at being a part of this event.

Since Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, only three men have won five tours, two Frenchmen and a Belgian. Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling’s Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham chronicles Merckx, “The Cannibal,” who dominated bicycle racing from 1965 through 1975, amassing 445 victories.

One of the multitude of Guinness records involves bicycling around the world. To be eligible, the rider must complete a continuous journey of at least eighteen thousand miles in one direction through at least four continents. Scotsman Mark Beaumont, in The Man Who Cycled the World, described smashing the previous record by 81 days when in 2008 he completed the journey in 154 days and seventeen hours. While he rode alone and unsupported—in a few places, the police insisted on providing an escort—he kept in contact with his home base, managed by his mother. His record stood for only two years before other riders, including two women, beat his time.

As more women take up bicycling, Selene Yeager addresses the gender-specific aspects of the sport, from buying the right gear to fitness and training techniques, in Every Woman’s Guide to Cycling. Written by a cyclist, racing coach, and exercise physiologist, Willard Peveler’s The Complete Book of Road Cycling and Racing is designed for the competitive, performance-focused cyclist.

1. Peter Nye, Hearts of Lions (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988), 261.