Monday, August 26, 2013

1891: The first “go-as-you-please” six-day international bike race at Madison Square Garden


            One of America’s most spectacular bike races took place in New York City’s recently rebuilt Madison Square Garden in 1891. The rules for the race rewarded stamina, strength and speed. It would begin shortly after midnight on Monday morning, October 19 and riders would race continuously around a ten-lap-per-mile wooden track for six straight days. The cyclist who had ridden the furthest by 10 pm on Saturday, October 24 would be declared the winner. The contest was described as a “go as you please” race because the riders could stop, eat, relax and sleep whenever they wanted.
Madison Square Garden in 1909

            For the spectators, the monotony of watching long distance racing would be broken by shorter races—a two mile and a five mile “dash,” band music, and exhibitions of trick and fancy cycling which featured “grotesque” riding and an impersonation of an Irish girl rider. Widespread gambling and anticipation of grisly bicycle accidents also kept the fans focused.
            Six-day races had come to this country from England and had been held in a number of other cities, including Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Memphis, Minneapolis and Omaha, before 1891, but the format for these races set limits on the time cyclists could ride on any given day from three to fourteen hours. The race in the Garden had no daily time limits—it was one 142-hour race!
            In addition, there would be an international flavor to the New York City race, unlike that of any of the other previous six-day races. The field included five of the best racers from the U.S., four fron England, two from Ireland, two from Scotland, and one from Germany. The winner would take home a prize of $2,000, or about $52,000 in today’s money.
            The bicycle of choice for all the competitors in 1891 was the high-wheeler, also known as the ordinary or penny-farthing. It was the successor to the velocipede that had taken America by storm in 1869. Nicknamed the “boneshaker” because of its cast iron frame and wooden 36-inch wheels with iron tires, the velocipede lost favor with the biking public soon after the high-wheeler was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
            The new bike had a frame made from hollow steel tubes and wheels with metal spokes, ball bearings and solid rubber tires. The size of the large front wheel varied with the length of the owner’s legs but it was not uncommon for it to have a diameter of 60 inches. Some say scenes of riders being thrown forward over the high front wheel and landing on their heads following an accident gave rise to the term “breakneck speed.”
Bicycling in 1887

            Fourteen of the world’s fastest cyclists mounted their bikes at 12:13 am on Monday, October 19, 1891 and the First International Six-Day Race at Madison Square Garden got underway. At the end of the first 200 miles, Charles W. Ashinger, the “Oklahoma Boomer,” took the lead. However, at the 300-mile mark, a fair-haired Irish-American with powerful thigh muscles, “Plugger Bill” Martin, caught Ashinger and surged into first place. It soon became clear to the spectators who jammed the Garden that the contest was going to be a tight two-man race between the two Americans.
            For the next four days, the two men fought for the lead, back and forth. On Saturday, the last day of the race, “Plugger Bill” was in first place having had only ten hours of sleep since the race began. He ate all his meals while he peddled his bike to keep ahead of Ashinger who kept continuous pressure on him. By 11 am, Martin had logged 1396 miles and Ashinger was only 32 miles behind him with 1364. There were still eleven more hours of racing to go but the “Oklahoma Boomer” was unable to catch “Plugger Bill.”
            At 10:13 pm on Saturday, 142 hours after the race had begun, Martin was declared the winner having peddled a record-setting distance of 1,466 miles. The old six-day record was 1,405 miles. Ashinger also broke the record by peddling 1,441 miles.
"Plugger Bill" Martin

            Martin immediately became an American sports hero and cycling was on its way to becoming one of the nation’s most popular sports. By 1900, there were five different weekly newspapers devoted to cycling news and over 300 American bicycle-manufacturing companies.
            “Plugger Bill” continued to win races in the U.S. but in 1895 he began competing in Europe, Australia and New Zealand because the prize money was greater. His last public appearance on a cycling track was in 1933 at an old-timers event in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the largest stadiums in the world. “Plugger Bill” died in Perth Hospital on March 28, 1942, and was survived by his wife and their three daughters and two sons.

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