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Breaking Away: 1908

New York, December 1908. "Six-day bicycle race, Madison Square Garden." 8x10 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. View full size.

New York, December 1908. "Six-day bicycle race, Madison Square Garden." 8x10 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. View full size.


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Nobody saw the sign

In the middle of the track is a sign showing songs presented by Cohan & Harris. That is George M. Cohan and Sam Harris. Cohan was a actor & songwriter in the Tin Pan Alley days and eventually became known as "the man who owned Broadway." James Cagney portrayed him in the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Cycling through time

I used to race for the Century Road Club Assn., in 1950's New York. We were reputedly the oldest bicycle racing club in America, and I remember examining the scores of trophies from the late 1800's and early 1900's. I'm sure some of them must have been from races such as these. I still have scars from pile-ups of several single speed, trap pedal bikes, you just couldn't get your feet down to stop a spill.

Round and round they go!

Six-day races were, and still are, very exciting races. They consist of several types of races held over the course of six consecutive nights.

One type of race, the derny race, was held over a set number of laps while each rider is paced by a derny (motorcycle). These dernys can be recognized by their rollers behind the rear wheels that allow the cyclists to pace as closely as possible. Two can be seen in the photo.

Another is the Madison, named for Madison Square Gardens, that involves several two person teams. One teammate races along the lower, inner lanes of the track while the other teammate recovers up near the wall (outer rail). The teammates will exchange places every few laps and will do so with a handsling. During an exchange, the rider going into the race will drop down the track and place his left hand near his hip. The exiting rider will grab his hand and sling him forward, thereby transferring his forward momentum to the other rider. Doing so correctly takes a lot of practice. After several tries, and several failures, I decided Madisons were not for me. I'd stay with match sprints, points races, and miss & outs as they were less dangerous - or so I thought.

BTW, one way to tell there is a race in progress - of the spectators whose bodies are in focus, their heads are blurry from following the racers.

Judge fall down go Boom!

If you look closely at the small tower with what could be the "Judge" for the race, the right hand leg of his chair is about 1/2" from going over through the railing.

Endurance Champions

The Evening World, December 5, 1908.

Old-timers on High Wheels
were Endurance Champions

During the running of the six-day bicycle race in the Garden next week, the question more likely to be heard than any other is whether those among the fifteen teams who can stand the gruelling pace in the test of the final days when stamina counts are not greater endurance than those who first brought this six-day record to America. The answer is furnished by a member of The Evening World's sporting staff who has witnessed nearly all the great six-day events in America from March 13 1886 when Albert Schock in Minneapolis hung up the worlds record of 1,008 miles for seventy-two hours-twelve hours a day-down to 1899 when Walter Miller and Dutch Waller set up a mark of 2,733 miles 4 laps in Madison Square Garden.

Conditions are vastly different to-day from those of 20 years ago. The modern bicycle, pneumatic tired and weighing only 22 pounds, is an air ship compared to the 50 pound high-wheeled boneshaker with its hard rubber tires and 57-Inch wheel. Then there is the difference of the scientifically banked track and the unbanked turns of twenty years ago, when a "header" meant almost certain death. Training methods have also changed, the six-day rider of today training almost exclusively for speed and under the team arrangement being relieved on the track at any time, while the old record holders were trained for endurance.

Speed has a deteriorating effect similar to the long steady grind, but when I think that Schlock never once left the tract in the first three day except to change wheels, and that his entire resting time was 40 minutes in the 72 hours it seems to be the most marvelous test of endurance I have ever seen-unless it be that of Mlle. Louise Armaindo, who beat Jack Prince in a 24-hour race because she never quit riding in the whole time. In the match race between Prince and Schock in Minneapolis, March 1886, when Prince set up a new world's record of 1,040 miles, neither man was off his wheel more than ten minutes for the entire 72 hours. This race, by the way, was for $1,000 a side, the largest side bet ever made in a similar contest in America.

The Outing Magazine, 1909

Bicycling and Its Income

James Moran, of Chelsea, Mass., who with [Floyd] McFarland won the six-day race at Madison Square Garden last winter, divided a purse of $1,500 together with outside sums paid by tire concerns and bicycle manufacturers amounting to in all nearly $5,000 with his team mate. This included bonuses from the management of the race. The six-day racers pay dearly for their money, however. The other leading teams in these heartbreaking contests draw from $800 down to $200 in prizes.

Shot and a shooter for 40 cents!

Imagine what a fellow could do at the Garden that day with a four-dollar drinking budget! There'd be more than bicycles spinning.

Pedal of Honor

Thanks to the superb cyclists Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong and TV, Americans have been able to learn a lot about (and enjoy) bike endurance racing. But Armstrong's 17,370 career points in 17 years and Lemond's 14,425 (14 years) are dwarfed by the record of the greatest rider of all time, Belgian Eddie Merckx, with 38,333 points in 14 years (1965-1978). He won nearly half of all the races he entered.

From Ohio State University’s very nice eHistory site, here’s a look at six-day bike racing by Ari de Wilde. Note that although he wrote “Strapped into single-speed bikes with no brakes, promoters could …”, he did not intend to say the promoters themselves were strapped into (not onto?) bikes, but the races would have been more noteworthy, much like Niagara Falls going the other way.

This racing lives on!

I think Dave is correct about the racers just being a blur. They'd do a complete lap in just over 10 seconds. You can see a couple of bikes on a tower on the infield.
Do a search on YouTube for 6-day madison race to see new and old footage.
Awesome poster.
There's a great DVD available too called "6-days in the Jazz Age".
Most people are amazed to hear what a huge sport it was back then.

Drink prices

20c for a Beer, 10c for a Soft Drink!!
Apparently price gouging for refreshments at sporting events was common even back then!

Top Shelf

20 cent whiskey! I'll take two please.

Ghost Riders

Maybe I should point out that the track is full of riders, who are moving too fast to show up in this time exposure.

The Madison Sling

My husband, who used to race track, tells me that there is a specific track race called the Madison Sling that is actually named after the Track Races they used to have at Madison Square Gardens.

I think it involves one partner recovering down near the center of the track while the other partner races a lap and then catches their partner and transfers their velocity to them and flings them into the track for their lap. He tried teaching it to me once with disastrous results (crashing hard).

Bottled Beer 20 cents

You could get 50 beers then for the price of one beer at MSG now!

Pacing the race

The motorcycles are for starting / pacing the race.

When does a bicycle become a motorcycle?

Clearly, Indian was out in force for this contest. I wonder who won?

Can anyone make out what song was being sung? I'm guessing sheet music was a big thing at the time.

Edit: Thanks for letting me know that the motorcycles were for pacing the race. That clears things up.


It appears that the is inaccurate. Looks like a motorcycle race to me. Looks closely at the bikes, they have tanks and motors. Then there is the advertising for motorcycles. Surely some crossover customers, but if there are bikes racing, they're not visible.

[This was a bicycle race. - Dave]


Think we should call it the six day ghost-rider race !

At least three riders

have decided that motors on their bikes will make the six days fly by.

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