Interview: Andrew Homan

Life in the Slipstream - The Legend of Bobby Walthour SrThe late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a glorious time for cycling, not just in Europe but also in the USA.

As well as the road races - which we know so much about - track cycling was immensely popular. From short-distance sprints up to mammoth Six Day races, cycling pulled in the punters in Europe, in Australia and in America.

One of the forgotten aspects of cycling in that era was the use of pacers. Real serious speed machines, not the puny little Dernys we're today used to seeing at track-meets. And one of the kings of motor-paced cycling was Bobby Walthour.

Andrew Homan's biography of Walthour, Life in the Slipstream, has already been reviewed on the Café Bookshelf. Now Homan pops in to answer a few questions about the book, the man and the era.

Podium Café: A cyclist who was a hero in America and Europe. A guy who headed up a cycling dynasty. Deals and doping and death. Steel frames. Woolen jereys. Petrol engines. Speed. Passion. Excitement. What's the attraction in Bobby Walthour's story?

Andrew Homan: First of all, thanks for having me on the Podium!

When I first started this project I never dreamed there would so much material to choose from. I collected thousands of newspaper and magazine articles from Europe and here in America.

In Atlanta parades were given in Walthour's honour. In New York he was carried around Madison Square Garden on the shoulders of exuberant fans. In Berlin he had to escape out his dressing room window to avoid the crush of fans. In Paris he was a genuine idol and treated as a sports superstar.

In other words, I honestly don't know what all the fuss was about.

PdC: Most all cycling fans today know that the 1904 Tour de France was a fractious affair, with all sorts of skulduggery going on. America's equivalent of the Tour at the time was the Madison Square Garden International Six Day race. And that, in 1904, almost matched the French race in the way it heated passions and tempers. Walthour himself got into a shouting match with the organiser, Pat Powers, and went so far as to threaten the formation of a breakaway league if he didn't get his own way. It really was quite a race, no?

AMH: Yes it was a helluva race.

Walthour made headlines of the New York newspapers that he probably would have liked to take back. Generally, he seemed as though he was quiet and mild mannered. But on this occasion he really let his temper go-and it was ugly.

The net result was that he got suspended from professional cycling for five months and he ended up going back to Atlanta with his tail between his legs. He probably lost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $25,000 for not being able to go to Europe in the spring of 1905 as he had planned.

PdC: The authorities don't seem to have liked the Sixes all that much. First they tried to stop them by restricting riders to no more than twelve hours a day on the track. That only made the races even more harsh, allowing more distance to be covered by two-man teams. Later, newspapers would report during a Six that it was in danger of being stopped, for contravening different health and safety regulations. Do you think there was ever a real chance of the plug being pulled on a Six, or is this a case of newspapers being used to sell even more tickets?

AMH: I'm not sure if it was a case of not liking the Six Day races, but rather, they wanted to cut back on what they considered to be inhuman suffering.

When they raced as individuals, riders hallucinated and fell asleep while riding-not unlike what happens today in the Race Across America. Riders were given drugs to keep going. Of course the book goes into more detail about all this, but the two-man teams did alleviate some suffering.

Once the two-man teams started, I think in 1899, threats to stop the great Six Day races were mostly limited to dangerous overcrowding. Police and firemen were put to work to clear aisles of Madison Square Garden.

PdC: The European scene. Paris had three major vélodromes in Walthour's time, Victor Breyer's Vélodrome Buffalo and Henri Desgrange and Victor Goddet's Parc des Prince and Vélodrome d'Hiver. Capacity in each of those seems to have been fifteen to twenty thousand. Many American stadia compared favourably to those figures. But Germany ... Ferdinand Knorr's Sportpark Friedenau, in Berlin, did that really cram in forty thousand paying punters?

AMH: Yeah I was shocked by how popular cycling, and in particular, how popular the deadly cycling sport of motor-pacing was in Germany. Motor-pacing was Walthour's specialty and his mere presence would help sell out huge stadiums in Berlin and Dresden.

In 1910 Walthour moved his wife and four children to Germany. He could have made a nice living had he remained in the United States because cycling was a big sport there. But it was Germany where he could make the most money.

PdC: Walthour's reception in Europe: cyclists and cycling fans can be a funny bunch, tend to cold-shoulder outsiders, at least until they see a reason to respect them. But, like Americans before him who came to race in Europe, Walthour seems to have been pretty warmly welcomed, by riders and fans alike. For sure, the people probably wanted to see the home-town hero win, but they still cheered Walthour too. Were you at all surprised by that?

AMH: Initially Walthour rejected offers to race in Europe. Henri Desgrange, one of the founding fathers of the Tour de France, requested Walthour come to Paris in 1902. I think Walthour was wise to wait though. He was making fabulous money right here in the United States.

In many races he was guaranteed big gate receipt percentages and sold out stadiums in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Hartford and Atlanta.

Walthour first arrived in Europe in 1904 and he was considered an underdog. But he won eleven of his first twelve races in Paris and Berlin and quickly became an idol in Europe.

PdC: Walthour the man. Life In The Slipstream is massively - and excellently - researched. But, short of talking to the man himself, archives can only tell you so much. They do tell you a lot about Walthour, cycling then was massive and Walthour was massively popular. But there are always contradictions between the private and the public, we all wear masks. In the book, you try and stick to the facts, to avoid speculation about what was beneath the public mask, that's something readers can do for themselves. But what issues would you want to question Walthour on, were you able to go back in time and speak to him?

AMH: Well that's a great question...I'm a little stumped but thanks for the kudos!

Walthour's son, Bobby Walthour Jr, went on to become a great professional rider himself. He won six-day races in New York, inside Madison Square Garden, in Chicago and other cites around the United States. He was also an American sprint champion. The newspapers always referred to his father when he did well, and I think he must have felt like he was in his father's shadow. But the fact was that father and son rarely spoke. Bobby Jr married a Catholic, and apparently that was a no-no in Bobby Sr's world. Bobby Sr thus alienated himself from his own son's family. So if I was able to go back in time, I'd ask him why didn't he go back to his son and make things right again.

PdC: Walthour strikes me as having been a canny businessman: you detail some of the negotiations from 1902, with Henri Desgrange, to ride in Europe, which suggest that Walthour was playing Desgrange off against American promoters, talking up his price and making sure newspapermen knew of the rival offers being made to him.

AMH: I think you're absolutely correct.

If he hadn't waited two years to go to Europe he certainly wouldn't have earned the ridiculous amount of money - about $60,000 (millions in today's dollars) - he did in 1904.

He endorsed many items such as bike frames and tires. He was also considered to be the first athlete to endorse Coca-Cola.

PdC: The money aspect of Walhour's career: there was a lot of it about, as you point out. But Walthour was a one-man team, and had to cover his own expenses, which included paying a manger and his own pacers, as well as buying his own pacing machines. Those in particular must have taken quite a chunk out of his income.

AMH: Yes, part of his success was that he hired the best in the business. Gussie Lawson and Franz Hoffman were considered the best motorcycle pace men and they were paid well. I would consider them like a caddy in golf. They made the same too - roughly ten percent of the winnings.

Walthour travelled to and from Europe extensively and almost always had his family with him so that took a chunk of change. They did live somewhat conservatively though. The house they lived in Atlanta in 1901 still stands, and it's very small!

PdC: Let's talk a little bit about pacing. Pacing wasn't just restricted to the track, races like Bordeaux-Paris, we know, were motor-paced, as was Paris-Roubaix in its early years. But it was on the track that cycling's speed was really being driven by leaps forward in pacing technology. Can you take us briefly through the evolution of pacers during Walthour's career?

AMH: I devoted and entire chapter of the book to pacing. I wanted the reader to understand about the evolution of drafting. I go into detail about Charles Murphy. In June 1899 Murphy rode a mile in 57 seconds while being paced by a locomotive. This event was a big sensation and reported all over the United States.

At that time, professional cyclists were paced by 'mutlicycles' which were like tandem bikes, only longer to accommodate more riders. The most popular multicycles were 'quints' on which five strong riders could get over thirty miles per hour and generate a lot of power. Riders like Jimmy Michael from Wales made a ton of money because he was able to keep up with the quints behind the slipstream.

It's funny that today, electric cars are considered such a modern thing. But back then, electric motorcycles were used to pace riders such as Major Taylor! I think we've come full circle.

Walthour began his career just as gasoline engine motorcycles started and multicyces were phased out. In 1899, they approached speeds of 35 miles per hour. But by 1904, technology was such that motorcycles could get over 60 miles per hour. The world record for the paced hour closed in on 60 miles.

Walthour preferred smaller and more nimble motorcycles to pace him. Compare this with Thaddeus Robl, the great German rider of Walthour's day, who liked the hulking tandem motorcycles to pace him. Regulations about what riders could pace behind became an issue because no two motorcycles were the same.

PdC: Before the motor-pacing craze took off, Walthour was a sprinter. His career was taking off when Major Taylor was in his prime. I know they went different paths, Taylor didn't get into motor-pacing as much, but how do you think the two compare, athletically?

AMH: Walthour and Major Taylor rarely rode against each other. As you say, Walthour started as a sprinter, but he wasn't in the same class as Taylor when it came to sprinting.

Although they were both born in 1878, Taylor's career took off at a younger age. Taylor became an American and World sprint champion by 1900. Walthour didn't really make a name for himself until 1901.

Not only that, but Walthour specialized in different disciplines - Six Day racing and motor-pacing.

PdC: The Sixes were unpaced, and I guess it's in them that we see that Walthour wasn't just pure speed in the slipstream: he had track nous, he had a sprinter's brain. I've asked this question of Andrew Ritchie, about Major Taylor, so I'll ask it of you about Walthour: do you think he could take Chris Hoy?

AMH: Well, probably not - especially seeing what he's done recently. Congratulations to Hoy!

There is no question Walthour had marvellous endurance. Although he didn't time trial in the same fashion we see today in the Tour de France. But motor-pacing for an hour at over 50 miles per hour would translate well there. I would like to see some riders today do what Walthour and others such as Frenchman Louis Darragon did over one hundred years ago!

In my opinion, Walthour probably had 50-50 slow twitch to fast twitch muscle fibres. His body size was small enough to where he could have been a good climber too.

PdC: I'm curious about the attitude to stimulants - doping - in Walthour's day. It's generally accepted that Six Day racing was riddled with dope, that riders used all sorts of stimulants to keep them going through the day, through the night, six days straight. Walthour had a reputation for riding clean, not just when compared to European riders, but also when compared to many of the American riders of his time. How would you judge the public attitude to the issue back then?

AMH: That's a tough one to answer, but I do believe Walthour rode clean. How else could he have had a twenty-five year career? Especially considering the drugs of choice back then were cocaine and strychnine.

There are many mentions of 'stimulants' in the newspapers during Six Day races at the Garden. The way it was written suggested that the attitude was that if the riders needed it or wanted it, they'd get it. Nobody was urinating into specimen cups in 1905!

PdC: Already in Walthour's heyday we can see the seeds of cycling's demise in America. Having seen the size of crowds in Europe, and realised that baseball was already outstripping cycling in attendance figures, Walthour himself began to predict the demise of cycling in the US. Do you see Walthour as being the high-water mark in the sport's popularity in the US?

AMH: I don't think there was a high-water mark for any individual rider back then.

I would say Walthour may be the most overlooked compared with Arthur Zimmerman, Major Taylor and Frank Kramer. With those riders, I think he was just as good in his discipline as any of those guys were in theirs.

I think the popularity of cycling was still reasonably good, but baseball just skyrocketed from nowhere. Cycling was popular in the United States all the way up to World War II. The three decade hiatus that followed caused a lot of great names in cycling to be forgotten about. In the 1930s they called Walthour the Babe Ruth of cyclists, but today almost nobody knows about him ... unless they read my book!

PdC: You credit your colleagues in crime in the book, but I'd just like to single a couple of them out, to point people at other authors who shine a light on the American side of this era of the sport. Two names in particular I have tremendous respect for are Peter Nye, whose Hearts of Lions introduced me - and a lot of others - to the early history of cycling in America, and Andrew Ritchie. Ritchie was of particular assistance in pulling off the fantastic job you've done with Life In The Slipstream, yes?

AMH: Yes, Peter Nye was a terrific and very early inspiration. I had never heard of Bobby Walthour, or any of the riders from back in the day until I opened the pages of Hearts of Lions.

Then I went to Andrew Ritchie's biography of Major Taylor and I was transported to a place where American sports accepted an African-American fifty years before the infamous baseball colour-line was broken by Jackie Robinson. What a compelling story.

Andrew helped out quite a bit on the manuscript for the Walthour story and I owe him a great debt of gratitude. His latest book is called Quest for Speed. I know Andrew is working to get a movie going on Major Taylor and wish him the best of luck.

PdC: Is this the end?

AMH: Well my brother kept pestering me about doing another book and now I can tell him that, yes, I'm working on another!

My next book will be a biography on Reggie McNamara, a man they nicknamed the 'Ironman.' He was from Australia and came to the United States in 1913 as a twenty-five-year-old professional.

I have written an article for Rob Arnold's RIDE Cycling Review that I think will be in their next issue (#55). The piece will feature McNamara, Alf Goullet and some of the other great Australians who had great success racing in the United States.

* * * * *

Andrew M Homan in the author of Life in the Slipstream - The Legend of Bobby Walthour Sr (Potomac Books).

You can find Homan on Twitter @AndrewHoman2

You'll find a review of Life in the Slipstream on the Café Bookshelf.

Out thanks to Andrew Homan for taking part in this interview.

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