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Life In The Slipstream, by Andrew M Homan


Title: Life In The Slipstream: The Legend Of Bobby Walthour Sr
Author: Andrew M Homan
Potomac Books
Year: 2011
Pages: 241
Order: Potomac Books
What it is: A biography of an American double-World Champion who made his name racing in the slipstream of motor-pacers and on the Six Day circuit.
Strengths: Excellently researched and a fascinating story about an era in cycling's history when the sport was all about speed.
Weaknesses: The more you learn about this era of cycling - not just in the US, but also in Europe - the more you want to know.

Away back in the early years of the twentieth century cycling was a global sport, with American, European and Australian riders all mixing it up and the racing taking place on at least three continents. Riders sailed form one continent to the other in order to take up invitations to race. America itself had a Northern Circuit and a Southern Circuit of races. And it also had its own version of the Tour de France. A race that captured the public's imagination. A monstrously hard and viciously cruel race, held annually. A race that stripped the fat from a rider's body. That race was the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race.

As the clock struck midnight on Sunday, December 8, 1901 sixteen two-man teams lined up on the pine boards of the Garden's oval and took the applause of the 12,000-strong crowd. At five minutes past the hour, William C Rothwell - aka Young Corbett, the world featherweight boxing champ - aimed the starting pistol at the Garden's roof and pulled the trigger. Sixteen riders shot out in a line and began circling the Garden's wooden oval. When the crowd hushed, all that could be heard was the soft hum of wheels turning as the riders went around and around and around.

Quite where Six Day racing began is, like many things in cycling's history, a matter of some dispute. Birmingham and London have both been given. But it was when Tom Eck, a canny American promoter - some might prefer to call him a huckster - imported the idea into the US that the sport really took off. Americans went crazy for it. They thrilled to see riders trying to stay in the saddle for six days and six nights. The authorities, though, took a dimmer view of the sport and tried to halt it in its tracks. In New York, legislation was passed restricting riders to no more than twelve hours on the track a day. The promoters immediately came up with a work-around solution: they'd put riders on the track in teams of two. Thus was born the Madison.

In the first 24 hours of the 1901 Garden Six the top teams had covered a distance of more than 800 kilometres. Four of the original 16 teams had already abandoned, one of them the French duo of Jean Gougoltz and Caesar Simic, who retired citing illness. Victor Breyer, of Le Vélo and Paris's Vélodrome Buffalo fame, offered little sympathy to his compatriots:

"What Six Day rider does not [feel ill] at one stage or another? That is part of the game. To complain of that is as though a boxer should complain of one or two stiff punches. Nothing is wrong with Simac's heart except lack of courage. It was a plain case of quit."

Little Jimmy Michael from Wales - the Welsh Midget, the Americans called him - was writing a guest column for The World. Once one of Choppy Warburton's circle of riders, then lured to the camp of Tom Eck, Michael had earned quite a name - and quite a fortune - for himself from racing in America. Here's one scene from his reports:

"In an incredibly short time Walthour had opened a gap of half a lap and was driving every nerve into still more feverish effort. One by one he picked up in flashing speed McLaren, Chevalier, and Samuelson. The crowd that jammed the Garden went frantic. Hoarse yells and shouts from the men, shrill cries from the women, the waving of hats and of handkerchiefs heaped up a tumult that is rarely witnessed in the Garden. [...] Human nature could not long sustain such an awful strain. The killing fight was kept up for two miles and then Walthour gave up the task and steadied himself down to ordinary plodding."

At ten laps to the mile on the Garden track, Bobby Walthour had been out there on his own for more than a dozen and a half laps before he had to surrender and roll back into the main group. Walthour had, by this time in his career, earned respect and a reputation in American cycling circles. He'd started out in 1895, as an amateur, and by the following year one newspaper had run the headline 'Walthour Greedy' in complaint about the amount of victories he was taking. Within weeks of that he turned pro. His own account of his first race with the big boys is a not unfamiliar story:

"I decided to turn professional and went over to Montgomery to take part in a professional race there. [...] Well, we started out in the first race. It was a mile heat and I was as green as grass and strong as the devil. I jumped into the lead. Then I took the second quarter and was still ahead of the bunch. When I got to the third quarter I commenced to wonder where the rest of the fellows were and I turned to look at them. By George, they had all drawn up together in a bunch a short distance behind me and were preparing to start a great dash so as to go by me in a hurry and leave me completely out of it. I was lucky that I saw them. I 'dug' and not one of the guys passed me, not only that, but I won the other two races also and [George] Quinn [a Boston pro who, before the race, had told Walthour to get back on his bike and ride home] was just about as sore as he could be."

From such Hinaultesque beginnings Walthour quickly became a star of Jack Prince's new Southern Cycling Circuit, which included stops in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Montgomery Nashville and New Orleans. Prince hoped to be able to entice riders on the Northern Circuit to come south of the Mason-Dixon line and enjoy some warm-weather racing in Spring. The races varied between mass start and one-on-one, some were paced by tandems. Generally though all were short: Walthour was becoming a specialist sprinter. This was at a time when Major Taylor ruled the roost when it came to American sprinting.

The late Victorian era saw a quest for speed. Bike versus horse races were not unusual, the public willingly paying to see whether two wheels could beat four legs. The Victorian era was also the age of steam, and it was inevitable that steam and bike would come together. Charlie Murphy and EE Anderson raced behind steam trains. Eddie McDuffie raced behind a steam-powered tandem. A two-man motorised tandem was certainly less ungainly that the multi-man machines that the quest for speed was producing: triplettes, quads, quints. There were even plans for a quindecuplet, a fifteen-seater multicycle. The steam engine quickly gave way to electric and then petrol-driven engines and it was behind these that motor-paced riding became most popular. Each new evolution in engine technology kicked the speed of the riders pacing behind them ever higher. Motor-pacing was a sport packed with excitement. And it was a sport Walthour excelled at. From 1900 onwards, with the exception of Six Day races, Walthour's cycling life was spent in the slipstream.


The slipstream is only of so much value, though, in a Six Day race. Every rider wants to sneak a lap on the field, escape on his own and creep around the oval, closing in on the tail of the bunch until he has rejoined and put his rivals a lap in arrears. But stealing a lap is no easy feat. Especially when the rules stipulate that no rider may gain a lap in the event of a crash. On the fourth day of the 1901 Garden Six, Walthour was about to gain that coveted lap when, behind him in distance covered, now ahead of him on the track itself, a rider went down. The who and the how are not material: it was the why that everyone wanted to know. Was it just a case of shit happening at a shitty time? Or was the crash a deliberate attempt to deny Walthour a possible race-winning lap? No one knows. Such a state of unknowing was one of the delights of Six Day racing.

Madison Square Garden, early c20thOn the final day of the Gadren Six, the riders punch-drunk with all the hours in the saddle, the crowd thronging the Garden were treated to the sight of Albert Champion - Paris-Roubaix winner 1899 and a star of the American cycling circuit - hurling himself around the Garden oval on a single-seater motor-pacer. Breyer, the man from Le Vélo, screamed out at the sight: "Mon Dieu! Champion will kill himself! He is going too fast for such a track!" Champion was barely clocking 70 kilometres an hour, a speed we're blasé about today but which, in 1901, was almost incomprehensibly fast. But Breyer was right about Champion's bike being too fast for the track: the Frenchman crashed into a wooden railing and was thrown from the machine. It continued on without him, almost crashing into spectators in the box-seating area. Champion didn't qute manage to kill himself though - he hobbled off the track with a couple of dislocated fingers and a lot less skin than when he'd entered it.

And still the riders circuited the oval, now going fast, now going slow. Five teams were tied at four laps ahead of the others. Nearly 4,100 kilometres had been covered in 142 hours of riding. And then came the grand finale: a one man sprint between one rider from each of the leading teams. Nat Butler, Benny Munroe, Lester Wilson, Oscar Babcock and Bobby Walthour took the track. From the gun Butler set the pace, with Wilson in second wheel and Walthour riding third. Try and picture the scene a moment. Getting on for midnight of a Saturday night. The beating heart of New York city. Twelve thousand fans screaming their lungs out and stomping their feet. The air a fug of tobacco smoke. And five riders circling the yellow-pine oval wondering who'll blink first.

Down the laps counted and then came the bell. The last lap. Less than 200 yards. People today get excited by the thought of Greg LeMond beating Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds at the end of 3,288 kilometres of racing, or of Eric Caritoux holding out to win the Vuelta a España by just six seconds. How about deciding more than 4,000 kilometres of racing with a single sprint? Because that's how the victor of the 1901 Garden Six - of many Garden Sixes - was decided. And - in 1901 - the winner of that sprint was Bobby Walthour.

* * * * *

Trying to tell the story of Bobby Walthour's life is no easy task. Sixty years and more have passed since he died. A century ago he was at the fag-end of his career, still pulling in the punters and still making a living from this cycling lark, but not winning the races with the ease and frequency he used to. A lot of water has passed under the bridges of time. Somewhat unusually, Walthour never got to document his own life. No authorised biography of his life was written. No attempt was even made to tell the unauthorised story. All that really exists to record Walthour's passing are the stories published in newspaper and magazines during Walthour's life.

But what a wealth of information those archives contain. Walthour was a Southern star and his hometown papers, the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal, chronicled his career. Other papers regularly featured stories about him, including the Boston Daily Globe, the Chicago Daily Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily Tribune, the New York Herald, the New York Times, the New York World and the Washington Post. And then there's the specialist cycling press, who paid the man his due, especially during the European years of his career, particularly L'Auto, Bicycle News, Cycling, Der Raddensport, Radwelt, Les Sports, Le Vélo and La Vie Au Grand Air. For Lost In The Slipstream, Andrew Homan has mined the archives of these, and more, in order to pull together the details of Walthour's life and times.

That times bit is important here: Life in the Slipstream is the life - well, the legend - of Bobby Walthour. But it is also a chronicle of that particular era of cycling. It offers fascinating insight into a now-forgotten discipline, motor-paced riding. Even though Dernys are still a part of the sport on the track today, and even though many cycling fans still think fondly of Bordeaux-Paris, we no longer think much of the history of motor-paced cycling.

And then there's Walthour's European years - post-1904 - which add colour to what we already know of that era in our sport from the too many Tour-centric books cramming the bookshop shelves. One minor fact for you from those years: in Paris, it took 15,000 paying punters to fill the Vélodrome Buffalo, 20,000 to fill the Parc des Princes. But, in Germany, it took 40,000 to fill the Friedenau Sportpark, Berlin. And that was just one track in Berlin, just one track in Germany. Throughout the Fatherland Walthour was impressed by the crowds he witnessed when he raced at Dresden, at Leipzig, at Stieglitz, at Spandau, at Frankfurt.

Unsurprisingly, six years after his first visit to Europe, when he'd raced in France, Germany and the UK, Walthour moved full-time to Germany in 1910, where he stayed until the outbreak of the first World War. Walthour explained the move to the Washington Post:

"Bicycle racing is the national sport in Germany, just as baseball is here. It is nothing to see 45,000 persons out for a race. And they even pay us to train. Our contracts call for us to begin training on Thursday, and we must train in public every day until Sunday. On that day we race. They have cement tracks abroad and six or seven motor-paced riders will take part in one race. It is pretty exciting too."

Excitement was one word for it. Dangerous another. Motor-paced riding was fast and, with each evolution in engine technology, just got faster. Records fell with regularity. As did riders and their pacers. Broken bones, ripped skin, if you walked away from an accident with just these, you were lucky. Many were not lucky. Many died. Riders and pace-men that Walthour knew from riding with and gainst. In Germany in particular the game seemed to be at its hardest, the death toll highest.

Walthour, though, was one of the lucky ones: hundreds of crashes, dozens of bones broke, but he lived into retirement and died aged 72. A double-World Champion, winner of two Madison Square Garden Sixes, victor in countless other races. A star on both sides of the Atlantic.

* * * * *

It's about twenty years now since I first came across the name of Bobby Walthour, in Peter Nye's Hearts Of Lions. Walthour's name has cropped up now and again in other books of that era, but Homan's Life In The Slipstream is the first proper attempt to put some order on his life and career, and place Walthour's story in some kind of context. Homan's source material - period newspapers and magazines - necessarily limits the book's scope: this is very much the legend of Bobby Walthour, the publicly told story of an American cycling star. In order to read the man behind the mask we must read between the lines and make our our judgements.

Homan's source material could also limit the book's readability, turn into an informative but tiring account that limps from one race to the next, bogged down in dry detail. Homan, however, is the master of his source material and allows the story to come alive. By quoting liberally from his sources he allows the voice of the time to ring out a century later and, in the quotes form the many interviews Walthour gave during his life, to allow Walthour's voice to ring out, a century after he set the cycling world alight. Far from being a dry tale of a rider whose contribution to cycling is often overlooked, Life In The Slipstream is a vivid account of an era that deserves to be remembered.

* * * * *

You'll find an interview with Andrew Homan on the Cafe Bookshelf.