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Pedestrianism, by Matthew Algeo

A history of the sport that paved the way for Six Day bicycle races.

Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo Title: Pedestrianism - When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport
Author: Matthew Algeo
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Year: 2014
Pages: 258
Order: Chicago Review Press
What it is: A history of race walking in America, the sport that paved the way for cycling's Six Day races
Strengths: While Algeo focuses his story on two men - Edward Peyson Weston and Dan O'Leary - he weaves around his main narrative colourful stories which create a highly enjoyable history of a forgotten sport
Weaknesses: At times it may feel that there are too many stories sprouting off the sides of the main narrative, occasionally creating what Tom Wolfe once called a whichy thicket when mocking the New Yorker magazine

The Madison Square Garden International Six Day Races of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played an important - though often over-looked - role in the history of cycling. While Six Day bicycle races had initially developed in the United Kingdom, it was in the United States that they really became popular, with the Garden Six the most popular of them all. Reports of the races were as well read in Europe as they were in the US, with riders from both sides of the Atlantic competing in the Garden (Lucien Petit-Breton raced there both before and after his Tour successes). And, of course, the first Tour de France was based around the idea of putting on a Six Day race on the roads of France, even when Six Day races had yet to establish themselves in French velodromes.

The first Six Day bicycle race to be staged in Madison Square Garden took place in October 1891, with fourteen riders mounted on penny-farthings taking the start and William 'Plugger Bill' Martin - one of the New World's many Irish immigrants - taking the win, having covered 1,466 miles. Two years later, the man who had finished fourth in that race and then sixth the following year, took the first of two victories in the Garden. That man was Albert Shock. Today, many cycling fans can tell you who the first riders to win the Tour or the Giro d'Italia twice were (Petit-Breton - or Maurice Garin, if you want - in France and Carlo Galetti in Italy). Shock, though, is all but forgotten to history, as are most of the rest of those who tasted success in the Garden (even in the UK today, where the early successes of British riders are being celebrated, few recall Teddy Hale, the Englishman who masqueraded as an Irishman when he won the 1896 Six). What's even worse for Shock is that he is twice forgotten, for before he tasted success as a cyclist on the yellow pine boards of Madison Square Garden he had, during the heyday of pedestrian racing in North America, achieved minor fame with his feet and helped pave the way for the Six Day bicycle races that followed.

Today, when we think of pedestrianism - if we think of it at all - we picture the strange gait of Olympic race walkers, or perhaps ultramarathon events such as the Marathon des Sables (a 250 kilometre six day race over the sands of the Sahara). Athletes we could barely name in races we rarely hear of. But, for a time in the second half of nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, pedestrians were the stars of their day, attracting thousands of spectators whenever they raced. The story of some of those men and some of those races is told by Matthew Algeo in Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport.

Rather than trying to tell the complete history of a sport that went from boom to bust on both sides of the Atlantic in a few decades, Algeo focuses his telling of pedestrianism's history on two of the sport's biggest stars - Edward Peyson Weston and Dan O'Leary - and the race they helped create and which cemented their fame: the Long Distance Championship of the World, better known as the Astley Belt.

The Astley Belt Long Distance Championship of the World
Date Venue Winner Distance
March 18-23, 1878 Agricultural Hall, London Dan O'Leary 520 miles
September 30 - October 5, 1878 Gilmore's Garden, New York Dan O'Leary 403 miles
March 10-15, 1879 Gilmore's Garden, New York Charles Rowell 500 miles
June 16-21, 1879 Agricultural Hall, London Edward Peyson Weston 550 miles
September 22-27, 1879 Gilmore's Garden, New York Charles Rowell 524 miles
November 1-6, 1880 Agricultural Hall, London Charles Rowell 566 miles
June 20-25, 1881 Marble Rink, London Charles Rowell 280 miles
Note: The seventh and final Astley Belt race was ended after just three days when Rowell was the only competitor left racing.

Pedestrianism's American roots date to just before the Civil War, when two twenty-something friends wagered one and other on the outcome of the 1860 presidential election, with the stakes being that the loser would have to walk from Boston's State House to the Capitol in Washington (770 kilometres) in ten consecutive days, arriving in Washington in time for the inauguration of the new president. The loser turned out to be Edward Peyson Weston and he saw in his forfeit an opportunity to make some money, by getting a number of businesses to sponsor his endeavour, they benefiting from the publicity his walk generated. Ultimately, Weston failed to complete the task within the allotted time, arriving at the Capitol five hours too late. But he had won the hearts of many who followed his marathon undertaking, especially those who gambled on the outcome.

After the Civil War, finding himself in debt, Weston dug out his walking shoes and, in 1866, he wagered $10,000 that he could walk from Portland, Maine to Chicago (1,930 kilometres) in thirty consecutive days (excluding Sundays). Once again the nation was agog at his undertaking, and this time Weston completed it with time to spare, arriving in Chicago a day ahead of schedule. Four years later, Weston was touring the country, putting on exhibitions in roller-skating rinks across the country, charging spectators fifty cents to watch him undertake record-setting challenges, such as walking one hundred miles in twenty-four hours or four hundred miles in five days. In 1874, in Newark, New Jersey, the challenge was to cover five hundred miles in six days, which Weston did with twenty-five minutes to spare.

Weston didn't just attract spectators, he also drew in imitators, and suddenly America was gripped by a walking craze. Even Mark Twain got swept up in it, as he would later get swept up in the bicycle craze. Weston himself cashed in on this craze, by offering to take on all challengers. One would-be challenger was Dan O'Leary, an Irishman who had emigrated to America in 1866 and ultimately settled in Chicago and taken American citizenship. Weston turned down O'Leary's challenge, telling him to "make a good record first, and meet me after." So O'Leary did just that, first beating Weston's twenty-four hour record (he covered 116 miles to Weston's 115) and then taking on Weston's record for 500 miles, beating it by more than two hours. Weston now had no choice but to accept O'Leary's challenge, and in November 1875 the two met in a six day 500 mile race which was dubbed The Great Walking Match for the Championship of the World. When the Irishman beat the American it was as if all of Weston's fame had evaporated, the nation taking to their hearts a new hero and tossing the old on the scragheap of fame:

"It seemed Weston's reign as America's most famous walker had come to an inglorious end. Defeated and chagrined, he sought a new start. He packed up his velvet jackets and silk sashes and, with his wife and children in tow, set sail for England."

By now the British had already had their own long distance walking craze, at the start of the nineteenth century. In 1809 Captain Robert Barclay, scion of the eponymous banking family, had accepted a 1,000 guinea wager to walk one mile every hour for 1,000 consecutive hours (ie 1,000 miles in just under forty-two days). Huge crowds flocked to Newmarket to witness Barclay complete his challenge. But the craze set in motion by Barclay and others like him had more or less fizzled out by the time Weston arrived in London in early 1876. The American re-ignited it.

Weston first challenged England's Champion Pedestrian, William Perkins, to a twenty-four hour race in Islington's Agricultural Hall in February 1896. Five thousand Londoners paid a shilling apiece to watch, but the affair was somewhat one-side, Perkins having won his title by walking eight miles in under an hour, whereas Weston was a veteran of multi-day challenges. The Briton didn't even last the full day, retiring after about fifteen hours, while Weston strode on to complete 102 miles by the final bell.

A week later a new challenger was found, this time in a race to see who could cover 180 miles first inside forty-eight hours. Again it was practically a walkover for Weston, his rival withdrawing after just twelve hours.

The following week Weston took on another new challenger, a Cambridge rower called Charles Rowell, this time the challenge being to cover 275 miles within seventy-five hours. For the third time in just fourteen days the Agricultural Hall was filled with spectators eager to watch the race, and for the third time in fourteen days Weston reigned supreme.

Once again Weston upped the ante, this time racing alone with the objective of reclaiming his 500 mile record from the man who had usurped him, Dan O'Leary. And this time Weston failed. Worse followed, for a month later, back in the States, O'Leary lowered his own record, covering 500 miles in five days, nineteen hours and eight minutes (fifty-two minutes faster than his previous record). Weston may have been wowing the British, but back home another man was still wearing his crown as King of the Peds.

In early 1877, O'Leary - having cashed in on his fame in the States - followed his old rival across the Atlantic and the two agreed to engage in a six days' walking match, which took place in the Agricultural Hall, starting on Easter Monday. And among the crowd for this race was Sir John Astley, a Tory Member of Parliament and former Scots Fusilier who had seen action in the Crimea (trivia fans might like to know that he is the great-great-grandfather of Samantha Cameron, wife of the British prime minister). Astley had acquired a reputation for laying large bets on horse-races and boxing matches and, having followed reports of Weston's endeavours across the UK the previous year, was now discovering that pedestrianism too offered the chance to gamble and gamble heavily. He put £20,000 on Weston to win. At the end of their six days of walking, though, Weston was nine miles in arrears of O'Leary's total of 519 miles.

Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo

Astley might have been out of pocket, but he took the loss well and early in 1878 announced he was launching the Long Distance Championship of the World, with a prize of £500 and a specially commissioned bejewelled belt for the winner. The holder of the belt would be required to defend their title within three months of any legitimate challenge and the first person to win three in a row would keep the belt. The Championship would take the format of a six day race, the winner being whoever covered the furthest distance in the allotted time.

Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo

Like the America's Cup in sailing - or the later Ryder Cup in golf - the Astley Belt wasn't just about anointing a champion of the world. It was the New World versus the old, the United Kingdom versus the United States. It was about bragging rights. And, initially, the New World was outpacing the old, America's champions beating the British at their own game. In the first Astley Belt race, in March 1878, O'Leary was the only American to take the line (Weston cried off), facing off against sixteen British entrants eager to take his crown and reclaim bragging rights for Queen and country. As Weston had against his British challengers, O'Leary beat them all and became the first Long Distance Champion of the World.

With the Astley Belt now in his possession, O'Leary returned to the United States where he was forced to accept a challenge from a blow-hard by the name of John Hughes, who struggled to even last the six days when the two finally faced off in the autumn of 1878. The site chosen for this second Astley Belt match was New York's Gilmore's Garden, formerly PT Barnum's Grand Roman Hippodrome and soon (1879) to acquire a new name: Madison Square Garden.

* * * * *

Quite when and where the first Six Day bicycle race took place is a matter of some dispute, with the majority claiming that it was 1878 and Islington's Agricultural Hall (with the rider's racing eighteen hours a day), while a minority hold that an unidentified event in Birmingham in 1875 (where the riders rode twelve hours a day) beat London's proto-hipsters to the draw. Whichever is true it seems that Six Day bicycle races as a profitable business venture did not begin until after Weston's pedestrian appearances in the Agricultural Hall in 1876, Weston and O'Leary's appearance there in 1877 and the first Astley Belt race held there in the Spring of 1878: the 1878 London Six (held in November) being followed by a series of races in London, Birmingham and Hull in 1879 and across the UK the following year, after which the sport bloomed throughout the UK in the 1880s before beginning to fade away (in the country of its birth) in the 1890s, by which time the Americans had taken up the baton and reinvented the sport.

These obvious links between the early Six Day bicycle races and the pedestrian races that preceded them make Algeo's Pedestrianism a worthwhile read for all interested in cycling's history and how it established itself as the sport of the moment at the end of the nineteenth century. What's interesting about Pedestrianism, though, isn't just the fact that it tells you about this forgotten sport that helped create Six Day bicycle races, it is also the fact that so much that happened in pedestrianism later happened in cycling.

Pedestrianism had its own black star, before cycling got Major Taylor, in Frank Hart, a protégé of Dan O'Leary's after the champion pedestrian decided to retire from the sport following defeat by the British challenger, Charles Rowell, in the third Astley Belt match. Pedestrianism had its female stars too: Algeo talks about Ada Anderson, Bertha von Hillern, Exilda la Chapelle, Bertha von Berg and Mary Marshall, and about all-women Sixes held in Gilmore's Garden in 1879. As popular as it was with the masses, the sport had its critics too, with one claiming that pedestrianism was "scarcely more diverting than the slower tortures of the Inquisition, which only began to afford the spectator entertainment after the victim had suffered for some considerable time." And, of course, there was doping: during his series of challenges in London in 1876 Weston was accused of having raced while high on cocoa leaves, a charge he tried to dismiss by partly accepting it before denying it (he said he had chewed on cocoa leaves in previous races but then sworn off them, having formed the opinion they did not aid his performance).

All of these tales have echoes in cycling, throughout the ages and it is they, as much as the more direct links between pedestrianism and Six Day bicycle racing (Shock, the Agricultural Hall, Madison Square Garden), that make Pedestrianism a book those interested in cycling's history really should read. It is also worth reading because it is such a colourful tale, with a whichy thicket of stories sprouting off the main narrative. There's the New York police captain Alexander 'Clubber' Williams, who swung his billy club (perhaps too) freely at one of the Astley Belt races in the Garden. There's the history of Madison Square Garden and the men who owned it during its different incarnations. There's the Reverend Dr John Philip Newman, who saw in pedestrianism the hand of Satan. And there are the moments in history which seem to echo down through the ages:

"Pedestrianism also animated the major issues of its era: American-British relations, class warfare, racial injustice, women's rights, religious zealotry. Some of these will seem all too familiar to modern readers. An international superpower gets bogged down in a war in Afghanistan, America is riven by a bitter debate over immigration, and a world-famous athlete finds himself accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. The story of pedestrianism is really the story of its time, a period of rapid technological and social change—much like our own."

All these tales and more Algeo weaves into the main narrative about Weston and O'Leary, making Pedestrianism is more than just the story of the ambulatory antics of two men.

* * * * *

In 1879 the British reclaimed the Astley Belt from their American rivals (Weston briefly stole it back but it quickly passed back into the possession of the British) and in 1881 Rowell took full possession of the belt after winning it three times in a row, bringing to an end the Astley-sponsored Championship of the World. Many tried to replace it and the sport became awash with races all claiming to be the new Championship. And here pedestrianism had missed a trick that other sports - cycling in particular - quickly learned from: it had no central governing authority, no one to ratify records, codify rules and declare who really was the Champion of the World. But what really killed pedestrianism was its direct descendent, the Six Day bicycle races.

Responding to those who saw Six Day bicycle races as "one of the worst tortures that one could possibly ask a human being to undergo" New York's legislators passed a law which which aimed to stop riders from being on their bikes for more than twelve hours in a day. Other jurisdictions followed suit. The promoters of the Madison Square Garden International Six Day race adapted to the new law, putting teams of two on the boards of the Garden and gifting the cycling world today's Madison. But the pedestrians couldn't adapt and their sport faded into memory. Weston and O'Leary, they kept walking, on into old age, reminding people of their glory days and a time when the world was wowed by men who could walk on and on. Time, in the end, defeated them, as it defeats all (Weston died in 1929, O'Leary in 1933) and pedestrianism became the sport the world forgot. Until once again the world discovered a taste for ultramarathon athletic endeavours.