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Blood on the Tracks

Bobby Walthour
Bobby Walthour
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

“I’m not afraid to ride fast for I haven’t got but one time to die, and I don’t believe that it will be on the track.”
~ Bobby Walthour
Atlanta Constitution
September 9, 1907

Bobby Walthour died three times.

1907. From a June 23 Boston Daily Globe interview with Bobby Walthour, following the death the previous month of his compatriot, Louis Mettling, after a crash during a motor-paced race in Dresden:

”I cannot understand how there are any more men left on the German path, for the game a bicycle rider is up against in the Fatherland is the most strenuous anywhere. In this country and in France they are following small motors, for both here and in the French capital it was discovered that the game was too hazardous and the public kindly consented to give the racing men a chance for their life. In Germany, however, the game is entirely different.

”The Germans are today passing through the stage of speed madness which was a curse to the game in this country and France a few years ago and which in the United States cost the lives of such great riders as Harry Elkes and Johnny Nelson. Today the game is even worse in Germany than it was three or four years ago in this country, when we were following the big thirteen horsepower single cylinder pacing machines; for in Germany they are using two and four cylinder pacing machines, developing twenty-four and even greater horsepower which means that a man must travel at a mile-a-minute gait if he hopes to get in the money. Louis Darragon’s record of a trifle more than fifty-nine miles in one hour shows conclusively what it means, for in that hour some of the miles were ridden in less than a minute.

”Let the public stop and realise what this means. Their hair would stand on their heads if they were in a motor car with four strong wheels under them and well balanced if they travelled at that speed. A bicycle rider has nothing but a little bicycle, made as light as possible and fitted with tissue paper tyres made of French silk, a little rubber and a little fabric, which are faster than the regular rubber tyres in use here. That wheel must be balanced to a nicety, and yet the men are fairly flying.

”It is practically impossible for a man to see where he is going. The body of his pacemaker is in the front, and the bulk looming up before him is all he has to go by. It is a case of dig, dig, dig, onto the pedals, over on your side most of the time, for the track for this speed must be built almost on a curve, and the stretches as well as the turns must be banked.

”But enough of the risk: if the tracks were built for the speed it would not be so bad, for a man would be making a continual turn and it would not be so near suicide. The tracks, however, were never built to stand the speed at which the men travel behind the motors, and the result is that, swinging out of the turn, a man is wrenched in his seat and his arms almost torn from the socket in trying to swing his front wheel in line to preserve his equilibrium.”

Bobby Walthour, behind his pacer, Franz Hoffman
Bobby Walthour, behind his pacer, Franz Hoffman

1900. Monday, December 31. Boston. The Park Square Garden. Nineteen riders on the track. Ten thousand paying punters in the stands. Six days of racing. Twelve five-hour stints in the saddle. Two each day. One ’til six. Seven ’til midnight. Join the race as the countdown to midnight begins.

Ten! The air’s a fug of stale smoke, the smell a riot of tobacco, rancid sweat, cheap aftershave, spilled beer, and hot dogs. Nine! With each beat the noise builds Eight! rising through the roof Seven! echoing off the floor Six! rippling back up through the soles of the crowd’s stomping feet. Five! The atmosphere is electric, Four! alive with the crowd’s energy. Three! On the wooden oval Two! the riders are balls-out in a sprint for the line. One! One rider has pushed himself a wheel clear as the roar explodes: Happy New Year!!! Bobby Walthour. Twenty-three years old this very day. One of eight riders now leading the Twentieth Century Race. One day down, only five more days of racing to go.

Bobby Walthour resting during a Six Day race, 1914
Bobby Walthour resting during a Six Day race, 1914
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

1904. Over the course of the 1904 season – the nine months between March 17 and December 10 – Walthour won forty out of the forty-four races he started. He entered the season as the winner of the 1903 Madison Square Garden International Six Day race, ended it the winner of the UCI’s Motor-Paced World Championships.

Forty wins out of forty-four starts is an impressive statistic in a sport where you are supposed to lose more races than you win. But where those races took place is even more impressive. In a pre-aviation age, when it took a week to cross the Atlantic on an expensive ocean liner, Walthour put in two visits to Europe, where he raced in France, Germany and the UK, as well as participating on the national circuit in the United States.

At the World Championships in London’s Crystal Palace, 7,000 fans paid to watch the races and saw Walthour crowned motor-paced champion of the world. In Paris Walthour raced on the Vélodrome Buffalo, in front of 15,000 paying fans. In the Parc des Princes the crowd was 20,000 strong. In Leipzig 30,000 fans filled the stadium. In Berlin’s Sportpark Friedenau 40,000 fans paid to witness the spectacle of speed Walthour and his peers provided.

Back in the US Walthour raced on the track at Boston’s Revere Beach and down the river in Cambridge, on the Charles River Park Velodrome. In Atlanta he rode on the Piedmont Park Coliseum. An aptly named vélodrome, for motor-paced cycling in those days was truly a gladiatorial sport and the crowd came to witness the crashes – the blood, the ripped skin, the broken bones – as much as they came to exalt in the pure athleticism of the riders.

Bobby Walthour at the Großer Preis der Stadt Hannover, September 26, 1909
Bobby Walthour at the Großer Preis der Stadt Hannover, September 26, 1909

1904. George Leander’s funeral service was held in the Temple de l’Avenue de la Grande Armée, Paris, in August 1904. The American had travelled to Europe just two months previous. He was just twenty-one.

In the six races Leander had started since arriving in Europe, he’d taken six wins. The seventh race was at Henri Desgrange and Victor Goddet’s Parc des Princes vélodrome. Leander lined up against Walthour and Eugenio Bruni. Walthour was being paced by Franz Hoffman, onboard a one-cylinder, sixteen-horsepower motorcycle. Bruni was being paced by Reimers aboard a two-cylinder, twenty-four-horsepower machine. Leander was riding in the slipstream of Henri Cissac, aboard a two-cylinder, twenty-six-horsepower motor.

Thirty-two kilometres into the race Cissac was attempting to tow his rider past Reimers and Bruni when Leander began to lose ground on his pacer. Leander was travelling at about ninety kilometres an hour when, just as he slipped out of Cissac’s slipstream, his bike was buffeted by the dirty air. He flew onto the Parc’s steeply banked turn and lost control, going over the handlebars of his bike. He flew twenty metres through the air and hit the cement track head first. His limp body tumbled and rolled along the track. Thirty-six hours later he died in hospital, without having regained consciousness. Two months after Paul Dangla’s death on the track in Magdeburg, Germany, motor-paced racing had claimed another victim.

Bobby Walthour behind his pacer, Gussie Lawson
Bobby Walthour behind his pacer, Gussie Lawson

1903. May 30. Memorial Day. Boston. The Charles River track. The old cement oval – three laps to the mile – had been replaced with a brand new wooden track. With motor-pacers increasing their speed, the old track was simply out of date. This new wooden oval was purpose-built to accommodate what were then frighteningly fast speeds: nearly eighty kilometres an hour. Shorter than of old – now five laps to the mile – the new track was twenty-five feet wide, with turns that banked at thirty-eight degrees. The track was also built to pay for itself. Along the finishing straight a grandstand could seat 8,000 paying punters. Around the rest of the oval another 6,000 fans could fill the bleachers. And, if you were willing to stand in the infield and crane your neck, there was still room to squeeze you in.

Through the previous season, Walthour and Harry Elkes had vied for the title of the best motor-paced rider in America. Elkes initially held the upper hand, trumping Walthour five times in succession. Then Walthour came back at his rival and won the next six races. Walthour reigned supreme. In 1903, Elkes was determined to get the upper hand and take back his title. He was also looking forward to retirement: one last hurrah, a fortune banked, and he’d be gone, twenty-five, his cycling career done and a new life as a happily married man ahead of him. Having been one of the first American sprinters to defect to the new craze for motor-paced riding Elkes was, perhaps, now thinking too much: “The game is getting dangerous,” he told the Atlanta Constitution in early May, “the odds are against getting out alive.” Elkes wanted out.

Four of the best motor-paced riders in America are here for the feature event, a twenty-mile race: Walthour, Elkes, Will Stinson and Jimmy Moran. Elkes was particularly eager for victory over Walthour this day. Earlier in the month, racing down in Atlanta, Walthour had gone down heavily when his rear tyre blew at seventy kilometres an hour. Elkes was the first to reach him, slowing swiftly and hopping off his bike to help his fallen comrade. His good sportsmanship was applauded by the crowd. But when the race resumed it was Walthour who took the cheers, crossing the line first. Walthour had then proposed a rematch and, a few days later, the two were again going wheel to wheel. And again Walthour was the victor. Here in Boston, at this Memorial Day meet, it was time for Elkes to put himself back into the game.

Three quarters of the way through the race Elkes held a three lap lead over Walthour. Time to ease back and defend his advantage? No, time to put his rival to the sword: Elkes kept calling for more speed from his pacer. Then it happened: Elkes’ chain snapped. He coasted down the back straight, bleeding the speed off. Only to have the chain – still dangling from his machine – whip into his rear wheel, ripping spokes and throwing Elkes to the track. Burnt skin and maybe some splinters should have been the worst of it.

But Elkes went down in the path of Stinson’s pacing machine, which was steaming up behind him at eighty kilometres an hour. The heavy machine crunched over Elkes and itself went down. Stinson went down behind it. Three bodies – Elkes, Stinson and Stinson’s pacer, Frank Gately – lay entangled on the track. Blood pooled around them, baptising the new oval. The crowd rushed to their aid. Gately rose, blood dripping from a foot, a toe almost severed. Stinson and Elkes were stretchered off the track. Elkes was ambulanced off to Massachusetts General Hospital. He was dead on arrival.

Bobby Walthour racing in Germany
Bobby Walthour racing in Germany
US Cycling Hall of Fame/Andrew Ritchie

1907: Walthour opened his 1907 season in Paris, at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, in early March. From France he moved on to Germany, where he put in appearances at Stieglitz, Erfurt and Leipzig, where he rode on May 12. Already he’d crashed several times, each time bouncing back up. At Erfurt, a week before the Leipzig race, he crashed after crossing the finish line and was briefly knocked unconscious. Then, at Leipzig, he rode into a bunch of fallen riders, remounted and rode out the remaining six laps, despite having broken his collarbone and two fingers. With blood dripping from a gash in his forehead and another gash in his leg, he won the race. How soon after that he slipped into a coma isn’t clear, but a month passed before he regained consciousness. By then he was back in his home in New Jersey.

In Walthour’s absence the twenty-two-year-old Louis Mettling was drafted in from the States. He arrived in time to race in Dresden on June 9. Riding behind Walthour’s pacer, Franz Hoffman, Mettling crashed and, two weeks later, died as a result of his injuries. It was Mettling’s death which had prompted Walthour to stress the dangers of racing in Germany.

Walthour’s German promoters insisted he honour his remaining contracts, so having recovered from his crash he returned to Germany. Upon his arrival back in New York, he gave an interview to The World in which he summed up his most eventful trip to Europe:

”[…] twice in Germany they threw a shroud over me to ‘cover the corpse.’ Those German tracks are the most dangerous in the world. I will never ride on them again. They are all of cement. Two men were killed outright and several more badly injured in the five races I rode in Germany. I fell in four races out of five. Once I was sent to the hospital for five days; and the queer thing about that is that I can’t remember anything about it or about being in a hospital or about the people who visited me there. Another fall put me in hospital for three weeks.

”In one race I protested against one of the pacers riding for Verbist, the Belgian. The pacemaker rode too close and crowded the other riders. The officials wouldn’t pay any attention to the protest and the foreign riders don’t seem to care. They are absolutely careless about the danger of being killed anyway.

”In the next race the pacemaker rode too close to somebody and threw him. Five men went down and a timer named Wolff, standing at the edge of the track, was killed. At Spandau, Berlin, a pacemaker [Hoffman] hit a man crossing the track and killed him. When I fell I was laid out cold. The doctors looked me over and ordered the attendants to throw a blanket over me to hide the ‘corpse.’ From the spectators. My wife forced her way in and told them to take the blanket off so I could breathe. The doctor said, ‘Oh he doesn’t need to breathe. He’s all through with that. You go home and we’ll attend to burying him.’ But she insisted on pulling the blanket away from my face. I guess that saved me.”

Image accompanying a Louis Darragon article in La Vie Au Grand Air, November 1907, depicting some of the riders who’d been killed on the track: Louis Mettling, Johnny Nelson, Paul Dangla, Albert Brècy, George Leander, and Harry Elkes.
Image accompanying a Louis Darragon article in La Vie Au Grand Air, November 1907, depicting some of the riders who’d been killed on the track: Louis Mettling, Johnny Nelson, Paul Dangla, Albert Brècy, George Leander, and Harry Elkes.

1915: Walthour reckoned that, throughout his cycling career, he’d crashed more than 250 times. In an article in the Washington Post he was said to have:

“broken his right collar bone twenty-seven times; broken left collarbone eighteen times; suffered rib fractures thirty times; had more than forty stitches taken in both legs; has more than 100 body scars as a result of bruises; he has about sixty stitch marks in his face, forehead and head as a result of sewed up wounds; has broken six of his ten fingers; has been pronounced dead twice and fatally injured at least six times.”

Berlin, 1909, when a pacing engine crashed and exploded in a ball of flames
Berlin, 1909, when a pacing engine crashed and exploded in a ball of flames

1901. Saturday, January 5. Boston. The Park Square Garden. The last night of the Twentieth Century Race. The photographs are black and white but the riders are a rainbow of purple and blue and black and red and maroon and gold and white, all blurring into a kaleidoscope of colour as their cavalcade whirls round and round the banked oval. Seven riders are tied on the same distance, the rest of the field eliminated for the grand finale. After 1,757 kilometres of racing, a one-mile gallop will decide the final victor.

No cat-and-mousing this sprint: from the gun they’re going for it. In second wheel, the Canadian champion, Archie McEachern, in his slipstream, riding third wheel, Walthour. For six days the American has prepared himself for this moment. His attempts to gain a lap on his own have all failed. But each session-ending sprint has taught him more about his opponents. Like a poker player he’s quietly assessed their strengths, their weaknesses, judged the ones to watch, the ones to ignore. McEachern makes his move first and Walthour goes with him. Behind, a gap opens up. It’s a two-up sprint. Canada versus America in the finale of The World’s International Championships.

McEachern and Walthour are out of the saddle, arms and legs pulling and pushing as they surge for the line. Finally the American comes off the Canadian’s wheel. Pulls level with his opponent. Side by side they race as they streak on, their bikes thrown side to side in the surge for the line. Six afternoons and six nights, ten sessions, sixty hours, 1,758 kilometres of wheel-to-wheel racing and it’s all coming down to this: a fifty-kilometre-an-hour gallop for the line. The roar of the capacity crowd is as loud as on that first night when they welcomed in the New Year. And once again the first wheel across the line is that of Bobby Walthour.

Bobby Walthour, 1909
Bobby Walthour, 1909
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

1909: The doctors said it was an aneurysm. Hugh McLean had been training on the Revere track in Boston when it happened. One moment he was riding along merrily, the next he rode into the rear of his motor-pacer and went down, hard. By the time the doctor reached his prone body it was already too late. Motor-paced cycling was a hard game. So too is life itself.

Bobby Walthour at the Sportpark Friedenau
Bobby Walthour at the Sportpark Friedenau

1949: They buried Bobby Walthour in September 1949. He had lived out his three score years and ten, and even won a lap of honour, bringing him up to three months shy of his seventy-second birthday. He was born the same year Alfred Pope started the first American bicycle manufacturing company – and the same year that Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor was born too – and in his lifetime he had seen cycling rise from nothing to become the biggest sport in the United States, only to begin a slow fade to obscurity. He had crossed and recrossed the Atlantic more than a dozen times, his racing schedule taking him to Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Walthour was one of the lucky ones: he got out alive. Whenever he rode in motor-paced races he had risked life and limb in the quest for speed, the pursuit of victory. Wherever he rode Walthour was a star. Luck had nothing to do with that. Quick legs, an intelligent mind and a personality that endeared him to the fans of our sport are what accounted for Walthour’s fame. You can’t even credit genetic inheritance, for Walthour’s twin brother, Jimmy, failed to match his brother’s athleticism. The races, the respect, the fame that Walthour won, all of that was hard earned.

Fame is fleeting and fades with the years. And, after his death, the candle of Walthour’s fame fluttered out. But, every couple of decades or so, someone remembers Bobby Walthour and celebrates his achievements, remembers an era of this sport when the riders were hard, racing was fast, and lives were cheap. In 1969 Walthour was made a member of the State of Georgia Hall of Fame. In 1988 his story featured in Peter Nye’s Hearts of Lions and the following year Walthour’s contribution to American cycling history was recognised by the United States Cycling Hall of Fame. Andrew Homan’s Life in The Slipstream – The Legend of Bobby Walthour Sr (Potomac Books) is the latest contribution to keeping Walthour’s memory alive. Long may this tradition continue.

A motor-paced track race, France, 1907
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Source: Life In The Slipstream – the Legend Of Bobby Walthour Sr (Potomac Books, 2011, 241 pages), by Andrew M Homan.

For more on this era of cycling, see also: Major Taylor – The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World, by Andrew Ritchie (Van der Plas Publishing / Cycle Publishing, 1988); Hearts Of Lions – The Story Of American Bicycle Racing (Van der Plas Publishing / Cycle Publishing, 1988) and The Six Day Bicycle Races – America’s Jazz-Age Sport (Van der Plas Publishing / Cycle Publishing, 2006), both by Peter Nye.