In the 1920s, track cyclist often made much more than professional baseball players or American football players. Fast forward nearly a century, and track cycling in America is obscure, while Major League Baseball and the National Football League dominate mainstream media. So what happened? An argument can be made that radio played a key role in relegating cycling.
Author Peter Nye in his book Hearts of Lions: The History of American Bicycle Racing, noted “In 1920, eleven football teams that would eventually form the National Football League went on sale for $100 each. One could have bought the entire NFL for $1,100. The better bicycle racers made almost that much - $700 to $1,000 – in a good week.”
That was during the “golden age of cycling” where fans paid money to see professional cyclists race on the velodrome. The first of these were constructed for the new sport in the late 19th century, with the oldest velodrome being Preston Park at Brighton in the south of England. Track cycling made its debut in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, but the events were held on a flat track.
It was at the Vélodrome de Vincennes in the outskirts of Paris, which was build in 1894 and was used in the 1900 Paris Olympics, where the events were held on a purpose built track for cycling. In the years that followed indoor velodromes were built, including the Vélodrome d'hiver in Paris in 1909.
Track cycling was also one of the first truly international spectator sports, drawing crowds not only in the U.K. and U.S. but in France, Belgium, Italy and even as far away as Australia.
“Track racing was popular in Australia from mid-1890 to 1940, downtime during World War II, then popular again from 1945 to 1965,” said Warren Meade, curator from the former Canberra Bicycle Museum in Australia.
Following the First World War track cycling truly took off in the United States.
“In the twenties the baseball stadium only started to fill up after the Madison Square Garden Six Day bike race sold out,” said Roger Young, track cycling coach, and member of the gold winning 4000-meter pursuit team at the 1975 Pan American Games. “The choice of sports was certainly an issue at the time. Naturally the bike race only lasted a week in each city where baseball was a lot more available, more of people’s daily life and less an annual novelty event.”
And while it might be hard to imagine today, track cycling was something that transcended social and economic borders, something baseball in its early days did not.
“Racing was popular among a wide range of the socio-economic scale,” said Jim Elking of the Bicycle Museum of America. “Thus you had the wealthy sitting in on the same sporting event as the more indigent. Baseball was seen as a more elite sport in its early days thus those considering themselves in the elite gravitated toward baseball.”
The irony is that many people who lived through that time often seem to forget about track racing.
Young told BikeRadar that in an effort to record his elder family members years ago, he put them in front of a video camera and asked them things such as “what was your experience when you were a kid,” and he said that “virtually all of them recall sitting in the living room listening to baseball and boxing on the radio - and these were cycling people.”
One other issue was the length of the early track races, and changing technology.
“The length of the early track races also played a part in the decline. People’s interest could not be maintained for races such as the Six Day races,” said Elking. “The general popularity of the bicycle declined as the interurban and the motorcar came on the scene. As fewer people were taking part in cycling in general there was a corresponding wane of interest in the racing of cycles as well.”
By the Great Depression people simply couldn’t pay for the then-over-paid pro cyclists to ride around the track, Elking told BikeRadar. But the final nail in the tire was again radio.
Sports broadcasting in the United States didn’t begin until 1921 with the broadcast of the 1921 West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh college football game on KDKA, one of the first commercial radio stations. Radio was slow to catch on in the 1920s but its rise coincided with that of baseball. Hence it could be argued that radio killed the track bike star.
“The sport of professional track cycling nowadays is more sensitive to how it plays on TV - and more currently how is streams on the Internet,” said Young. “Events like Manchester’s ‘Revolution’ races are sold out and races are run more like horse racing with segments timed to produce a better TV or video segment.”
And while the sport of course lives on today, and garnered massive attention with this summer’s Olympic Games in London, it is worth considering how it might have played out had TV arrived in time for the velodrome races to be broadcast to the masses.