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Little-known Hall celebrates cycling's heyday

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

SOMERVILLE, N.J. Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall lies the tribute to a sport that was once as widely recognized in America as football, basketball or baseball.

While most Americans are aware of Lance Armstrong's ambitious attempt at a fifth straight Tour de France title, few know cycling has deep roots in the United States, or even a Hall of Fame here in central New Jersey.

In its heyday the late 19th to early 20th centuries as many as 30,000 people would attend the biggest cycling races, to watch the greatest stars.

''It was the Golden Age for competitive cycling,'' said Vincent Menci, curator for the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. ''People would go to the baseball games only if they found out the Velodromes were sold out.''

The most popular races were on banked, oval racetracks that were typically 150 to 500 meters in distance. Spectators packed into the old Madison Square Garden and the Polo Grounds to watch Velodrome events like the six-day races and cycling sprints.

Teams of two riders would go around the track for six days straight, with one rider competing while his partner rested or snacked. Fran Walter and Charley Miller, the winners of the 1899 six-day race in Madison Square Garden, pedaled a combined 2,733 miles more than 600 miles farther than this year's Tour de France, which lasts three weeks.

While the six-day race presented a tremendous challenge, the sprint events produced the sports biggest stars. Frank Kramer, perhaps the most popular cyclist in American history, won the national sprint championship an unprecedented 18 times, including 16 in a row from 1901 to 1916.

''Kramer was like the Michael Jordan of cycling,'' Menci said. ''He had the endorsements and the enormous popularity.''

Marshall Taylor, the last cyclist to beat Kramer before his record run of sprint titles, became the first African-American to win a World Championship in any sport after capturing the one-mile title in Montreal in 1899. That was nine years before boxer Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title and nearly half a century before Jackie Robinson integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers. Taylor was banned from many events in the U.S., however, because of his race.

The sport of cycling was dimmed by the Great Depression and fell into obscurity after World War II.

''It was not promoted very well and the country was preoccupied with other things,'' said Peter Nye, bicycling historian and author of ''Hearts of Lions: The Story of American Bicycle Racing.'' The other sports became dominant because of television. Cycling, with all the time it takes and all the movement, is too expensive for television.''

Still, individual Americans thrived. George Mount's sixth place finish in the road race of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was the first time an American placed in the top ten of an Olympic cycling event in 64 years. When Greg LeMond captured the Tour de France in 1986, America took notice of the sport again.

LeMond won twice more in 1989 and 1990, even after a near-fatal hunting accident in 1987 left him with injuries that threatened his career. ''LeMond re-energized cycling in the U.S.,'' said Menci, a former cyclist who placed fifth in the Tour of Somerville in 1947. ''And Armstrong is doing the same.''

Armstrong's came back from testicular cancer treatment and surgery in 1996 to capture four consecutive Tour titles starting in 1999.

LeMond was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996 and Armstrong will take the fast track into Somerville when he retires.

The U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, established in 1987, already has inducted 78 cyclists, trainers and promoters of the sport.

Somerville has a cycling history of it's own, hosting the annual Tour of Somerville every Memorial Day since 1940. According to Nye, this was ''the predominant race in America'' from the 1940s to the '80s.

''It was considered the Kentucky Derby of cycling,'' Nye said. ''It was the one place where the best riders could measure themselves against the best competition.''



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