“Erv was a professional 6 day bike racer who competed at Madison Square Garden, Chicago Coliseum, Montreal and Toronto, Canada. During WWII, he parachuted into Normandy Beach on D Day.”
On March 5th of this year, Erwin “Erv” Pesek was just one of many lives memorialized in the fine print of the death notices pages in the Chicago Tribune. But compressed into the paid notice word limit was that one-two sucker punch of accomplishment, offered in a near vacuum of context. The D-Day note adds a touch of bad-ass action-hero detail to a historical event memorialized multiple times a year. But the first sentence is less familiar, offering a taste of fleeting fame and popularity in a long forgotten event: the six-day bike race.
Six-day races come from the same era as dance marathons and flagpole sitting, though the cycling events were more athletic challenge than endurance fad. In early days, a single cyclist would ride for as many hours as his body and mind would allow, prompting a delirium by the end that drew the scorn of an 1897 New York Times editorial—“An athletic contest in which the participants ‘go queer’ in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them, is not sport, it is brutality.”
The growing outcry against the dangers of a solo six-day race prompted New York City and Chicago laws in 1899 forbidding cyclists from racing for more than 12 hours a day. To circumvent those rules, promoters paired up riders into two-man teams, at least one of whom was required to be on the track at all times while the other man rested or ate in small, square huts set up on the inside of the bowl. The winners were determined by the number of laps completed by each team at the end of the week, combined with a separate tally of points accumulated in two-mile sprints during peak times to spice up the proceedings.
In this year’s Tour de France, competitors will cover nearly 2,200 miles over 23 days. In a typical six-day race, each team would cover up to 2,800 miles in less than a week, during 146 hours of continuous riding. However, in the six-day race, the scenery wasn’t as good: instead of French country roads, it was lap after lap after lap around a banked wooden track constructed in the middle of a smoke-filled stadium. The over-arching event was punctuated by matinee and evening sprints in front of full arenas, with exhausted racers from around the world going all out for cash and prizes while jazz bands set up inside the oval accelerated their tempo to match the—occasionally literal—breakneck speed.
“As far as I’m concerned this is the roughest sport and the toughest sport because you had to train so hard,” Pesek said at his Cicero home in 2008. “When you’re riding against foreigners up there, they’re out to get you and you’re out to get them. You can do anything you want if you don’t get caught.”
Pesek was 90 years old, but age hadn’t done much to diminish a guy his peers considered one of the toughest on the six-day circuit . In the basement was a stationary bike—Pesek’s wife made him stop riding on the streets after heart troubles set in—and two red trunks filled with racing bikes dating back to the 1930’s. The interview that day started with a lot of short sentences and coaxing interjections from Pesek’s wife Blanche. But as we leafed together through dusty books of photographs and race programs, the rider once known as “Mr. 13” (a number he would later wear on his back while air-dropping into Normandy), opened up about the lost history of the six-day races.
The heyday of the six-day bike race spanned roughly the first half of the 20th century, and for a time was in the upper tier of the American sports landscape. In the four corners of the old Chicago Stadium, faux-Greek sculptures depicted the premier indoor athletes of the day: a boxer, a track runner, a hockey player, and a bicyclist. Though outdoor road races were king at the turn of the century, promoters figured out that track racing on a wooden, banked, 1/6-mile oval could sell more tickets. Instead of watching the competitors whiz by once from the side of a street, people could pack into arenas and see them run thousands of laps.
“You’re racing all day long, you’re relieving each other,” Pesek remembered. “You would get an hour or two where you could have meals, but there was a rider on the track all the time. You only had sprints when people were in the building. There would be the matinee, then they close the place down, open the windows, air it out, and get ready for the evening session. We’d have dinner, get cleaned up, get ready for evening races. A lot of times after about 4 am, newspapermen would come in to check if you were still riding down there.”
“It was very exciting, it was very fast; it wasn’t like roller derby where it was phony knock-you-down,” said Oscar Wastyn, Jr., whose father built custom bikes for many of the premier racers out of the family’s store (which still sits, 100 years after opening, in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood). “It was a dangerous damn sport. These guys were flying, and when they went down they got hurt. The hair would just stand up on your arm. The speed was awesome, the handling was amazing, they were riding right on top of each other. There were probably 40 bike riders going 35 to 38 miles per hour, inches apart, when it came by it was unbelievable. If somebody made a bad move, you were taking a lot of guys down.”
Pesek was one of many Chicago racers who came up in the 30’s in the city’s thriving amateur sports scene, with rival clubs from the Catholic Youth Organization and neighborhood groups sponsored by local politicians facing off in Wednesday night meets under the lights at the Humboldt Park Bike Bowl. Constructed from thousands of thin wooden planks by the Chicago Park District, the bowl stood near the southwest corner of the West Side park with grandstands that could hold thousands of people flanking either side. When meets weren’t being held, professional Chicago racers used the bowl to practice for the lucrative six-day races, typically held in winter on temporary tracks built inside venues that would later become famous for other sports.
“Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium were built for six-day racing and hockey at the time,” Wastyn said. “Basketball was like a nothing. The showgirls and all the stars when they closed their venues, they came to the bike race, they loved it. One time Argentino Rocca in New York came in with two prettiest blondes you’d ever seen in your life, sat down and said—boom—$500 for a sprint, and the place went wild.”
When I talked to six-day racer Bill Jacoby, he was 86 and still fit enough to take a few laps every so often on the velodrome in Northbrook, made of smooth asphalt instead of splintery wooden boards. Hearing his stories, it’s kind of a miracle he could even walk. For $100 a day (not a bad take in 1930’s dollars), riders drove themselves to the brink, and weren’t afraid to get physical with their competitors.
“I think the bike game was good for me. I enjoyed every bit of it,” Jacoby said. “Three broken collarbones, a couple cracked ribs, a chipped pelvic bone, thousands of splinters, and the whole bit.”
In one picture, he points out a smudge and says, “This little speck here is part of my scalp, with part of my hair attached to it.” He got stitched up at the hospital and rode the rest of the race wearing a “turban.”
I asked Jacoby about the worst injury he ever saw in a bike race.
“A guy named Mike Apt went over the fence on Friday night at the Humboldt Park Bowl, the top part. Fell about 20 feet. He got hurt and didn’t come back.”
Did that happen often?
“Occasionally, yeah. You would bump a wheel and before you know it, it’s…” Jacoby smacked his hands together with a crack.
Wastyn showed me one graphic photo of an injured rider named William “Torchy” Peden, a Canadian with a shock of red hair who was one of the top six-day riders, and remembered witnessing the crash as a kid from his father’s bike mechanic station on the infield.
“The banking was about 47 degrees, and Torchy was at top. He was a big guy just going a little bit too slow, his tires gave up, and he came sideways down the track on his right hip. They had to carry him out, he had splinters in his ass…you can’t imagine. They had to take him up and get a doctor, had to pull half the wood off of him. There was blood everywhere.”
As the 1940’s began, the Chicago area had produced several promising young riders for the six-day circuit, including Pesek, Bill Jacoby, Ed Carfagnini and Sears Taylor. But their professional careers—and in Jacoby’s case, a spot on the U.S. team for the canceled 1940 Olympics— were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.
Some cyclists, Carfagnini for one, didn’t come back. For the surviving racers, professional cycling attempted to regain its position in the American sports scene, but could never return to the heights of the pre-war era when top cyclists like Australian Alf Goullet made more money each year than Babe Ruth. Attendances dwindled, promoters lost interest and races were pushed out
of stadiums by the rising popularity of basketball and hockey. The Humboldt Park Bike Bowl burned down in a 1946 fire, which a 1962 Tribune article blamed on “hoboes who built a fire to keep warm.”
“The war basically killed the whole thing,” Wastyn said. “It’s really a shame because it was this fantastic sport.”
The sport found increased winter competition from the new National Basketball Association, and stadium owners such as the infamous “Dollar” Bill Wirtz in Chicago were no longer thrilled about renting their venue out for an entire week to the six-day racers.
But some cyclists stuck around, unwilling to drop out of the race. Jacoby lost his desk job at Schwinn when he defied his boss’ orders and returned to racing during a brief revival in the mid-1950’s. Pesek rode on into the late 50’s, including a race in 1959 at the New York City Armory where he was “given the hook” by a rival racer and suffered a horrific crash. Bleeding from his head and with track burns up his legs and arms, Pesek was sent to the hospital against his will, then tried to re-enter the race upon his release the next morning. When he was unable to walk a straight line for a race official, he was disqualified. It was his last race.
“The damn bike game died,” Jacoby said. “It was just one of those things.”
The six-day races live on in the diminished form of a race named after one of the premier six-day venues, the Madison. A men’s cycling event at the Olympics from 2000 to 2008, the Madison features a similar format of two-man teams whizzing around a velodrome, but only for a mere 200 laps completed in around one hour. In Europe, some “six-day” races come slightly closer to recreating the endurance challenge (and party atmosphere) of the original format, but teams only race in daily 8-hour sessions.
At the time I conducted these interviews, the last few American survivors of the pre-war bike-racing circuit met every six months or so at a restaurant in suburban Chicago and swapped old stories. Wastyn, who decades ago would stay up late as a kid at his father’s shop listening to those same tales, now organized the gatherings, sending out invitations as far as California even as the numbers got “lower and lower,” he said. For those that remained, the stories kept the sport’s forgotten heyday alive just a little bit longer, even as the group chose a name that indicated their marathon was coming to a close.
“One of most famous cyclists of all time, Norman Hill, he told me The Bell-Lappers was the most appropriate name for our group,” Wastyn said. “In cycling, the bell lap indicates the final lap, and some of us are getting closer to the finish line, he said. It was pretty heavy stuff, but that’s how he related to it. That’s how he saw the name, the Bell-Lappers.”
All Photos courtesy of Classic Cycles