The Bell-Lappers

A two-wheeled trip down memory lane at breakneck speeds.
Share |

“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.”

Erwin "Erv" PesekOn 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.

Raboldi and Pesek at the 1947 Chicago Six Day “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


Share |

Comments

I conclude I have selected the smart and inconceivable website along with interesting stuff.
Chris Walker - best Denver SEO

I high value this post. It's elusive the great from the terrible now and then, however I think you've nailed it! would you brain overhauling your web journal with more data
web 2.0 backlinks

Amazing, what a post this is! This webpage gives helpful information to us, keep on working hard.
Chris Walker - SEO company

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.Maggy

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.gratis minecraft server |
psn free trial

Buy backlinks I was very pleased to find this site. I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post Dofollow Blog Comments

It’s my first time to visit this site & I’m really surprised to see such impressive stuff out there.
Jimmy Kim

This is an extraordinary post. I like this topic.This site has loads of advantage.I discovered numerous fascinating things from this site. It helps me in numerous ways.Thanks for posting this once more. buy YouTube views

The blog with the best stuff is provoking the people to give the good remarks.
read here

I have perused a couple of the articles on your site now, and I truly like your style of blogging. I added it to my top picks blog webpage list and will be returning soon. If it's not too much trouble look at my site too and let me comprehend what you think. messebau köln

There is such a great amount in this article I would never have considered all alone. Your substance gives perusers things to consider in an intriguing way. Much thanks to you for your unmistakable data. werbeartikel günstig

much thanks to you for an incredible post. sell silver

much thanks to you for an incredible post. tattoo supplies

Wonderful blog post. This is absolute magic from you! I have never seen a more wonderful post than this one. You've really made my day today with this. I hope you keep this up Clash of Clans Hack Deutsch

There is so much in this article that I would never have thought of on my own. Your content gives readers things to think about in an interesting way. Thank you for your clear information.
Ophiuchus Zodiac Sign

I was looking at some of your posts on this website and I conceive this web site is really instructive! Keep putting up...
Fibromyalgia

I have as of late begun a web journal, the data you give on this webpage has helped me significantly. A debt of gratitude is in order for the greater part of your time and work.
car service

niche relevant backlinks Thanks for a wonderful share. Your article has importations your hard work and experience you have got in This field. Brilliant reading .I love it. high trust flow backlinks dofollow

Quality stuff may be the key to invite the users to visit begin to see the blog site, that’s what this site provides.
Shailandra Singh Sequoia Capital

Your way to enlighten everything on this blog is actually pleasant, everyone manage to efficiently be familiar with it, Thanks a great deal.
online payday lolans

Pleasant to be going to your online journal once more, it has been months for me. Well this article i've been sat tight for so long. I require this article to finish my task in the school, and it has same subject with your article. Much obliged, incredible offer.
Language of Desire

Most of the time I don’t make comments on websites, but I'd like to say that this article really forced me to do so. Really nice post!
What Men Secretly Want Review

This is simply a wonderful article. I truly had a ton of fun while perusing this. This is the best thing that I've perused for the current month. You've turned an awful month into a good month. HP 8600 Ink

I acknowledge all that you have added as far as anyone is concerned base.Admiring the time and exertion you put into your online journal and point by point data you offer.Thanks. nouvalift

Very interesting blog. Alot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that I'm interested in, but I'm most definately interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.
Obsession Phrases Review

This is just the most wonderful article that I've read on your blog in a long time. You've done an impressive job here. I just wish that you continue to do more jobs like this. Cheers! Copier Drum

Very awesome!!! When I seek for this I found this website at the top of all blogs in search engine.
10 year fixed rate term insurance

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.transfer from ataturk airport to istanbul

I think I have never seen such blogs ever before that has complete things with all details which I want. So kindly update this ever for us.
Shailandra Singh Sequoia Capital

Todos Los Modelos Retro Jordan y Nuevos Modelos Originales de Importacion Consiguelos en Markstore Tienda Online Adquiere un cupon de 100 pesos de descuento en tu primera comprastamped concrete patio ma

I thought haven’t read such distinctive material anywhere else on-line.

payday loan source

I was searching the blogs for a long time and that is good to know that I have found such blogs here. Great working! Keep it up!
Shailendra Singh

Having such type of incredible blogs provoking the people to come and visit this site and comment. Thanks for all
www.noironyx.com

I was searching for decisive information on this topic. The information you have provided in the blog is really important.
Curry Macfarlane

Hi Dear, have you been certainly visiting this site daily, if that's the case you then will certainly get good knowledge.
liability only car insurance

I just like the valuable info you provide for your articles.I’ll bookmark your weblog and take a look at once more right here regularly. I am reasonably certain I’ll learn a lot of new stuff proper here minneapolis plumbers

I just like the valuable info you provide for your articles.I’ll bookmark your weblog and take a look at once more right here regularly. I am reasonably certain I’ll learn a lot of new stuff proper here amazon com used books

Very interesting blog. A lot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that I'm interested in, but I'm most definitely interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you known http://mobilehacks4u.com/boom-beach-hack-get-gold-diamonds-wood-and-even-more-for-iosandroid/

It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I've read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions
bonuses

Just wanted to tell you that you have people like me who appreciate your work. Definitely a great post. The information you provide is really very good
bonuses

You have a real ability for writing unique content. I like how you think and the way you represent your views in this article.
source

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.
minecraft download gratis |
free psn codes no surveys

The interview that day started with a lot of short sentences and coaxing interjections from Pesek’s wife Blanche.anabolic steroids online

All you share with us is up to date and quite informative, i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job
fly screen roller door

Pleasant to be going to your web journal once more, it has been months for me. Well this article i've been sat tight for so long
click

Nice article. The information here was really helpful for me. For I was finally able to complete my paper on this topic due tomorrow. Thanks a lot for providing this information. Keep it up! Trees Need Tree Surgeons

I definitely enjoying every little bit of it. It is a great website and nice share. I want to thank you. Good job! You guys do a great blog, and have some great contents.
bonuses

Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work cheap backlink service

if only all bloggers offered the same level of content as you, the internet would be a much better place. tattoo supply

You have a real ability for writing unique content. I like how you think and the way you represent your views in this article. I agree with your way of thinking here