Review: The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing in New Jersey
(2016) If anyone doubts the American impact on global cycling, it should be pointed out that the Madison track event is named after the Madison Square Garden, where it debuted to circumvent laws passed restricting track racing. Furthermore, the Madison abroad is known simply as the “American Race.”
It was the beginning of the twentieth century and track cycling was huge. Riders were even bigger than life. The pinnacle of the talent earned upwards of $20,000 per year plus side payments in 1910. To put it in contrast, Ty Cobb of the same year, who had won the American League batting title, was being paid $10,000. Despite this fame, major history timelines often neglect mentioning this era in sport.
With the offseason making it supremely difficult to get out and emulate spring or fall rides, one must get creative to pass the time as the days are their darkest and the temperatures are their lowest. We could dust off the blasted trainer, but really, why would we subject ourselves to that?
I picked up the book The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing in New Jersey to find out why there was enough material to make a 120-page book. Written by Michael C. Gabrielle, the book charts the meteoric rise in New Jersey velodrome racing as well as its sudden plummet. Yet all is not lost on the once-massive presence of racing in New Jersey.
The book is well written. It is not weighted down with facts to put us to sleep, nor is it overdramatized to make it into a fictional work. In its most raw element, track racing is dramatic enough. Someone just needed to pull it back out of the archives and assemble it with pictures of the bygone era. Who better than Gabrielle, a journalist and historian, to gift us such a book to refer to from time to time?
He charts the famous New Jersey riders who were a force of global reputation. Gabrielle also records the names of the global riders who perceived the New Jersey velodrome scene as a challenge and made the trip to the Garden State. Velodromes like Newark and Orange, Nutley and Vailsburg were the destinations for track cyclists and thousands of fans alike during this time. The tracks and the promoters delivered a product that people wanted to see.
As all things do, track cycling fell out of favor. Like cycling had done to the now-preposterous endurance sport of pedestrianism, the automobile was doing to the bicycle. Velodromes were occasionally rented out for motorcycle races as World War I approached. Some of them conspicuously burnt to the ground. Others wilted under nature and were plowed over to make room for housing developments.
All is not lost to this era. One event still shines a ray of historical significance. Anyone who has ever shown up for the Tour of Somerville is adding his or her name to the long list of notable riders making New Jersey the race destination. Despite the changes over the years, the Tour of Somerville is still a bike race attracting big names in bike racing. Michael Gabrielle devotes a chapter to the long-standing event that has often been raced by future professional cyclists.
With the resurgence in popularity of the Six-Day racing, perhaps some of the old velodrome hopes can return to the New Jersey countryside to wow a crowd of more than 10,000 like they once did. With its simple format, track cycling is perhaps waiting for the right time to reemerge from the ghosts of the past in New Jersey. If it does, Michael Gabrielle’s book can add a new chapter- one that mentions how his recording of the Golden Age of New Jersey cycling has returned, and possibly because he shined a light on it for just 120 pages.
The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing in New Jersey can be found at your local bookshop. Suggested retail price of this book is $19.99.