A close-up of “Torchy” Peden, king of the six-day bicycle riders

H. H. ROXBOROUGH June 1 1932


A close-up of “Torchy” Peden, king of the six-day bicycle riders

H. H. ROXBOROUGH June 1 1932


A close-up of “Torchy” Peden, king of the six-day bicycle riders


THE time is nine o’clock Saturday night. The place may be the most capacious arena in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris, Sydney, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto or a score of other international centres. The occasion is the conducting of one of those weird sporting spectacles familiarly described as a “six-day bike race.”

At midnight on the Sunday preceding this particular Saturday, the firing of a starting gun dispatched about fifteen of the world’s most capable wheel-racing teams on a long, torturous grind. Since that moment the hum of revolving wheels has not ceased. For more than 140 continuous hours these two-men teams have been whirling around the white pine boards of a ten-lap saucer.

During this time some of the competitors have suffered fractured ribs, broken shoulders or severe concussions and are now resting in hospital beds. Others had been painfully abrased or cut and bruised in dangerous crashes. None have escaped the marks of the prolonged mental and physical strain which is associated with so many hours and days of constant effort and excitement.

Nevertheless, the chase for fame and gold has continued. At this moment it is announced that a prominent sportsman has offered $100 to the winner of a special ten-lap sprint.

Quickly, the fastest partners take to the track if they are not already there, and plunge into the initial manoeuvring for position. Heads are down, legs are pumping like welloiled pistons, the low musical hum expands gradually to a noisy buzz. Up to a speed of fifty miles an hour, almost defying gravitation, chancing spills, taking risks that few other athletes need ever face, the racers streak around the well-worn track, while thousands of spectators stand on seats and wildly shout encouragement.

Soon the terrific sprint ends, and all but one of the wheelers slow up in anticipation of relief. From out of the indifferent pack at this moment there bursts a rider whose speed has not lessened. Before his opponents are aware, ne dashes away to a quarter-lap lead.

At full racing speed, there swoops down from the upper portion of the track another rider, wearing the same barberpole striping as that of the leader. This partner relieves the other man without loss of distance, retains the hard-earned margin, and feverishly proceeds to lengthen it. Once more, the arena becomes charged with sound and fury. Spectators renew their cheers; relief riders jump from bunks and leap to the challenge of the team that is out to grab a lap. Every competitor is on the track. A real “jam” is under way.

Meanwhile, the two would-be lap stealers, the battling heroes of this fast-moving picture, relieve each other every two or three laps, and summon all their riding talent and latent energy to stretch their lead, until, in one frenzied burst of furious pedalling, one of them finally catches the bunch from the rear and thus gains a one-lap lead over the entire field.

To gain this advantage at such an hour requires speed, strength, courage, persistence, and judgment in a superlative degree. It may have been the achievement of

Reggie McNamara, the Australian “iron man;” or Franco Georgetti, the sensational Italian; or Jean Pijenberg, the newly arrived, spectacular Dutch rider; or Letoumier, the youthful French star. But it is even more likely that the leading character in that strategic steal has been “Torchy” Peden, a rugged Canadian lad who has been regularly burning up the bike-racing speedways and has wheeled himself to a position of world prominence in this battling game.

Four years ago the name and reputation of this native son had only provincial significance. Today, this strapping Victoria stalwart, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with ar riding weight of 214 pounds, is acclaimed by promoters, fans and contemporaries to be a moneymaker, a crowd pleaser, one of the few riders who can dictate terms, possibly the brightest star in the bicycle-racing firmament. In these times when unemployment is so prevalent, it is cheering to know that in Torchy Peden, Canada has one worker w-ho

is now definitely contracted for a solid year of highly remunerative labor.

While this accession to the pedallers’ throne has been attained at the youthful age of twenty-four, it was not gained without struggle and determination. Indeed, the athletic career of this “Western russet” —so called because of his red hair—has been so thoroughly drenched with discouragement that his ambitions and hopes might easily have caught cold and died.

During Torchy’s first three years of riding he never won a race. But he persisted until eventually he captured several British Columbia titles. Until he came East in 1928 he had never ridden on a board track, yet he competed against men who were experienced, overcame that formidable handicap, and was chosen to represent Canada at the Ninth Olympiad. At the great Amsterdam games Peden was a starter in the gruelling race of 102 miles, but had the misfortune to suffer three delays necessitated by tire troubles and consequently was unplaced.

Such a disappointment might again have written Finis to the career of a less resolute youth, but this confident athlete, with typical Western spirit, refused to remain discouraged and headed for a racing tour through the bike-racing centres of Europe. This expedition was intended primarily in order to gain experience, but Canada’s "Big Bill quickly picked up the tricks of the game and. whether the tracks were of grass. Ocinders or concrete, he rode with such success that Europeans realized his talent and prophesied his fame.

Peden returned to Canada with a reputation which he enhanced at the expense of the best amateur racers in the United States; then, having reached the pinnacle of the gold medal and silver trophy fraternity, he decided definitely to pursue the profession of bicycle racing. So, in 1929, this victorious Victorian took out his card in the wheel-pushers’ union and began to serve his apprenticeship in the dizziest of sports, the six-day bike races.

A Picturesque Sport

THIS unusual form of human endeavor is not a new pursuit. It has ridden the crest of popularity for more than forty years. Back in 1891, when the up-to-date man rode a high-wheel bicycle, the first six-day race was held in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The first two contests were won by the lofty riders; but in 1893 a rider named Albert Shock rode a “safety” bicycle and his superiority over the elevated pedallists was so pronounced that thenceforth the “underslung” vehicle became the accepted type.

Bicycles have changed only a little since then, but the rules governing six-day races have changed a great deal. Originally the racers rode a3 individuals for 142 hours. They rested little and plugged along without relief until exhaustion often necessitated retirement. In 1898 the spectacle became so inhuman that legislators insisted that no competitor should ride more than twelve hours a day. Then the promoters, seeking a continuous ride, formed two-man teams, each to race half the time but to alternate as they desired.

Six-day races are not new, but they still have an appeal that can coax more than a quarter of a million dollars for one week of gate receipts. What provides the lure? The unusual setting; the speed and durability of the riders; national fervor; the element of danger; the extravagant publicity. In fact, the things that make a circus great are the features that tend to create a demand for this unique sport.

The six-day panorama is unusually picturesque. Inside the huge arena is a pine track, often sloped to fifty degrees at the ends. Inside this wooden speedway are two-decker bunks, where the riders sing “Home, Sweet Home” for a week less a few hours.

The track and bunks are indispensable to six-day racing. So is the dining room, for the appetites of the riders are so

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tremendous that it has been computed that the average racer consumes four times as much food as an office worker. If that statement seems extravagant just review the menu of one race in New York :

600 pounds of lamb chops, 12 sides of beef, 500 steaks. 400 chickens, 10 boiled hams, 50 pounds of bacon, 3 barrels of potatoes. 4 barrels of spinach, 4 baskets of string beans, 10 dozen cans of asparagus, 8 cases of peas, 100 bunches of celery, 2 bushels of onions, 200 heads of lettuce, 10 quarts of tomatoes, 25 heads of cabbage, 70 pounds of prunes, 2 barrels of cooking apples for sauce, 6 boxes of eating apples,

I 1.000 oranges, 300 grapefruits, 12 dozen ¡ lemons, 300 dozen eggs, 700 quarts of milk.

! 50 pounds of butter. 75 pounds of coffee, j 20 pounds of tea, 5 pounds of cocoa, 50 i pounds of rice, 20 pounds of oatmeal, 6 dozen boxes of cornflakes and 250 pounds j of sugar.

Truly, a banquet for gourmands. Is it ; surprising that the estimated food bill of one Italian rider was $107?

Risk and Rewards

BUT the life of a six-day racer is not just a season of hard work and feasting. Beneath the excitement and apparent contentment there lurks a grimness that raises its ugly head at least suspected times. In a recent Philadelphia race, Peden and Jules Audy, a nineteen-year-old French-Canadian. were riding a wonderful race and had become the idols of the fans. From the first night until Thursday afternoon this Canadian pair were ‘‘stealing the show” and their popularity was hourly increasing. Then a “jam” started, and suddenly tragedy stalked. Wheels crashed and little Audy suffered a severe head injury. Instantly this confident, courageous lad was reduced to helplessness, and speedily he was transported to the Philadelphia General Hospital.

Such accidents are all too frequent and serious, but the riders seem indifferent to the dangers. I have heard of one racer who crashed in a tangle that wrecked four bicycles and broke the rider’s nose. He had it bound with adhesive tape and was back on the track in a few minutes. Half an hour later he locked handlebars with another rider, fell heavily under a pile of wheels, and was dragged out with a damaged skull. Nevertheless he again returned to the track, with new' adhesive on his nose and a football helmet on his injured head. It is not merely chance that prompts promoters to purchase liniments, gauze, bandages, and tape in quantities that would stix'k an average drug store.

Based upon the comparative infrequency of the six-day races, together with this liability to serious injury, it w'ould be assumed that the riders receive large cash rewards. However, w'hen compared with Gene Tunney’s million-dollar earnings, Gus Sonnenberg’s half-million accumulation or Babe Ruth’s $75.000 yearly salary, the remuneration of bicycle racing champions i seems quite modest. A newcomer just j breaking into the weekly whirl may receive $50 or $75 a day, while a few exceptionally colorful foreign teams have been guaranteed $5.000 a week. I have been told that one outstanding rider was assured that his reward would not be less than $850 a day.

In addition to a guaranteed amount or an arranged percentage of the receipts, the j speedier riders gamer what they call “spare I change” from the cash prizes offered by enthusiastic spectators for special sprints. During the last Madison Square Garden race $700 was distributed to the riders from this source; and. by the way. $335 of that ! amount, including $100 from one “Gar”

! Wood, was won by Torchy Peden.

Despite the absence of fabulous financial rewards, applicants for entrance into the grand lodge of working wheelmen are far more numerous than racing opportunities. Six-day promoters are so hard-boiled that j little consideration is given to an ambitious

youngster unless his merit positively “shouts right out.” A friend closely allied with the game has told me that it is easier to crash into New York’s so-called four hundred than to get an invitation to compete in the classic Madison Square Garden six-day bicycle race.

Peden s Mile Record

CYNCE a rider is chosen to compete, he must observe the rules or pay a heavy penalty. There are cynics who assert that the laws are merely false fronts; that behind the scenes lap gains are juggled, certain races are fixed, favored teams do not cover the mileage credited to them, and unpopular competitors are deliberately fouled. Such charges may be dismissed on the ground that they have never been proved. Regardless of the manner in which they are observed, the rules of the game are clear and fair.

During a race each team wears a number and a distinctive colored racing shirt. At all times one member of the team must be on the track. No rider is considered replaced until his partner has come up to a position beside him. Stalling is considered unfair. Any rider making an effort to get to the front must be given a fair share of the track. Each rider must provide his own vehicles, with exception of special tires which are furnished by the management. The team having a clear margin in miles or laps is the winner, but in the event of two or more teams being tied in laps, first place is awarded to the team which has secured the greatest number of points in special sprints held three or four times each day.

Into this unusual profession rode Bill “Torchy” Peden. For months his progress lacked any evidence of being unusual. Opportunities, however, slowly increased. Gradually Torchy’s power and endurance became pronounced; until, within the past fifteen months, no rider has equalled the outstanding successes of the Canadian flyer. During this period Peden competed in ten six-day races in eight different cities, with seven different partners. In these grinds he was opposed by famous racers from Italy, Holland, Australia, France, Germany, Belgium. Austria and the United States. He never started a race he did not finish. In one of the contests he finished fourth ; in one, second; in eight—three at Montreal, the others at Portland. Minneapolis, Vancouver. Milwaukee and the Mecca of all, New York—Peden was a member of the winning team. In eight races he had six different partners.

Not only was Torchy superior in these distance struggles—and, by the way, Peden and his mate rode more than 2.600 miles in one race but he has also found time to establish a new world’s record for one mile behind a pacemaker.

One day last November. Doc Morton measured a 242-mile course on a paved highway at Fort Snelling. near Minneapolis. Closely pursuing a powerful motor car fitted with steel plate projections. Peden began his race with a three-quarter-mile start, then madly dashed over the certified mile at an accepted average speed of seventy-four miles an hour. As he completed the mile, the motor car speedometer was registering eighty-one miles per hour.

Thus this Victoria lad has everything essential to bike-racing success. Youth, weight, height, strength, speed, courage, ambition, confidence, temperament, experience and mentality are combined in the make-up of this genial British Columbia superathlete.

Just how long this native son will continue at the head of the pack is dependent upon desire and freedom from serious injury. But if you ask Torchy who is most likely to continue the dynasty of bike-racing monarchs, he will tell you that Jules Audy, a diminutive, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Montreal lad. is the up-and-coming pretender to the throne.