-- Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast
On a tree-lined street of a Silicon Valley suburb, in a row house filled with children's toys, lives the graying, slightly paunchy communications-equipment salesman who saved America from gloom. George Mount -- Smilin' George to bike-racing fans -- has lost some of his 1980s form, but thanks in part to him, Americans are leaving the 20th century just as they arrived: optimistic about their place in the world and crazy about bicycles.
Bicycle enthusiasm is fully developed San Francisco, where housewives start their days with "spinning" classes, pedaling in place to music. Thousands of cyclists crowd Golden Gate Park every weekend, Walter Mitty minds filled with Tour de France dreams. Bicycling dissidents vex San Francisco's mayor with the traffic-clogging protest rides known as Critical Mass. And Labor Day's Giro di San Francisco closes a Northern California bicycle racing scene that is part of a national professional circuit.
George Mount's accomplishments helped start the craze, returning the country to the bicycling dignity it enjoyed during the 1890s, 1910s, and 1920s, when bike-crazy Americans first embraced modernity, and when it seemed this country's ethos of optimism would become a driving force for all the world.
In 1976, after spending a season sharpening his sprint at the old Polo Fields velodrome in Golden Gate Park and building his stamina in the hills of the East Bay, Mount placed sixth in the Montreal Olympic Games. He went on to become one of the world's top amateur racers, then had a respectable career on an Italian professional team. A wave of U.S. cyclists, inspired by Mount and other pioneers, went to Europe. And many of them became stars.
Names like Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Davis Phinney, Alexi Grewal, and Lance Armstrong began popping up in European magazines. U.S. television networks began broadcasting the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and Paris-Roubaix as the big-time sporting events they are across the Atlantic. Thousands of people bought bicycles, and joined bike clubs. Some took out racing licenses, others went on weekend rides. Still more massed on city streets in San Francisco, Boston, Portland, and Houston, demanding deference from cars.
America had again found its bearings, and wheels, and handlebars.
"George's contribution was getting people to say, 'Here's something an American can do,' " says Robert Leibold, a bicycle race promoter who lives in Soulsbyville.
" 'And maybe I can do it, too.' "
Two-Wheeled Golden Age
Three-quarters of a century before Greg LeMond was a spokesman for Taco Bell, before baseball and football teams held city fathers hostage for new stadiums, before the Chicago Bulls won NBA titles that caused riots, America's sport was bike racing. And America's teams were the wiry, lightning-fast, six-day racers and match sprinters who traveled from city to city to race "the boards," as pine-paneled racing tracks were then known.
In those days, these banked ovals, called velodromes, pocked the country like moon craters. Tony women and their partners learned to ride in specially built cycling salons, and racing stars earned thrice the salaries of other professional athletes.
Broadway starlets and Wall Street tycoons vied for trackside seats at Madison Square Garden's six-day races, where cyclists would compete for prize lists topping $50,000 (roughly the equivalent of $393,000 today).
In the first such races, fashioned after six-day walking races popular at the time, athletes went for six days around a one-tenth-of-a-mile board track without stopping. By race's end, riders had typically completed around 1,800 miles.
The sport quickly evolved into a team race, in which one member of a two-man squad competed while the other rested. These teams usually consisted of a "jammer" -- a rider who could maintain top speed for long periods of time, and perhaps gain a lap on his rivals -- and a "sprinter," whose swiftness was exploited during periodic "premium" sprints. Total distances often stretched to more than 2,700 miles.
Total attendance at the Madison Square Garden Six sometimes topped 150,000 fans. On the West Coast, aficionados crowded into San Francisco's Mechanics' Pavilion Velodrome, the Polo Fields Velodrome, Dreamland Auditorium, and Civic Auditorium for these six-day races. Cycling stars were featured in advertisements for popular products, and bicycle race programs hosted ads for California gubernatorial candidates, Ghirardelli chocolate and Dentyne chewing gum.
The biggest individual bicycling stars were the match sprinters. The world's fastest self-powered humans, their bulky, wool-clad frames were wrapped with miles of fast-twitch muscle. Match sprint contests -- typically a mile, with the last 200 yards or so raced at full speed -- were held on banked velodrome tracks circled by grandstands.
Sprinters typically chose one of two tactics: take shelter in the wind pocket that forms behind the lead cyclist, waiting to jump around the leader at the last minute; or sprint to the front and try to stay there the entire race. This jockeying for position resulted in high-speed kneeing, elbowing, and shoving matches that, nearly as often as not, resulted in spectacular crashes -- and skin filled with pine splinters.
At the turn of the century, a typical night out in New York City might involve dinner, a Broadway show, then a trip to the Madison Square Garden Six, where racers might have been pedaling slowly during the theater performances, resting so they could put on a speedy show for the after-theater crowd. (The first Madison Six under the new, team format was won by Frank Waller of San Francisco and his teammate Charley Miller of Chicago in 1898.)
In those days, bicycle racing stars "would go all over the world. They'd race in fairgrounds, in stadiums. It was a really big deal," says Gus Gatto, who raced in San Jose and San Francisco during 1940s and '50s.
In 1897, 50 years before Jackie Robinson became a middling pro baseball player, Marshall Taylor, a black New Jersey match sprinter, launched a professional bicycling career. His 1898 victory in the one-mile sprint is believed to be the first world championship of any kind won by a black athlete. The next year he won the U.S. national professional championship. By 1902, Taylor was earning $35,000 a year.