track cycling

Flemish cannibals who hit and bite: New York, 1920

13min reading time   by Herman Chevrolet on 03 August 2022
Just a few seconds more and the doors of Madison Square Garden would open. The atmosphere was grim. There was pushing, kicking, hitting and shouting. They were used to rough matches, the New Yorkers, but what was in the programme booklet now only made them dream of a very exciting match, one they had not seen before.

A blend of glass, spit and blood

A few days before the start of the Six Days, which would begin on 5 December 1920, posters appeared everywhere showing riders locked in a cage with steel bars. A man who bore some resemblance to Karel Van Wijnendaele threw lumps of meat at them. The riders grabbed at that meat. In the local newspapers, articles had appeared about them; they spoke of cannibals who beat and bit. Conclusion: the Germans, who had had to deal with them for five years, during W.O.I., were very pitiful.

So a few moments before the doors of the cycling track opened, more than ten thousand people were waiting, and somehow they all wanted to go in at the same time. The audience came from all walks of life: it included bankers, artists, writers, gangsters, theatre people, pimps, aristocrats and showgirls. Vagrants, homeless people and pickpockets had bought a weekly subscription. It may have been a big investment for them, but for that price they had shelter, they did not have to sleep outside in the winter cold. The pickpockets could roll up their sleeves for a whole week.

No one could explain the New Yorkers' fascination with the Six Days. Anyway, every evening the racecourse was packed, they sat for hours on end choking on the smoke - because of the tobacco smoke the riders sometimes wore goggles. It was clear: a Six Days event in New York was of a different order than the ones in Europe at that time. Here it was a dirty mess, apparently that was what attracted the Americans to the cycling discipline. There was always something going on.

If a European took a round lead, they pelted him with beer - and, let's face it, the glass followed the contents.

Every night there was a commotion in Madison Square Garden. Riders would deliberately ride into each other to prevent an opponent from winning a lap, then slip on the wooden floor, sometimes drawing so much blood that the race was stopped for a moment. When a cleaner tried to scrub the floor, he was in turn scolded by a crowd who demanded that blood on the track was an essential part of cycling. Either way, they were having fun.

If a European took a lap in the lead they pelted him with beer - and, let's face it, the glass followed the contents. Riders fell asleep on their bikes and were then shouted awake by the public. To stay awake they would drink coca leaf cocktails, use strychnine or eat eagle soup, a drink flavoured with pure cocaine. Not surprisingly, there was the occasional death. This led the authorities to change the regulations: from 1899, a rider was not allowed to sit on the bike for more than twelve hours at a time. It was the beginning of duos, the Madison was born.

Women racers

Since 1900, European riders appeared at the start of the six-day races in New York and Chicago. They did not stand a chance. Spectators booed them, threatened them with death and if necessary knocked those 'women racers' off their bikes. If they still wanted to compete for the final victory, they were threatened with death and chased by loaded revolvers. Some of them were temporarily blinded by poisonous mixtures put into drinking cans; one rider is said to have ended up in a lunatic asylum because of all these conditions. The fact that the Dutchman John Stol and the German Walter Rütt won in 1907 may undoubtedly be called one of the greatest achievements in track cycling. The European press published the most terrible stories about the Six Days in New York, in the United States the organisers made no effort to refute all those stories. Whether the Flandriens who would participate in the Six Days of 1920 were scared is not well known. Probably not, they had a reputation to uphold.

The name and fame of the Flandriens started at the opening of the Sportpaleis in Schaarbeek, on 28 December 1913. They wanted to make it a pleasant sports evening, so they asked Karel Van Wijnendaele if he was willing to take part in the festivities. This was very convenient, because he had been dreaming of forming a track team with Flemish riders. They could ride in the spotlights on the tracks and earn some extra money. In return he, as manager, would get his share of it. Nowadays, one would call that a win-win. Well, Van Wijnendaele is known as an advocate of the oppressed Fleming, but he never lost sight of the size of his wallet: ideals are nice, but money is worth something too.

They wanted to make it a pleasant opening show, which did not quite succeed: it became a grim spectacle. The riders combined, there was pushing and shoving on the track, there were fights. Not only between the riders, but also in the courtyard. There were loud clashes between riders and attendants, and spectators came to blows. Certainly, it was an atmospheric opening in Schaarbeek. The next day the French-speaking press wrote about des paysans flamands, des sauvages - peasants, wild and inhuman. Those animals were described as Flandriens.

For Koarle, it could not have gone better. He replied that his riders rode against that French rascal clique without a pommade box in their pockets, that they rode without bluff and bluster and that they knew only too well that the race should be entertaining. That was true. If an organiser wanted a lot of noise on his cycling track, he only had to invite the bunch of Van Wijnendaele. Wherever they went, they gave a good fight. No matter where they rode, there were always fights, noise and hullabaloo. The press always wrote about them, but never in a positive way: "That gang of Flandriens, they were no longer riders. They were animals". Van Wijnendaele did not care, it was even convenient for him that the public believed it all: the velodromes were full for the races his riders rode - the cash box was ringing and everyone was happy! Ideal opponents for their American colleagues in New York.

So six riders embarked in Cherbourg on a ship that would take them to that strange new world. They took their bicycles and enough laundry for six weeks. It felt uncomfortable, only one of them, Michiel Debaets, had made the crossing before. He knew what to expect. The rest had no clue. Aloïs Persyn, Jules Van Hevel, Henri - Ritten - Vanlerberghe, Aimé Dossche and Pier Van de Velde were in the dark. Karel Van Wijnendaele accompanied them, as it was his duty as a manager. The riders didn't know how to spend their time on board of the ship. So they strolled around. To their great surprise, they found Maurice Brocco in the ship's bar, who was already drinking himself into oblivion and, being always drunk, could not give them much useful information. Only this: he was sure he would win. But the drunken champion of cycling still had fear in his eyes and that made them realise that it would be a difficult race. They became a little silent.

Dollar picking

4 December 1920, a few moments before midnight. The doors of the cycling track opened. There were 250 policemen, 50 of them on horseback, brought in to bring some order to the crowd. One hundred Pinkerton employees [security guards] tried to stop the pickpockets from doing their work. At a quarter to one, everyone was in their seats and the presentation of the riders could begin.

The cyclists from the Old World were greeted with boos, those from the United States with loud applause. Only Belloni and Veri could count on some clemency, after all there were many Italian guest workers in the audience. An orchestra in the centre square played something that one could suspect was music. The audience ate fat sausages, drank large pints of beer and in the meantime smoked all the time. In all corners of the track, bands were playing, mostly out of tune and far too loud. Along the track there were booths that sold sweets.

When the Flandriens were introduced, there was first a silence. The riders looked far too thin and frail in the eyes of the spectators, but eventually everyone began to growl like wild animals. Then the starter walked forward, picked up a gun and raised it high into the air. For a moment there was silence. The gun went off, the riders got on their bikes and started to ride their laps like savages. The Six Days had begun, and all those days, 24 hours a day, they would be ridden. Every rider would suffer, be injured and, it was possible, die on the track. The Flandriens were up for it and immediately started to raise hell together. Despite the boos and enemy growls, after a few hours they had already caught up with the whole group a couple of times, so that they rightly wondered how big their lead was. After the first day, the Brocco-Coburn duo appeared to be leading by a lap - he may have been drunk for the entire crossing, but Brocco could certainly pick up some serious pace when he wanted to.

Van Wijnendaele saw this as an injustice and complained to the organiser. There he learned an important lesson: riders should not interfere with the classification. They had to ride, they had to provide a spectacle and certainly not complain and whine if they thought they were being robbed. But the organisation bore no ill will and promised them an extra premium of one hundred dollars per day - in return they were not allowed to ask questions about the ranking.

The Flandriens realised that they could make a lot of money here. They also quickly grasped the system of dollar picking: the audience would wave money at them, the riders would drive to the railing and snatch it from their hands. The banknotes were then stuffed into the racing trousers and during his break the rider counted the loot neatly.

Those breaks were important, they were usually taken in the cyclist's kitchen. There they fried steaks which they ate almost raw, it was thought to be good for the digestion. Roast chickens were there for the taking. There were piles of rice, spaghetti with meatballs, coffee, pudding of all kinds and bread with sausage. Some riders took advantage of this free luxury and ate up to seven times a day.

Quick salts

The race went on, day and night. The Flandriens were fierce. They knew they had no chance of winning, but that didn't mean they couldn't prove to the Americans that they were the best riders in the world. The number of riders still taking part was constantly decreasing. Some were pushed against a pole and had to give up because of serious injuries. There was one that went off the road and had to be carried off unconscious. The doctor tried to revive him by throwing some quick salts on him. He didn't respond, so they had no other option than to put him on a bench to recover. His race was over. Others started complaining of stomach aches, they too were advised to give up. The doctor was quick to point out that it was not a good idea to eat a rare steak seven times a day.

At the end of the third day, Brocco was able to tell that he was now very confident of winning the Six Days. When an entrepreneur heard this, he decided to intervene, fearing that the other participants would accept the organiser's decision and the race would slowly bleed to death. He promised the Flandriens a lot of dollars if they could turn the race into a spectacle.

For hours, the Flemish riders rode over the oval track, as if they had gone completely crazy. The public loved it. Side by side Van Hevel and Debaets rode on at the highest speed, it looked like a sprint of dozens of kilometres. Something like that had never been seen before. It was so bad that a few American riders got fed up and wanted to quit. The entrepreneur couldn't allow that, so he made a sign that the Flandriens had to stop this stupid behaviour. He had to talk to them in the only language they understood: money. He payed them an extra premium so they would ride slower. Yes, the Flandriens knew very well how American cycling works.

Brocco-Coburn had to win, but the recalcitrant behaviour of the Flandriens worried everyone. Everyone began to quarrel with them, and it happened the other way round too. In the cabins, conspiracies were hatched and strategies devised to eliminate them. They did not bend, nor did they break. The Flandriens may have acquiesced in the organisation's wish for Brocco-Coburn to win, but no agreements had been made about places of honour. So they felt they could ride for the other podium places. Fortunately for them, the organisers realised that such a thing could only cause a fuss, so they could not care less that their compatriots were the victims.

Frankfurter sausages

From the fourth day on, things were not so easy. Riders began to suffer from sleep deprivation, stomach cramps from prepared drinking cans and all those bumps and bruises they had suffered began to rub and wring. On top of that, the American riders were starting to take a serious beating, all they could do was call out the European riders. The crowd heard it and they encouraged their hometown heroes by shouting: "Fight! Fight! Fight!" When Mc Namarra tried to do so, his left punch failed and he fell off his bike due to the shock. The crowd started laughing. It was a turning point: they began to have sympathy for those Flandriens who were really worth their money. While in the first days they were pelted with drinks, bottles and, oh, why not, Frankfurter sausages, now and then they got a cautious cheer.

As predicted, Brocco-Coburn won the Six Days, but the greatest applause went to the Flemish riders. With their second and third places [Debaets-Persyn and Van Hevel-Vanlerberghe] they had done an excellent job, they had created serious spectacle, closed combinations (and broke them again), made riders fall and more of those things that New Yorkers thought were so beautiful about cycling. After the final lap, everyone in attendance stood up on the benches and gave the Flandriens a thunderous ovation - something that European riders had never received before. The Flandriens were not used to that either, it was something that had never happened to them before. The American press wrote that they were the best riders they had ever seen. Which was in turn a new experience for the Flemish racers, after all a non-Flemish newspapers had never writing positively about them befor.

Six Days of New York

The Six Days of New York was a former six-day cycling event, held in New York City, in Madison Square Garden's velodrome. Between 1899 and 1961, a total of 73 editions were held, sometimes three per year. Only the Six Days of Berlin and the Six Days of Ghent had more runnings. Australian Alfred Goullet and Italian Franco Giorgetti hold the record with eight wins each.
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