A beautifully written account of bicycle racing in American history

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio

Peter Joffre Nye
Hearts of Lions: The History of American Bicycle Racing (2nd ed.)
524 pages, hardcover.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2020
ISBN 978-1-4962-1931-2

To most Americans, bicycle racing consists of the Tour de France where a few hundred riders spend three weeks racing around France in a peloton. Some days are long, climbing mountains, while others are short time trials. The leader for the day wears a yellow jersey and the overall winner is the rider who completes the entire race with the most points. Those with a bit more knowledge are likely somewhat familiar with six-day races which were popular in the United States from the 1890s through the 1950s. Even so, most would argue bicycling is largely a European sport. Or is it? Thirty-two years ago Peter Nye published the first edition of Hearts of Lions: The history of American Bicycling Racing to show how popular the sport was in the United States, one year before Greg Lemond became the first American to win the Tour de France. It has been a long time between editions, but the second edition is certainly worth the wait. Though I am not a bicycle racer (my area of interest in both riding and research is bicycle travel and exploration), I found the first edition fascinating when it came out in 1988, and the second edition is much more than an update covering the intervening year.

Nye is a journalist with several books and an impressive list of newspapers and magazines to which he has contributed articles. More to the point, in his younger years he raced bicycles himself which undoubtedly gives him an insider’s knowledge of the sport. Me, I am a long-distance bicycle traveler, one who pedals in the slow lane to enjoy the outdoors, get some exercise and see the sights. With an almost morbid fear of falling, I am way too cautious to engage in racing at any level. As an adult I have only fallen a few times, always at a slow speed and with no injury. Still, I have watched bicycle racing on television and find it thrilling. While doing research in Edinburgh, Scotland, I left the library to watch a stage race as it turned onto Princes Street. In what seemed like a nanosecond, the peloton flashed by in a blur of bright color and disappeared in the distance. In Athens, Ohio, I watched an amateur race where the riders made a circuit of downtown streets. Then, as a part of an organized transcontinental ride I had two “racing” experiences in Indianapolis, Indiana. First, we were invited to ride a couple of laps on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the “Brickyard.” Later, on our way out of town we went to the Major Taylor Velodrome. I had no realization of just how steep the banking was until standing on the infield looking up at it! Fortunately, I know enough physics to understand if I kept my speed up, I would not fall. I started at the bottom and after a few laps began working my way to the top to zoom down and then do it again and again. It was addictive. Thirty years later I still can feel both the fear and the thrill. To do that in a pack with other riders bumping elbows and jockeying for position at thirty or forty plus miles an hour, however, is not my idea of a good time.

Hearts of Lions has two major strengths. First, anyone who enjoys beautiful prose will want to read this, regardless of their interest in the subject. You do not need to understand the tactics involved in racing, which in many ways are more important than flat-out speed. Nye’s writing just draws the reader in. It is clear and smooth, the words almost leaping off the page. The reader feels the thrill and excitement experienced by both the racers and the spectators. Nye has the uncanny ability to transport the reader to the venue; it is not as if I am reading about the race, rather it is as if I were there. I can hear the tires whirring on the wooden track as the riders’ race around the velodrome, and I wince when the splinters are driven into the skin during a crash. My lungs are bursting as the riders charge up a Col during the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia. I cringe as they fly down the rain-soaked switchbacks at fifty-plus miles an hour. Even if I had no interest in bicycles or racing of any kind, if I picked this book up I would be hard pressed to put it down unfinished.

Mara Abbott became the first woman to win the Giro d’Italia Femminile in 2010, ten days and 533 miles in Italy’s mountainous north. More about her on Velo Clasic, and in The Guardian.

The other strength is Nye has interviewed almost everybody associated with bicycle racing, or people who have firsthand knowledge of the early racers. This provides an intimate, personal edge to the book, a first-person vibe, which adds to its appeal and readability. Nye’s approach is encyclopedic when it comes to the racers themselves. To describe them all—they literally include the entire alphabet, from Mara Abbott to George Zimmerman—in any detail would require adding multiple pages to this review, and not do them the justice Nye does. Abbott became the first woman to win the Giro d’Italia Femminile in 2010, ten days and 533 miles in Italy’s mountainous north. A century earlier Zimmerman went from gentleman amateur to professional, becoming America’s first international superstar. Beginning with the early racers in the 1870s and 1880s, Nye continues to the present, detailing the training, coaching, and significant races. He explores the tactics used by racers, both to improve their performance and to deter their opponents. He writes of the bicycles ridden, the clothing worn, and the training strategies, including the best measures to increase speed. He covers sprints and long distance competitions, indoor track races, including the six-day events as well as outdoor road races. He talks of pacers, first on tandem or longer bicycles and then motorcycles. He covers time trials and pursuit races where the riders began at opposite sides of the track, the goal being to lap the competition. He describes the track and road conditions and emphasizes throughout the role and importance of the fans, including the rich and famous–movie stars, politicians, writers as well as the hoi polloi–especially the cash premiums provided to enliven the events. Bicycle racers were among the most popular, well-known and highest paid athletes before the First World War. Nye discusses the rigid line between amateur and professional racers, the former not being allowed to compete for cash, but able to win any variety of prizes including but not limited to medals, cups, furniture and pianos! Once a racer received cash, he (or she) was barred from the amateur ranks. Nye’s description of “Mile a Minute Murphy,” the first human to travel a mile under their own power in less than sixty seconds, captures the excitement. Charles M. Murphy rode behind a Long Island Railroad engine pulling a coach with a fairing which protected him from the wind. A board track was laid between the steel rails and just as Murphy finished the measured mile the timekeepers had to haul him aboard to avoid certain disaster as his track was ending. Nye describes the road racers and their pace lines, each rider inches from the rear wheel of the rider ahead. The lead rider pulls for a minute or so before moving aside and joining the end of the line. Though I do not race I have ridden in pace lines but not as tight as those of the professionals. Still, Nye’s description instantly brought back the thrill of pulling the line and then peeling off to join the tail and then move forward to pull again.

Charles M. Murphy rode behind a Long Island Railroad engine pulling a coach with a fairing which protected him protected from the wind. A board track was laid between the steel rails and just as Murphy finished the measured mile the timekeepers had to haul him aboard to avoid certain disaster as his track was ending.

In the early days of racing in the United States, while it covered the entire country, Newark, New Jersey was the hub. Its velodrome, which attracted riders from around the world, had banking that ranged from twenty-five to fifty-two degrees, with riders coursing around at forty miles an hour. Australian racers endured a twenty-day ocean crossing followed by a six-day train ride to reach Newark. Across the Hudson River, New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the “Palace of Pleasure,” hosted a variety of races, including the six-day races, for several decades until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Depression of the 1930s saw the beginning of the decline in United States cycle racing.

Nye spends time with the Americans in the Tour de France, especially Greg LeMond’s triumphs even after a serious hunting accident that nearly killed him. He describes Lance Armstrong’s races as well as his fall from grace. Both LeMond and Armstrong competed in the Tour de Trump, which was held in May from 1989 until 1996, though its name changed to the Tour Dupont after it took over sponsorship in 1991. It boosted America’s presence in world cycling competition. Nye covered the 1989 race and met Trump at the finish, introduced by one of Trump’s aides. They shook hands as Trump asked what Nye did. When he responded “I’m a writer, Donald. The future forty-fifth president of the United States threw my hand down, hard enough to bounce off the carpet if it weren’t attached to my arm, and he walked away” (p.337).

However good Hearts is, it does have a serious shortcoming which is unfortunate. Not until the reader is nearly a third of the way through the book will she learn that women even existed. Nancy Nieman and Audrey Phleger’s names appear on page 148, but the reader then must wait until page 234 to learn of their exploits. Through the rest of the book women appear, but clearly as the second sex. While there are many more male racers than female, that does not explain the disparity. In addition to Nye, to provide readers a clear view of the early days of women in cycling, I encourage them first to M. Ann Hall, Muscle on Wheels and then Roger Gilles, Women on the Move. Hall covers the women who raced the high wheel or ordinary bicycles in the 1880s, while Gilles examines women who raced safety (diamond frame) bicycles in the 1890s.

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2021

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