The Greatest Six-Day Bicycle Race Ever Seen

February 18, 2015
Teddy Hale in 1896

Teddy Hale in 1896

The Irishman who won the famous Madison Six of 1896 was English. And everyone knew, except the history books.

When Teddy Hale rode his victory lap as ‘Champion of the World’ around the track at Madison Square Garden in December 1896, he did so to the tune of The Wearing of the Green. Clad in ‘as much green as can be stretched over his lanky frame,’ Hale was presented with a letter of support from his family back home in old Ireland, a few grand in prize money and a lucrative whirl on the American cycling-vaudeville circuit.

Not bad for a boy from Clapham, with no known connections to the Emerald Isle.

But Hale – like fellow travellers Choppy Warburton, the Linton brothers and Jimmy ‘Midget’ Michaels – was in town to make money and the organisers felt an ‘Irish lad’ would be a crowd pleaser. They were right. And the British champion of a race so tough it was eventually banned was lost to history and no small amount of confusion regarding his origins.

You snooze, you lose

Hale’s win at the legendary Six Day grind at Madison Square Garden was remarkable for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that riders went solo.

In 1896, Six Days meant just that: 142 hours of pure endurance. Hale rode 1910 miles on a track short enough to rival Het Kuipke, coming in at 10 laps to the mile, steeply banked and built for what race organiser Pat Powers called ‘wholesale record breaking.’

Over the course of the six days, that bank became Hale’s friend – riding high, out of harm’s way (and leaving the track when the crowd-pleaser sprints and short races were on), he was the only one of the riders not to crash. Riding the first 11 ½ hours without a break, Hale was in front by noon on the first day; he never relinquished the lead.

Ten of the fifteen finishers broke the previous record of 1600 miles, held by long distance rider Albert Schock (who finished fifth). If the pace was high, the suffering was epic: saddle sores and welts boring holes into the riders bodies, crunching ligaments, cut open cheeks, black eyes, broken noses and legs swollen to twice their normal size were all in a deranged week’s work. The crowd – up to 12,000 of them at a time – loved it.

Newspaper reports of ghostly, exhausted men hallucinating as they dragged themselves towards the final day – or were ‘brutally forced’ to continue by their trainers – led some of cycling’s luminaries to declare there was no sport in a six day race, but with ‘every box in the garden filled, every seat occupied and the amphitheatre packed,’ the race’s organizers were announcing details of next year’s grind before the riders had even finished.

United Nations

Teddy Hale, winner of the Madison Six Day, 1896

Teddy Hale, winner of the Madison Six Day, 1896

If the mainstream press and Irish American community were basking in the glory of the Hales of Templepatrick, the cycling press was having little of it. A couple of weeks after his win, The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review was pointing to the international flavour of the event as a ‘trait’ of organiser A.G. Batchelder’s ‘versatility’ and determination to have ‘every European nation represented, with America and Africa an addition….Batchelder simply guessed the nationality of his men and put them down from any old place.”

While little is known of him today, it’s clear that Hale was a name in British cycling from the mid 1880’s through to the early 1900s. Born in Lambeth in 1865, Hale’s parents ran the Alexandra Hotel on Clapham Common (still going). In 1885, he was second in the 100 miles Rover Safety Bicycle Race from Peterborough to Twyford and won another 100 miler riding a high wheel Kangaroo (geared and with 38 inch front wheel, 20 at the rear). By the following August, he’d won the prestigious North Road 100 and became the first ever European track champion at Berlin; less than a month later, he was on the ACU’s suspension list, suspected of being in the pay of Messrs Hillman, Herbert & Cooper and Starley Sutton.

On March 24th 1896, we find Hale at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, on the first day of the second men’s London Six of that year. This one demanded only 4 hours racing a day of its riders; Hale came fourth.

These are among the Palmares that can be verified. Those reported by the press ahead of the Six Day have proved more elusive: if he won Land’s End to John O’Groats and Paris-Bordeaux, there’s no record of it. What is clear is that he arrived in America as part of a successful professional team, sponsored by the Simpson Lever Chain Company, Dunlop and the Gladiator Bicycle Company.

A very commercial traveller

Following his massive victory in 1896, NY's famous 'World' newspaper was expecting great things from Hale in 1897.

Following his massive victory in 1896, NY’s famous ‘World’ newspaper was expecting great things from Hale in 1897.

By early 1897, Hale’s ability to attract the moneymen was clearly grating with the Americans, who felt their own riders were losing out to the “English-Irishman or Irish-Englishman – the point is disputed”. Presumably the sight of Hale receiving his prize money at the Hotel Bartholdi had been too much for some – it was widely reported that he was given so many golden ‘Double Eagle’ coins, Hale had to use his hat to carry them.

Frank Waller was among those who complained that Hale’s subsequent appearance at the Chicago Six was just that: an appearance, telling The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review that Hale was “about the only man in the race who will realize much. He is to have $500 for starting and has no intention of finishing.” When Hale didn’t finish, his competitors could barely conceal their cynicism, although The Wheel reluctantly acknowledged that “No criticism attaches to Mr. Hale. He made the most of his opportunities, which is rather a virtue than a fault.”

For his part, Hale made little effort to conceal the reality that he was out to earn a crust – even his census entry for 1891 lists his profession as a ‘Commercial Traveller’.

Off the radar

Hale went on to ride in the 1897 and 1898 Madison Sixes, but never won it again. In 1899, responding to outcry about its perceived dangers, the race format was changed: teams of two riders, none of whom could be on the track for more than 12 hours continuously, sidestepped concerns and the ‘Madison’ was born.

Hale flits in and out of the cycling and mainstream press until about 1900 – there are reports of him spending seasons in Australia, France, Britain and America. In 1899, he embarked on a successful attempt to ride a century every day (except Sunday) for a year. Riding his sponsor’s 36lb ‘Acatene’ chainless bicycle with an 84 gear and two sets of handlebars (‘for speedy work or leisurely riding at will’), Hale started and finished at Holborn Viaduct and promptly fell off the historical radar. A daughter, born the week after his famous victory, was named Madison. His eldest son, Leslie, was well known in English cycling circles, with the five miles’ national territorial championship and several Herne Hill races to his name. One of Hale’s grand-daughters is alive but unfortunately, by her own account, was too young to be interested when the tales of glory were being recounted – she believes her grandfather died sometime between 1911-1914, but has been unable to establish any further details.

And while England’s gain is Ireland’s loss, it’s worth noting that the winner of the first Madison Six in 1891, ‘Plugger’ Bill Martin, was born in Dublin. He managed his 142 hours of purgatory on a high wheel. But that’s another story.

William 'Plugger' Martin, winner of the first Madison Six in 1891.

William ‘Plugger’ Martin, winner of the first Madison Six in 1891.

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