As the SO/MA Bicycle Coalition grows in purpose and numbers, meeting regularly and hosting a successful group ride on Nov. 29, the community can look forward to a larger presence of cyclists in coming years. The Coalition's goal is to "help improve cycling conditions and promote cycling for recreation and utility (commuting to train, errands, etc.) in our communities." This seems like a natural fit; our part of the world was once known as the "Cradle of Cycling." Indeed, "In the 1920s," wrote Peter Nye, author of "Hearts of Lions: The Story of American Bicycle Racing" and historian of the U. S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, "Newark was to bicycle racing what the Yankee Stadium is to baseball."
In the early part of the 20th century, cyclists from around the globe came to compete at Newark's Velodrome, which was located at 701-711 South Orange Ave., between Devine Street and Munn Avenue. Devine Street is gone now, so I suspect the arena was located across from Vailsburg Park, at the site of new construction.
Built in 1907, the Velodrome was the most modern of sporting venues, with a capacity of 12,500. The track measured six laps to the mile, or over 300 yards around. The turns were pitched at 52 degrees. The straight-aways were banked at 25 degrees.
Newark buff Nat Bodian, who has studied the history of cycling in our area, notes that the Velodrome was an outgrowth of existing interest in the sport. "Newark's bicycle racing history began in the 1890s at the old Waverly track, which is now part of Weequahic Park," writes Bodian.
In that same era, in 1896, a bicycle racing track was built adjacent to Electric Park, an amusement park at 680 South Orange Ave., on land owned by brewery owner Gottfried Krueger. This track never became as successful as Krueger hoped, but, as the first brewer to put beer and ale in cans, he earned a place in sporting history nonetheless.
The first manager of the Velodrome was John M. Chapman, who was well known in cycling circles. In 1912, Chapman organized the world cycling championships in Newark. The event was sanctioned by the Union Cyclists Internationale, the world governing body for the cycling sport. Racers from as many countries as went to the Stockholm Olympics that summer came to Newark to compete for world racing titles. The 12,500-capacity stadium held an estimated 20,000 fans in the stands, bleachers and the grassy infield.
Just as living near Yankee Stadium might inspire World Series dreams, locals began to ride and race seriously. A highlight of the 1918 championship was the amateur sprint championships victory by local kid, Donald McDougall. Likewise, many prominent cyclists moved to our area to be near the center of cycling.
"Bicycle racers," wrote Charles Cummings, Newark historian, in New Jersey Monthly,"from all over the nation and around the globe made the pilgrimage to the Newark Velodrome." Fans followed, measuring themselves against the best in the sport. (For those who wish to try their speed, two racers were clocked at 11.45 seconds for the final eighth of a mile, one the fastest times recorded at the Velodrome, according to the New York Times. Cyclists regularly reached speeds of 35 MPH.)
With the "Cradle of Cycling" just up the street from us, it's no wonder that biking in our community remains popular even today, not only as a competitive sport, but for pleasure and purpose. From Flood's Hill to the site of the old Velodrome is 2.5 miles exactly, an ideal there-and-back ride to pay tribute to our local legacy of cycling.
Author's note: A coming local history story will look at two local racing sensations who overcame racial stigma to forge a friendship and leave a cycling legacy in the Oranges.