The 6-day bicycle race was a wonder sport of it’s time.
The 6-day races first arrived in America in 1891 in a competition in Madison Square Garden in New York City. It sprung from a European tradition, begun in London 20 years before, which crafted competition around an enthusiasm for endurance and other novelties.
In America the race quickly become a public test of stamina and endurance, the riders progress limited only by their ability to stay awake. From the turn of the century to the 1930s, people would fill arenas to watch men on bikes whirring around the track, day and night, night and day. Small fortunes were lost, and won, on those crowded tracks.
Mirroring the public’s fascination with these events, the New York Times wrote in 1897, “It is a fine thing that a man astride two wheels can, in a six-day race, distance a hound, horse, or a locomotive. It confirms the assumption, no longer much contested, that the human animal is superior to the other animals.”
It’s clear from this continuation of the Times article that the early American events had pushed it too far: “But this undisputed thing is being said in too solemn and painful way at Madison Square Garden. An athletic contest in which participants ‘go queer’ in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them, is not sport. It is brutality. Days and weeks of recuperation will be needed to put the Garden racers in condition, and it is likely that some of them will never recover from the strain.”
With some amendments added in certain areas for the health of the rider, the races continued in popularity through the 1930’s. The rise of the automobile and the Great Depression are cited as factors leading to the popular sport’s decline. Despite it’s downfall in America, the sport lives on in Europe, in a much more reserved sense.