The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Chicago's Top Sport in the Late 1800s Wasn't the One You'd Expect

By Sam Cholke | May 7, 2015 1:12pm

Marshall "Major" Taylor was the first African-American athlete to win a world championship in any sport. [Photo Courtesy of the Major Taylor Association]

HYDE PARK — Most people today have likely never seen a velodrome, but for more than two decades, they were better known than the football pitch by most Americans.

A velodrome is a bowled track used for bicycle racing, and between the 1890s and 1910s the sport rivaled boxing as the most popular in the United States.

Today, Chicago has only one velodrome in South Chicago at 8615 S. Burley Ave., that cycling activists are close to reopening after it was shuttered for nine months.

At the turn of the century, racers were often working-class guys with nicknames like “The Terrible Swede,” “Torchey” or “The Black Cyclone” striving for fame and wealth on the city’s six permanent tracks and a slew of temporary tracks.

The first African-American athlete to ever win a world championship in any sport was a velodrome cyclist in Chicago.

Marshall “Major” Taylor set his first world record for the fastest one-mile race on the Garfield Park velodrome in 1899, according to his biographer.

Taylor, aka “The Black Cyclone,” got his start racing on Chicago’s tracks before going on to become the World Sprint Champion in 1899 and 1900 at a time when African-Americans still could not participate in races in the South.

Taylor broke the color line in bicycle racing in Chicago 50 years before Jackie Robinson signed a contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945.

Though Taylor brought home more than $35,000 a year in winnings at the turn of the century, more than $700,000 in today’s money, he died a pauper in Bronzeville in 1932 because of the stock market crash of 1929.

The former Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison St., the first permanent home for the Chicago Blackhawks, was once just as popular an arena for bicycle racing as for hockey.

Fans would flock to see six-day nonstop races where two-man tag teams had to ride 1,350 miles continuously just to qualify for a prize. The events were billed as “weeklong races to nowhere,” according to news reports from the time.

A program from one of the six-day track races held at Chicago Stadium. [Photo Courtesy of Marcus Moore]

Six-day races declined with the advent of the car and migration to the suburbs, but held on through World War II.

Bill “Torchy” Peden, the “King of the Sixes,” paired with Fenger High School graduate William “Cecil” Yates in 1940 to take on Nazi star cyclists Gustav Killan and Heinz Vopel at the Chicago Stadium in one of the most anticipated races of the time, according to news reports.

Peden would sustain himself through the races on a diet of four quarts of raw milk and sandwiches of raw chopped beef mixed with egg yolk on rye bread, according to interviews before his death in 1980.

After the war, cycling fell out of favor in the United States and Peden settled in suburban Northbrook to run a sports shop selling ice skates to the new era of sports stars at the Chicago Stadium, like Bobby Hull, the legendary Blackhawks player nicknamed “The Golden Jet.”

Marshall "Major" Taylor set his first world record on a velodrome in Garfield Park in 1899. [Photo Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France]

Marshall "Major" Taylor died in Bronzeville after losing the majority of his wealth in the stock market crash of 1929. [Photo Courtesy of the Burns Archive]

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: