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Why The Seats Went Up

June 2024
1min read

Two visits to Madison Square Garden

IN 1955, when I was 10 years old, Roy Rogers and the World Championship Rodeo came to Madison Square Garden in New York City, and a friend of mine invited me to see the show. We had front-row seats. I was thrilled and dumbfounded when Roy rode Trigger around the arena, shaking hands with the spectators, including me. From the seats along the sides of the Garden where we sat, it was easy to shake hands with Roy. At the two ends of the arena, however, the first row of seats began high above the floor. This made no sense to me. You certainly couldn’t reach out to Roy from those seats.

When I visited the Garden again six years later, I instinctively understood that the floor curved upward to contain the raw force and speed I was about to witness. Now a high school sophomore, I was there to see the start of a six-day bicycle race.

That Madison Square Garden, on Eighth Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets, was the third building to bear the name. (The current one is the fourth.) The arena had been built in 1925 to accommodate a variety of sports, including bicycle racing. At the time, cycling was enormously popular in America, with the best racers earning far more than the top baseball players. Racing events drew a wide audience, and it was not uncommon to see ladies in furs in the grandstands.

Then, in the 1930s, indoor bicycle racing began a long decline. France and Italy sponsored major road races like the Tour de France, while America turned its attention to the automobile. The endurance race that I watched was the last of its kind held at the Garden, and there were few American entrants; most riders had been imported from Europe.

The racers competed on an oval hardwood track that banked at the ends to make turning easier. At full sprint the riders leaned nearly horizontal, held to the track only by centrifugal force. The banks were so steep that a rider could not come to a stop in them; if he did, he would simply slide down and off.

Having taken up bike racing myself, I understood what the racers were doing, their bluffs and maneuvers to get to the finish line first. I could see why the sport was called chess on wheels at 30 miles an hour.

I sat on the edge of my seat the whole time I was there, just as I had the day I shook Roy Rogers’s hand.

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