Two visits to Madison Square Garden
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.