The Golden Age of Six Day Racing
It is worth noting that the USI precedes the widespread use of not only our modern clipless pedals, but also the quick release skewer and the derailleur. The original Madison Square Garden built in part to host Six Day Races and located at Madison Park at 26th Street was still in use. It saw a variety of activities from charity events, animal fairs, the circus, and of course, bicycle racing. The Garden was the site for two Six Day Races per year. These were among the most spectacular events staged at the Garden. Originally one rider would complete the entire race, but in a move to make the racing more humane, from the 1890’s on the Six Day Races were contested by teams of two riders each. One of the team’s riders had to remain on track at all times. Distances of 3000 miles and more were completed by winning teams and speeds of 45mph were achieved in the sprints. These races were for professional riders who were the best paid athletes in the period. Top racers were paid in the range of $10-15,000 for competing and putting on a good show in the evenings when the Garden would ﬁll to capacity to see the action.
To become a member of the USI a prospective member had to be sponsored and approved by the club. This practice continued on into the post WWII era. In 1920 a young cyclist was sponsored for membership by Teddy Bendi. Otto Eisele Sr. joined the club and in 1921 volunteered to be club secretary. He was to hold the job until he passed away 55 years later in 1976. Otto Eisele, Sr. (nicknamed Spots for the spotted massed start cap he wore racing) would play an enormous role in the history of the USI and amateur cycling at the national level. (Nancy Nieman Baranet, American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist, Racing News column from February 1976)
Racing in America was ﬁrst controlled by the League of American Wheelmen which was founded in 1880. There were no professional cyclists. (NYT, Melinda Tuhus, August 2, 1998) By 1893 however there was a professional organization for bicycle racing, the National Cycling Association. (NYT, February 11, 1893). Promising amateur cyclists were made professional by NCA decree whether they liked it or not and through this method the NCA controlled racing and much of the funding to support it.
Just as Otto Sr. was entering the sport the movement to separate the amateurs from the professionals was coming to a head. The major cycling clubs from around the United States joined together to form the American Bicycle League (forerunner to the USCF and USA Cycling) to promote and grow amateur competitive cycling. (Nancy Nieman Baranet, American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist, Racing News column from February 1976)
The ABL ran its ﬁrst national championships in Washington, DC in 1921 and USI’s 1921 club champion Arthur Nieminsky won the title.
It was in this period that the USI moved to its most famous location at 254 West 45th St near 6th Avenue. The USI owned the building. It contained club ofﬁces upstairs, a billiard room and gymnasium in the basement, and a restaurant on the ground ﬂoor operated by the La Sportiva Italian Benevolent Society. The club headquarters also had a banquet hall for club dinners and Six Day Race Victory Banquets. The USI had as many as 200 cyclists during this period and was home for the La Sportiva Italian Benevolent Society, known as the Mutual which had in the vicinity of 600 members. (USI 50th Anniversary Banquet Brochure Article by Otto Eisele, Sr.)
There is no known documentation of the Mutual’s work, but through its restaurant it acted as a club sponsor which supplemented the annual membership dues. The Mutual also played a role in assisting Italian-American immigrants.
This period in American history saw the quota system to limit the number of immigrants coming to the US. In order to immigrate to the United States a person needed to be sponsored and have employment waiting for them. It is much the same today. The USI restaurant and the Mutual helped immigrants enter the US and provided them with a means to become citizens. The Italian Consulate was involved in the banquets as a guest and supporter.