Ed Note: Chris contacted us with an ambitious ideo to chronicle and revive some of the strong rich cycling history that oozes out of NorCal. Books like “Hearts of Lions” explore some of the recent past but Chris is looking back even further at the elemental roots of cycling which played it’s part in early NorCal development. Chris Harland-Dunaway grew up in the town of Moraga and now lives in Palo Alto. He is a recent UC Davis grad and Norcal racer.
Throughout the 1890’s, no venue in California gained more recognition for bicycle racing than Haywards Road. Today the Haywards Road route is includes East 14th Street, runs from Oakland through Fruitvale, San Leandro, and Hayward. After Hayward, it turns into Mission Blvd for the remainder of the journey to San Jose. The old route passes through low-income neighborhoods, industrial areas, and suburban sprawl of concrete and asphalt. Surprisingly, this road was once a picture perfect countryside, surrounded by vast tracts of orchards that fed cities from Chicago to San Francisco with seasonal fruit and cherries. These open tracts of land which included ranches and farms was how Haywards Road appeared during its era of famous bicycle racing.
The first race recorded at Haywards Road occurred in 1891. As a Bay City Wheelmen’s ride neared the town of Haywards, eight of the San Franciscan riders set off for a 10 mile race. The winner was E.E. Stoddard, who led 6 of the other riders in the “coast record” time for the distance. Stoddard received a fancy medal and after the race the 75 retired for an idyllic picnic in Haywards where they played with the town’s famous tame bear, who, as chance would have it, ‘accidentally’ ripped the cycling shorts of the Bay City Wheelmen’s captain.
The terrain of Haywards Road varied widely from it’s origin to the end. It was often badly rutted from farm wagons and rain sometimes made the road worse than the muddiest edition of Paris-Roubaix. One rider attested to the roads fluctuating conditions after a training ride in 1896: “Today swimming was very good on Haywards Road, riding being impossible and walking bad”. When road conditions deteriorated along Haywards, cycling clubs often opted to send their racers on circuits around the “San Leandro triangle”. This route used a portion of Haywards were it intersected with Maud St – which exists with the same name today. After that, it headed north, turned at Hepburn St. and eventually headed southeast to “Tank Corner” and then west to the finish. A lap of the “triangle” was 8 1/3 miles, but had a number of variations to suit the 5 mile, 10 mile, and 20 mile discipline. Start and finish locations all varied, but Haywards Road was always a featured route including the California Cycling Association Championship 100 mile relay, which started at 10th and Market in San Francisco and circled the South Bay to finish at Central Ave in Alameda.
In 1894, the California Cycling Association of Clubs decided it was time to create a short one day race on Haywards – 10 miles on October 14th. Large crowds of locals gathered under the low autumn light with hordes of cyclists who had taken the ferry boat from San Francisco to watch. The Bay City Wheelmen of San Francisco even brought their mascot, a bulldog named Mike. Forty seven riders started the race which and it was won by George Brouillet, who started 4 minutes ahead of the scratch men. Handicapping races was a common practice during the period which allowed newer less accomplished riders a head start on the scratch riders, who were last to start. Prizes were awarded for both the podium finishers and the fastest times on the course.
The real race that year was between W.A Terrill and M.F. Rose. These were the two scratch men, the last to start. They battled for all 10 miles and finished in a desperate and exhausted sprint. The finish was incredibly close and the crowd’s roar was deafening. Some spectators claimed Terrill had a couple inches on Rose’s front wheel, while an equal number of other spectators insisted the opposite. Eventually, the judges declared the race a dead heat, awarding Terrill and Rose the same time and a share of the prize. One newspaper claimed that the post-race celebration at a nearby tavern was so raucous that “few had any voice left to take back with them to San Francisco”.
Haywards doled out handfuls of punctures every race and riders frequently crashed as a result of riding in the bunch over the uneven and slippery surface. It was not uncommon for the road to eliminate 1/3 of the riders in a race. In the 2nd annual Haywards Road Race in 1895, there were 90 starters, but only 62 finished. Even the favorites, Emil Languetin, C.L. Davis, and T.A. Griffiths all crashed, but they still managed to be among the lucky ones to actually finish. A new rider from Pleasanton, McDougall, stole the show with an unexpected win while J.E. Wing of San Jose had the fastest time.
The legend of Haywards Road would grow for a while from this point on. Its challenging conditions offered a baptism by fire for NorCal’s most talented bike racers. During this twilight of the 19th century, a few Californians even began to join the National Racing Circuit. They proved their strength by competing at the League of American Wheelmen National Championships and smashing time records in the Bay Area and around the nation. Haywards Road Race, however, petered out as time wore on, proving only to be a classic that never was.
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