The East Coast dominated cycling in the 1880s, but during the 1890s California’s potential for fast bike racers gained national recognition. Industrial gold mining supplied San Francisco with an infusion of wealth that was able to support a complex economy and a rapidly growing population. Huge technological advances in iron-working, ship-building, and hydraulic machinery sustained the city’s prosperity and enabled the affordability of bicycles. However, as newspapers noted, it was California’s unique climate that held the greatest promise: “The Eastern Men are looking to the Coast for great things; the riders realize that the men who can keep in perfect trim the year around are the ones who are going to make the records.” Understandably, staying “trim” was hard for most American wheelmen who had to brave a barrage of freezing temperatures and snow every winter.
So as cycling in California took off, its riders got faster and faster. Soon, a handful of riders in NorCal were fulfilling the “Eastern Men’s” prophecy. In 1894, one cyclist stood out, a rider from San Jose named Otto Zeigler. He was strong over every distance up to 20 miles, but he was notorious for his speed on the track.
Track racing was the epitome of speed and excitement in the 1890s. Safety bicycles – bikes with two wheels of equal size – could accomplish speeds and handling far better than the old penny-farthing. Why was track racing so popular? Imagine a world without cars and motorcycles, where horse races were the only events faster than footraces. Then imagine going to a 300 yard banked wooden track and watching cyclists rumble across the boards at speeds up 31 miles per hour. Track racing packed the stands.
Otto Zeigler arrived in Denver in 1894 for the League of American Wheelmen National Championships, joining fellow Californians W.J Edwards of San Jose, Charles Wells of SF, and Walter F. Foster of SF, who struggled to adapt to the mountain climate of Colorado. Zeigler was inexperienced and lacked the advantages of a few years worth of training, but had distinguished himself in the Bay Area.
On Day 1 of the championships, Zeigler lined up for the unpaced mile pursuit. He won. And broke the world record. His feat endeared him with the 10,000 spectators watching. Women in the stands already adored him, living and dying by his results – exuberant one moment and feigning heartbreak the next. This first day gave the unassuming and quiet Ziegler enough confidence to look forward to the rest of week’s racing with earnest ambition.
Day 2, “The Little Demon”, Zeigler raced the half mile and 5 mile championship. In the half mile, he faced two of the best racers in the nation: Eddie “The Cannon” Bald and Ray McDonald. Eddie Bald was a professional for Columbia Bicycles, which was the 1890’s version of the 7/11 team in the 1980s, U.S. Postal, or Garmin. Still, Zeigler managed third place in both races, proving that he could compete with the best. There was better to come.
Day 3. Another world record. Facing the same opponents from the day before, but in the 2 mile race, Zeigler snuck past everyone on the last lap to ride 4:21.35 for the distance. The new record was 5 seconds faster, adding to his international palmares of 2:09.15 in the 1 mile pursuit just days before. The crowd cheered, “Zeigler! Zeigler! The Californian! The Californian!”. One newspaper asked, “How could he help winning with such encouragement?”
On day 4, he kept going, capturing the 1/4 mile national championship and the most coveted of all, the 1 mile championship. All the fastest riders were in the race, including John Johnson, who had purposefully skipped the entire week’s racing to save himself for the event.
The news of Zeigler’s triumphs in Denver electrified the cycling community at home. Newspapers observed a dramatic change:
“The meet has had an exhilarating effect upon the sport out here. The local riders are now training for the September races, and they put new vigor in to their efforts for they now feel that they are in no way handicapped over the Eastern cracks and think correctly that with proper and conscientious training they can equal them and perhaps do better. And why not?”
For NorCal, this was a watershed moment in local cycling. Otto Zeigler’s success was similar to the effect that Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong had on Americans after winning the Tour de France. But there was a very different characteristic that underlay the success of Otto Zeigler: He was an amateur. He received no payment for his hours toiling on his bike, other than the generous prize money he won at races. All of his training was performed alongside his non-cycling career. Sydney B. Vincent was a scorcher that ascended in the same fashion, using his commute to and from the Associated Press for training… In the dead of night:
“He had not given much attention to racing of late, except out the cable slot going home every morning at 3 a.m., for he works nights for the Associated Press. He’s been doing this so regularly and often that all the people along his route home know him, and when a dark streak crosses their vision for a second and soon is lost to sight in the the distance, they think: ‘Syd must be late tonight, or else he’s training again’.”
The characteristics of Zeigler’s victory typified the purity of the amateur, non-professional, racer. This was why his success was so inspiring, because anyone with a bike, whether they were a lumberman or customs officer for the harbor, could achieve greatness.
Stories such as Zeigler’s were sentimental not only for the riders in NorCal, but Americans generally. These stories set the stage for fierce debates over the rules of amateurism that went back and forth until the late 1970s when professionalism began to prevail. They are part of a textured controversy that includes popular cultural symbols in cycling, such as under-paid professionals – the “pedaling poor”, the working class amateur heroes like Zeigler, and the wealthy international sportsmen like Mario Cippolini. Zeigler’s accomplishments became part of the lore that made up the argument for enforced amateurism, which sought to create some type of equity in the midst of competition. Although the model of amateurism is, and was, argued by some to be paradoxical due to the inherently selective nature of sports, something can still be said for athletes that “came from nothing”.
Today, the issue is more complicated. Everyone can acknowledge that the cost of entry into the sport of cycling is prohibitive. Luckily, as far as competition goes, there is still a place for amateur cyclists with the Elite system and Elite USA Nationals and so forth. It is hard to know how many “chimney sweeps” and Otto Zeiglers who could thrive in today’s elite racing circuit may never get into the sport. So until the arrival of a golden age when cycling has an equitable entry fee, the sentimentality of stories like Otto Zeigler’s is worth retelling, to remind cyclists that the life of an amateur rider is still full of noble sacrifices, and if for nothing else than the excitement.
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