Thursday, July 21, 2011
I am honored to own this bike since the 1970's. Paul Super Spokes sold my brother this Legnano track bike.
October 23, 2002:
Tiger two-wheelers through time
A history of cycling at Princeton
By Kate Swearengen '04
Competitive cycling took hold early at Princeton, and the first bicycle race promoted on university grounds came in 1879. In those days, track meets and cycling meets were held concurrently, and the same cinder loop did double duty for spikes and spokes.
A series of Princeton-Columbia races were held until 1896, when the rivalry became so extreme and the racing so anarchical that the two colleges feared someone would be seriously injured and called off the competition.
Cycling at Princeton continued at a high level into the first part of the 20th century. The Tigers were an outstanding team, winning the national championships three years in a row and setting the national record in 1911. A team photograph from that era shows five young men in turtleneck sweaters, posing alongside their bicycles and mugging coolly for the camera. This was to be the last Princeton cycling team for the next 48 years.
In 1959, Paul “Super Spokes” Sackett ’60, famous for racing buses to Trenton and pedaling to Yale, orchestrated a minor renaissance by bringing back competitive cycling to Old Nassau. By 1960, however, only one member of Sackett’s crew remained. Academic responsibilities had caught up with the other riders, and they had been heaved out for nonperformance. Enter Leif Thorne-Thomsen ’63, a track cyclist from Lake Forest, Illinois.
“My parents were quite opposed to me being a cyclist at Princeton.” Says Thorne-Thomsen. “They wanted me to study and get good grades.”
Although he began his term at Princeton with no bicycle and with the best of intentions, Thorne-Thomsen eventually succumbed to the sport’s irresistible draw, and picked up a $15 bike from Kopp’s Cycles his freshman year. Shortly thereafter, he began putting together a new team.
“Leif had a great affection for old equipment,” says Oscar Swan ’64. “He taught everyone how to build their own wheels and how to sew up tires. He was the one who got us started, and he was the one who kept us going.”
During spring break, the Tigers rode 100 miles a day. They pedaled down to the Delaware River, over to New Hope and Washington’s Crossing, and into Pennsylvania. “Back then the traffic lights on Route 1 were timed for 50 mph, and we’d slip-stream behind trucks.” Says John Allis ‘65. “In retrospect I’d never let my children do that. It’s dangerous because you can’t see what you’re going to run over, tucked away about two feet from the air brake sign.”
In the winter, the team trained indoors on two sets of wooden rollers Thorne-Thomsen had brought down from the wilds of northern New Jersey. The rollers were bumpy and unwieldy — 15 inches across, and lashed together with leather straps — but easy to ride.
For entertainment, the team competed in the roller racing tournaments that amateur bicycling enthusiasts held in the front rooms of bars and taverns. Two racers would be set up side by side, and the first one to chase the needle around the dial the requisite number of times was the winner. After the race, the barkeep gave each contestant a beer.
The hard work paid off. From 1961 to 1964, the Tigers did not lose a team event, and received substantial coverage in the Prince, especially when the football or basketball team had lost that weekend.
Support from the university administration was less generous. The team was given a room — “Some sort of cubby hole, with a light bulb hanging from the ceiling,” says Swan — and a key to the gym. For transportation to races, they replied first upon Thorne-Thomsen’s ancient GMC carryall, and in later years upon Allis’s Volkswagen bus, which could carry 16 people and six bicycles.
“This was in the days when there was a big commercial featuring the Exxon tiger,” says Leighton Chen ‘66. “We found a giant cardboard cutout of the tiger, and every time we passed a car that had some pretty girls in it, we’d wave it and yell. That’s what it was like at a men’s college.” The Tigers pooled their money to pay for the gas, and everyone brought along food, or money to buy food. Sometimes the host team would sneak them into their cafeteria, and the Princeton riders would eat on the other college’s nickel.
The Tigers were unique at the time because of their use of group tactics. The team worked with each other, setting the field up and putting its riders in the best possible positions. “A lot of the other schools had riders,” says Swan. “But they didn’t really have teams.” The Tigers were so far ahead of their competitors that by the end of the race they usually ended up sprinting against themselves.
“At a race at West Rock Park in Connecticut, the MIT riders used inclinometers and slide rules to calculate the optimum gear to use on the hills,” says Allis. “We didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to that. We just went out there and raced.”
Which is not to say that the team did not have its share of shenanigans and close scrapes.
“I have a story about a race at Brandeis,” says Mikk Hinnov ’66. “The race got started, and I was up front, going up the hill, when I saw a rather shapely woman walking up the side of the road with her back to us. Being a rather insensitive sort of guy, I reached over and tapped her on the fanny, and kept pedaling. Two more laps, and suddenly police cars with flashing lights were blocking off the road. The woman was standing there livid; the police wanted to know who did it. I stepped up, walked to the front, said: ‘It was me.’ I was told this wasn’t the kind of thing to do. The woman was the chief rabbi’s wife. Once I understood the nature of the game, I apologized profusely, and I took a lesson from it. I never did that again. We Princeton people, we get our education in many different ways.”
“I also got a little lesson in racial integration through bike racing at Princeton,” says Hinnov. “At that time, Princeton was a single-sex school, which set up some tensions and problems of its own. One day I was in the library, and a very pretty young black woman was sitting across the table from me. I had 40 cents in my pocket, and I figured that would cover two cups of coffee at the student center. She was the first black person I’d ever spoken with or ever known. The Somerville bike race was coming up, and I invited her to come with us and watch the Princeton team. I came in fifth. The next time I met her, she told me she had been ripped up one side and down the other by her family for having spent her Memorial Day with a white boy. I felt some of what black people felt — a rejection based upon nothing more than the color of my skin. So I learned a little more of a life lesson through the intermediary of bicycling. That lesson has stayed with me.”
Lessons also came by way of Interstate 91. In order to get competition that the college races could not provide, the team took to traveling to New York City for the Sunday morning races in Central Park. The racers there were blue collar and often foreign-born, and they looked askance at the college boys from New Jersey. “We dominated collegiate races,” says Chen. “We didn’t dominate the races in Central Park.”
In 1963 the Tigers swept the collegiate road racing national championships, taking the top four places. “We were together as a team and nobody else was within 100 yards of us,” Hinnov says. “After that, we did what we had done so often in training: We started to work as a team, switching pace at the front and moving as fast as we could. Everybody did his share, and we just lengthened our lead.” Back at Princeton, the question arose as to whether to give the cyclists letter sweaters, technically the province of varsity athletes. It was eventually decided that they would be given black letter sweaters, rather than the white sweaters typically awarded to national champions. “At least they gave us something,” says Thorne-Thomsen.
That same summer, the Tigers successfully petitioned to race in the World Road Championships, held in Renaix, Belgium. In the 1960s, American bicycle racing was not up to world-class standards, and the Princeton team represented one of the U.S.’s earliest forays into the international scene. The European press, astonished that the Americans were fielding a team in the first place, was even more surprised by their jerseys — red, white, and blue woolen shirts, with button-down breast pockets — which went against the unspoken sartorial dictates of the sport. “We were total neophytes, and we pretty much got blown out of the road race,” says Allis. The team fared better in the team time trial, where it finished with a better time than the Americans had in the 1960 Rome Olympics, setting a U.S. record.
After Worlds, Allis decided to stay over in Europe to get more racing experience and to gain a shot at qualifying for the Olympics. There was also the matter of a junior paper, which had gone unwritten.
“I made the 1964 Olympic team, along with Bill Bradley ’65,” says Allis. “Here I was, having come back to Princeton on academic probation, classes may have already started when I had been riding in the trials, and I went into the dean of students and said, ‘Hey, I’ve made the Olympic team. I’d sort of like to take three weeks off and go to Tokyo.’ The dean said, ‘Absolutely not, no way; you’re on academic probation...Okay, we’ll take it up in faculty meeting.’ It was taken up in faculty meeting and I got called back in. The dean said, ‘We’re going to let you go.’ It seems that Harvard and Yale each had two people going, and Princeton would only have had one with Bill Bradley. The dean said, ‘If we don’t let you go, we’re going to get a lot of flack from the alumni.’” Allis went to the Olympics, albeit with some textbooks, where he placed 66th, the top American finish.
Ultimately, it was a confluence of factors that contributed to the success of the Princeton cycling team: its talented athletes and the individuals who were committed to making them better. The ranks of the 1960-1964 teams included many gifted riders — among them John Taylor ’65, Peter Waring ‘66, and John Mitchell ’67 — who were not interviewed for this article. The Tigers benefited from the instruction of Al Povey, an Englishman who coached lightweight crew in an official capacity and the cycling team in an unofficial one. In the spring, they trained with Alan Bell, a telephone lineman who had gained international fame as a track cyclist. Fred Kuhn, the former owner of Kopp’s Cycles, taught them how to care for their equipment and provided them with tires at wholesale. Then, too, there was the matter of good old-fashioned determination.
“Bicycle road racing is a hard sport and it is very difficult to get in shape and move up to increasingly higher levels of competitiveness unless you train and race regularly with others who are at least as strong and dedicated as yourself,” says Hinnov. “We had that at Princeton.”
Today, the Princeton cycling tradition is still going strong. Cycling remains a club sport — because riders have the opportunity to win money or prizes, it is not NCAA sanctioned — and is subject to the budgetary woes that plague nonvarsity sports. “You can tell this is the classiest place we’ve stayed in all year,” said Elliot Holland ’04, in response to the team’s accommodations for one race. “It’s the only one that hasn’t had a condom machine in the lobby.”
The team, which currently numbers 20 active riders, competes in the spring, a change from the 1960s, when there were fall and spring seasons. Races are held on the weekends, and the Tigers travel in vans rented from the university, or by car. The typical race weekend consists of a road race on Saturday and a criterium on Sunday. The distance for a road race usually ranges from 30 to 70 miles, depending on the gender and race class of the participants. Criteriums are shorter, and generally last between 30 and 60 minutes. Team time trials, which consist of two to six riders pedaling as quickly as possible for a prescribed distance, are also a common fixture.
Although the team functioned without the benefit of coaching until the arrival of Patrick Kennedy, Peter Betjemann *02, and Bob Ellis ’79 this fall, it has been successful. This past spring, the Tigers took first place among Division II schools in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. Tyler Wren ’03, a former co-captain who won the criterium and the road race at Eastern’s, has tallied solid finishes on the professional cycling circuit this summer. Former co-captain Carolyn Henry ’03 and graduate student Scott Rickard are also standouts. The team’s motto: “Study to pass, ride to win.”
Kate Swearengen '04 joined the bicycle circuit last spring. This fall she is studying at the American University of Cairo. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Princeton cycling: http://www.princetoncycling.com