Few cities in the U.S. can claim to have loved cycling like San Jose. How do we know this? There have been no less than seven velodromes in this unassuming city’s history, and it has more than once been considered one of the most important cycling centers in the country.
Perhaps the most striking feature of San Jose’s history is how few of us in the present day are aware of the city’s rich cycling traditions and heritage.
Some might say the earliest significant event for San Jose cycling was the arrival of French immigrant blacksmith Alexandre Lefebvre in during the 1860s. The worldwide authority, the International Cycling History Conference, does not confirm that Lefebvre actually invented the pedal-powered, rear-driven velocipede in 1842 as is claimed, but it is accepted that he made one of these vehicles and this now sits in the San Jose History Museum.
Another significant early event that would have lasting ramifications for cycling in San Jose was construction of the Mount Hamilton Road. Commissioned and paid for by James Lick as an access road to his space observatory, the 18-mile road was completed in 1877. The original route, most of which is used today, was said to include 365 bends, offered superb panoramic views, and was given the name "the road of a thousand wonders."
At some point in San Jose’s cycling history - the exact year remains obscure - cyclists started racing to the top of Mt. Hamilton. These days, the annual Mount Hamilton Road Race is considered a true classic in the West Coast cycling calendar.
Fast amateurs riding featherlight modern bikes complete a 20-mile Mount Hamilton summit route, climbing almost 4,000 feet from Clayton to the summit, in around 1:40. Back in 1914, one Charles Fuller needed two overnight stops to complete the 25 miles from San Jose to the summit! On the return leg he reported coasting for miles and “Only took two headers resulting in slight bruises.”
San Jose’s first bicycle clubs were formed around 1884. The activity of cycling exploded in 1885, with the invention of the Rover Safety Bicycle, which had two same-sized wheels, rubber tires, front-wheel steering, cranks and a chain drive. With this, the bicycle became the vehicle for all people, and its popularity spread immediately around the world. A phenomenon partly repeated by the Mountain Bike 100 years later.
By 1896, San Jose had 28 bike shops and nine bicycle clubs, with membership ranging from 24 to 325, and there were many miles of level, paved roads. These roads were mapped, with supplementary information about the condition and gradients along the road. The Mount Hamilton climb was given a GR annotation, meaning “Good, Rolling” and not H for Hilly or M for Mountainous.
Among the first clubs were the Garden City Bicycle Club, Garden City Cyclers and the San Jose Road Club, all of which were formed before the year 1900. The national cycling movement was massive for its day. Pre-1900, the League of American Wheelmen, which would later break into two groups - the League of American Bicyclists and the American Automobile Association - had a membership of almost 103,000, almost all of which were cyclists.
With cyclists came bike racing, and San Jose built its first velodrome in 1892. Local races emerged, such as Otto Ziegler, aka "the Little Demon from San Jose," who won the U.S. national track championship in 1894. Other San Jose residents, such as Hardy Downing and Floyd McFarland, had professional racing careers spanning the late 1890s and into the early 1900s. McFarland was considered one of the world’s greatest six-day racers.
In 1910, a second velodrome opened at the Auditorium Rink, a downtown sporting arena, but it appears to have been relatively short-lived.
By 1920, cycling was one of the world’s largest professional sports. Top pro cyclists were earning $700-$1,000 a week. Peter Nye, in his book "Hearts of Lions," writes that in 1920, 11 football teams that would eventually form the National Football League went on sale for $100 each.
In 1936, the Burbank Velodrome in San Jose, which was briefly called the Garden City Velodrome, was opened on the site that is now the Abraham Lincoln High School. This track created one of the golden ages in San Jose’s cycling history. The velodrome was 220 yards long, modeled on the world famous Madison Square Garden track in New York. Pro racers from across the country competed at Burbank and crowds up to 3,000 showed up to watch.
Eddie Saunders, the premier sports promoter in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930s, said, “San Jose, for years the cradle of cycling, still is potentially the outstanding cycling center of the country.”
In its time the Burbank Velodrome was the only cycling track west of Chicago. But its years were numbered. Built on property owned by the schools authority and earmarked for a future school, its growing success had to be curtailed. The San Jose school board acted, causing the venue to become a non-profit rather than commercial venture, and gradually the pro calendar dried up.
By 1941, the racing program had dwindled and there was little or no media coverage of events at the track, in contrast only two years earlier journalists had participated in special match sprints for local honors. Burbank Velodrome closed in September of 1941, and soon after the Lincoln school was built on the site.
The post-war years almost buried cycling in the U.S. The focus of the pro scene shifted to Europe, but still a hard core of cyclists kept the sport alive in San Jose. In 1950, a 176-yard wooden board velodrome was built behind the San Jose Speedway, a motor racing track, and in 1951 the U.S. board track bicycle championships were held at this venue. However, in 1952 the track closed because of financial problems and demands for greater prizes by the competitors.
The modern era of cycling in San Jose began in 1963. An initial investment of $25,000 provided funds for the construction of the Hellyer Park Velodrome. It is an outdoor concrete track, 368 yards long, designed by Ed Steffani, a San Jose Bicycle Club member.
In 1968, The Western Wheelers cycling club was formed by Menlo Atherton High School students, an early predecessor of the Berkeley High School mountain bike club in the late 1990s that would grow into the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
The U.S. Olympic Trials took place at Hellyer Park in 1972, as well as the Madison national championships. Later in the decade a young Greg Lemond, wearing the rainbow stripes of the junior world champion, would claim the 1979 district Madison championship, with his team-mate George Mount. Lemond went on to win three Tours de France and few would dispute he remains one of the very greatest names in the history of cycle sport.
Fast forward to 2006, the first year of the Amgen Tour of California. It was only logical that the country’s foremost bicycle stage race would have a finish in San Jose, and tens of thousands of fans lined the streets to greet the field of international stars.
With the formation in recent years of mass-participation cycling events like the San Jose Bike Party, and lobbying groups such as the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, more cyclists are taking to the streets for transportation and recreation, and the roads are becoming safer for cyclists. While racing activities have provided many of the headline activities over the decades, the large body of cyclists riding for transport and recreation continue to provide the pulse of the sport now, just as they did more than 100 years ago when the League of American Wheelmen successfully lobbied for paved roads on which cyclists could more comfortably ride.
Acknowledgments and further reading:
Thanks to the many San Jose cycling enthusiasts who contributed to this article and special thanks to Ken Middlebrook, of the San Jose History Museum, who is currently compiling a comprehensive exhibition of San Jose’s cycling history.
Other useful sources:
One of the most authoritative histories of San Jose cycling is a 1994 academic paper written by Tracy Delphia: A history of bicycle track racing in San Jose: the Burbank Velodrome years: 1935-1941.
Bikemaster.org contains several interesting anecdotes about San Jose’s cycling history.
Photos courtesy www.historysanjose.org/