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After reading the preface to John Wilcockson’s Soap Box article touting the “Inaugural and Still Only Tour of America” in 1983, and that it was only 3 days long; I had to write. I believe you are underestimating America’s history and influence in cycling of a century ago. It is only a matter of semantics that the 1895 American National Grand Circuit is not designated a “true” Grand Tour.
A century ago, American versus Continental bike racing was greatly affected by politics and road conditions. The League of American Wheelmen was formed in 1880 and was committed to promoting amateur racing. However, bicycle companies began hiring racers known as “scorchers” to promote their various models. The L.A.W. began identifying professionals and banned sandbaggers from races. More importantly, the L.A.W. had a rule against Sunday racing, which is when the professionals could attract the biggest crowds. That consigned American promoters to hosting professional events on the track.
By 1895, the American National Circuit of track cycling spanned coast to coast. The season was well organized on a national scale with 53 cities hosting multi-day schedules of full day programs and 10 additional stops; it was followed by every newspaper as the major sport of the day. It began on Decoration Day in the Northeast and traveled across the country, finishing with November races in California. Quoting from a newspaper race report: “The national circuit for 1895 represents the climax of racing achievement, and a brief glance at the important dates will disclose as much of interest as was commemorated in sounding measures by the bards of old, when the Greek Olympiads drew the attention of the then known world.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer 3/8/1896) The largest day of spectators was 11,000 people in Dayton Ohio. Only 4 men were able to race the entire 140+ days on the 6 month schedule.
1896 brought a familiar debate: “ ..the manufacturers, who in years gone by have borne the expense of these long tours from coast to coast, are going to count the cost before they send out teams to secure a questionable amount of advertising… Constant Improvement in travelling facilities is making the world smaller every day, but the United States is still too large for cycle racing under the national circuit system, …But one man went through the entire circuit in good condition, and that only through clever management…”(Cycling Gazette)
Fast forward almost 10 years- by this time in America, virtually all professional racing was done on enclosed tracks where admission could be charged. Most amateurs raced on the road. In Europe, where they boasted good road systems built over millennia, road racing predominated. 1903 was the first year and humble beginnings for The Tour De France. It was a promotion for a newspaper, with only 6 stages. The journal organisateur, L'Auto provided one director, Géo Lefèvre, as the judge and time-keeper; Henri Desgrange was the directeur-général, although he did not follow the race. There were no teams; all entrants were individuals and paid a fee of 10 francs. No offense meant, but at that time the Tour paled in comparison to the national organization of American professional cycling.
Europeans stayed faithful to the sport of cycling, but within decades, Americans became enamored with motorsports. The very same financially successful professional cyclists at the turn of the century upped the ante with speed: Cooper funded Henry Ford with Barney Oldfield their first driver. Albert Champion developed the spark plug company; Lois Chevrolet is synonymous with GM. Carl Fisher went from promoting velodrome races to founding the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500.
In other words, although I admire the efforts of the Societe du Tour de France to get a foothold in American cycling in 1983 with a 3 day Grand Tour, they were by no means the first to organize such an event on a national scale here. It will take tremendous organization, funding, and, and years of fan development to match the 1895 National Grand Circuit.
President, Fast Track Cycling
John Wilkockson’s reply that Its apples-to-oranges to compare a track race series with a road stage race is exactly my point- it’s a question of semantics. The professional race organizers were forced by L.A.W.to host any sort of series on the track. To include the whole country required 53 cities- an amazingly organized event.