Long before the Canadian "Golden Age" of six-day racing in the 1930s, there was a world class cyclist from Toronto by the name of, Archie McEachern. McEachern was the Canadian National Champion at middle distance bicycle racing in the late 1800s and then made a name for himself south of the border as one of the fastest men on a bicycle in North America.
Velodrome bicycle racing at middle and long distances was the most popular sport in both Europe and North America during the last decade of the 19th century. Crowds would flock to the outside tracks during the warm evenings of the spring and summer months in Newark, Philadelphia, New Haven, Providence, Waltham and Cambridge, Massachusetts This was the era of solo six-day racers who would cycle non-stop for six days in a row for 142 hours going around and around on a wooden track that took ten laps to a mile (160meters track). The track had steep tight corners and short straight-aways but was perfect for spectators to watch the "long grind" and witness the frequent "spills and thrills". For the middle distance events, under fifty miles the riders would sometimes be motor-paced and would fly at speeds over 60kms per hour. Not bad for a heavy single geared bikes with wooden rims and hard rubber tyres.
Archie McEachern, who hailed from Toronto, was one of the cycling stars of this era and was one of a special group of riders that made the transition from solo six-day riding to the two team format. In January 1898 McEachern was racing in a solo six-day in Boston at the Park Square Garden. Solo six-day racing, where a cyclist was on the track for 24 hours had run into the criticism of the non-sporting public with claims that it was a cruel, barbaric display. City councilors in New York passed a law stating that an endurance athlete could not perform more than 12 hours per day. Promoters at that time, not to be out done, came up with two team format where each rider would ride 12 hours each day. Thus the team six-day racing format was born.
In 1899 McEachern partnered with Otto Maya in the first ever New York Six-Day Bicycle Race using the team format at Madison Square Garden. They rode strong and finished in second place to Charles A. Miller and Frank Waller. At 25 years old McEachern was a tall strong young man that had developed a reputation for his speed and power. McEachern was described as a strapping young man at 5 feet 9 inches and 170 pounds and loved the life of the professional cyclist.
In 1900 McEachern had raced and trained all summer and fall in Canada and the Eastern United States at velodromes such as the cement oval at Charles River Park in Cambridge, the wooden track in Waltham Massachusetts, the Vailsburg Track in Newark and the Woodside Park track in Philadelphia. Crowds would flock to these tracks to witness head to head speed of the motor-paced matches over distances between 25 and 50 miles and bicycle races that would run 6 hours.
In December 1900 McEachern was 26 and again entered the New York Madison Square Garden six-day with the veteran cyclist Burns Pierce. McEachern rode well coming in second place for the second year in a row. In fact McEachern had a reputation, similar to Tour de France legend Raymond Polidour, as eternally coming in second. In reviewing the cycling results of the early 1900s McEachern would win often but he did have a large number of second place finishes. But in all of these contests McEachern was known to be competitive and put up an excellent challenge. If you were to beat Archie McEachern you had to dig deep. In one instance, a foreign rider reneged on a contract and did not race against McEachern to avoid losing.
In December 1901 Archie McEachern finally put it all together with partner Bobby Walthour senior winning the prestigious New York Madison Square Garden Six-Day Bicycle race.
The races that were the most exciting during this period were the motor-paced races. This is where the cyclist would ride in the slip stream of a motorcycle inches behind the rear wheel of the motor cycle. The motor cycle would gain speeds of 70-80km/hr with the rider drafting behind the motor cycle at similar speeds. The competition was usually against only one other rider for 20-50 miles. The strangest race was the tandem motor-cycle and the cyclist riding behind this contraption. McEachern made his living as a professional cyclist riding in these evening races at the local tracks in Boston, Providence, New Haven, Manhattan, Newark, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and of course in Montreal and Toronto. The cycling season would culminate with six-day races in New York, Boston or Providence.
On August 15th at the Charles River Park McEachern came in 2nd against John E. Nelson covering 34miles, 165 yards and averaging 54.4km/hr.
Sadly on May 13, 1902 the amazing career of Canadian Archie McEachern ended in a velodrome accident in Atlantic City. McEachern had come to the new seven lap Coliseum track with his trainers Bobby Thompson and Alfred Boake. His trainers were pleased with his conditioning and all were looking forward to a good summer of bicycle racing.
At one o’clock in the afternoon before a small crowd of racing fans McEachern started a fifteen mile tryout paced by a tandem motor-cycle driven by Thompson and Boake. On the last lap in the first corner the drive chain of the motor-cycle broke and was dragging. McEachern, who was riding closely to the rear wheel of the tandem struck the chain and was hurled through the air hitting wooden scaffolding on the edge of the track. He was fatally injured. Reports stated that he had cut his jugular vein in his neck, crushed his chest, punctured a lung and broke his collarbone. The only words McEachern uttered were "Oh Bob". He died a few minutes later while being transported to the hospital.
Later that day his trainers had spoken of two events that occurred earlier in the day that were foreboding of events to come. In the morning a dog ran in front of McEachern’s bike and he crashed bruising his shoulder. A short time later a small boy attempted to run across the track and was run into by McEachern. While the youth and McEachern were uninjured the bicycle was destroyed. As well it was the 13th day of the month. Like some professional athletes, McEachern was superstitious and usually did not ride on the 13th day of the month.
Archie McEachern was 28 years old when he died. His legacy for Canadian cycling was that he was our first track superstar. Decades later when Willie Spencer, William "Torchy" Peden, Jules Audy, Henri Lepage, Reggie Fielding, Rene Cyr, Jocelyn Lovell, Gordon Singleton, Curt Harnett and Lori-Anne Munser were winning track races, they were following in McEachern’s tyre tracks. Archie McEachern was known as a speedster with good bike handling skills, a real gentleman and Canada’s first six-day bicycle race winner.
On December 30th 1999 Archie McEachern was honored by placing 9th on the list of the top 25 Canadian Cyclists of the Century by the cycling magazine: Canadian Cyclist.
Image from The Fort Wayne News, Thursday, December 28, 1899