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Why that happened is a matter of conjecture. The dwindling number of oldtimers who were involved with the game offer opinions based on incidents recalled from flickering memories. But all of them, and hundreds of articles in the most prominent big-city newspapers and magazines of the day, agree on one thing: There has never been a professional athlete who dominated a highly competitive sport so completely and for so long as Frank L. Kramer. The man they called Big Steve, possibly after a popular cartoon character of the day or maybe because of his rugged looks or because he reminded the fans of a stevedore.
For 16 consecutive years, from 1901 to 1916, Kramer was the U.S. professional champion. He came back twice more to take the title, in 1918 and in 1921, when he was 41 years old. He probably could have won the annual world championship a dozen times, but that isn't important. The one year he bothered was 1912, when the event was held on his home track in Newark. In those days, the U.S. dominated the sport, so if you could beat your fellow Americans, you could beat the world, a point Kramer proved repeatedly in four well-publicized trips to Europe during the course of his career. In 62 starts abroad he won 50 races, many of them against world and foreign national champions.
Not entirely coincidentally, Kramer's golden years coincided with the rise of "Colonel" John M. Chapman, the promoter who became the czar of bike racing. He controlled the talent. He managed the tracks. He determined the events that mattered. In 1911 he signed Kramer to a contract that reputedly bound him to Chapman's organization for 10 years. The deal guaranteed Kramer an annual five-figure income, for which he agreed to appear in a set number of Chapman's promotions each season. The contract also helped make Chapman the richest man in the sport.
In 1911 Chapman and his financial partner, Frank Minion, built a velodrome on South Orange Avenue in the Vailsburg section of Newark, then a pleasant suburb of wide-lawned homes and prosperous businesses. The track was a one-sixth-mile, steeply banked bowl constructed of pine slats curved over heavy wooden framing. There were bleachers and reserved seats for some 12,000 paying fans; the infield could accommodate 3,000 more. The new velodrome was less than a mile from where Big Steve had grown up.
Season after season, Chapman used to bring talent from around the world to race against Kramer at Newark and at the growing number of eastern tracks Chapman controlled.
Dozens of Australian, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, British, French, Italian and Canadian competitors, as well as hundreds of Americans, signed up for Chapman's races. But Kramer was always the biggest drawing card. As Joe Neville, nephew of one of Kramer's trainers, Jack Neville, put it, "As soon as these guys would get off the boat, Big Steve would knock 'em off. The fans loved seeing him battle to stay on top. Now, don't get me wrong, he was beaten by a lot of these guys, good riders. But he always came through when it counted. He was a real American hero."
Kramer's talents on a bike were best displayed in short-distance sprints. He was virtually unbeatable when matched against one or two other riders in half-mile to two-mile races.
Not surprisingly, the annual, season-long American professional championship that Kramer dominated for so many years included a lot of races of two miles or less. In spite of frequent accusations of favoritism, Chapman did all he could to ensure that the mix of title events emphasized Kramer's specialty.
"Sure, Chapman set up races to favor Big Steve," says Neville. "But that made it tough on Kramer. The riders were always looking for a chance to knock him off. The guy lived under a helluva lot of pressure."
The matches were not unlike the dicey Olympic sprint cycling competitions of today. Two, three or four riders would make up a half-mile final—three laps on a steeply banked velodrome. With feet tightly strapped to the pedals of their single-geared, brakeless sprint bikes, they could swoop down the 45-degree banks to catch an opponent off guard, run him into the infield or box him in at the rail. The final dash to the line was always a hair-raiser, with victory often measured in inches. Frequently riders would lock handlebars at 40 mph, resulting in broken collarbones and nasty splinters.