"In those days, every kid grew up watching the bike races," says 69-year-old Jack Brennan of Irvington, N.J. "Where we lived, you only went to the ball game when velodrome tickets were sold out. And when you went to see Kramer, it was like going to see God."
But Kramer was not carried away by such adulation; his personal habits were beyond reproach. "Regularity and knowing what my system could stand gave me the vitality to ride the way I did," Kramer said long after he retired. "I was always in bed at nine."
In the matter of sex, Kramer was said to exercise great restraint. "In those days," Simes says, "they believed that foolin' around made you weak—took the edge off your sprint. They'd put in your contract that you couldn't get married! Imagine that! Why, Jimmy Walthour signed a contract where he'd get paid 10 grand a year for 10 years so long as he didn't get married. So the next year he ups and ties the knot, at 17. Blew his contract.
"Now Jimmy, of course, he was awful headstrong. But Kramer, he lived by the book. He was the example. Didn't get married till he was 44, two years after he retired."
But above all, Kramer is remembered for bringing class to the bike game. Though he came from a modest family in rural Indiana, he wore the mantle of champion with the dignity of an aristocrat. He associated himself with people and products of quality. For most of his career he rode shiny nickel-plated Pierce-Arrow bicycles, custom-made for him each season at the famous bicycle and automaker's Buffalo plant. He had an affinity for sports cars and enjoyed playing golf.
Sent East from Evansville, Ind. by his mother and father in the 1890s for health reasons (New Jersey's clean air was supposed to be good for the respiratory problems he suffered from as a child), Kramer grew up with foster parents in East Orange, N.J. His bike-racing debut was hardly auspicious. In his first event, May 30, 1896 in Weequahic Park, Newark, Kramer finished dead last.
That was at the tail end of an era of transition from the high-wheeled "ordinaries" to "safeties," those revolutionary machines with wheels of equal size and pneumatic tires. Astride a safety, a sprint rider could approach the astonishing speed of 40 mph.
Despite early physical problems, attributed to unusually rapid growth, Kramer liked reaching that kind of speed. He quickly learned how to handle the safety and by 1898 had won his first national amateur title.
In 1899, when Kramer won his second U.S. amateur championship, there were some 100 velodromes scattered across the country and a class of wealthy professionals who matched wheels in spectacular sprint races on a circuit that included most major American cities, as well as Montreal, Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen.
Joe Neville recalls stories his uncle used to tell about the rivalries that sometimes developed between Kramer and men like Alf Goullet, the Australian who finished second to Kramer in the American Championships some 15 times. "Goullie was a tough, gutsy little rider," says Neville, "and he could beat Kramer probably more than anyone else."