"July 26, 1922.... I can remember that night as if it was yesterday. The velodrome was on South Orange Avenue, right on the trolley line. My father bought box-seat tickets six weeks in advance for a buck-and-a-quarter each. That's when you could go to the movies for a nickel, you know. Every seat in the place was sold. They packed 16,000 people into the stands and another 4,000 in the infield. Everywhere you looked there were men in shirt sleeves and straw hats. And, let me tell you, a lot more people wanted to get in that night, but the fire marshal wouldn't let 'em sell any more tickets. Oh, it was somethin'...."
Jackie Simes II is recalling a warm July night in 1922 in Newark, N.J., a night more than six decades ago that made a lifelong impression on him, though he was then only eight. It was the night the incomparable Frank L. Kramer rode his last bicycle race.
Simes, now 71, was America's amateur road cycling champion in 1936. A year later his career ended when, as a rookie pro, he crashed through the guardrail of a San Francisco velodrome and suffered serious intestinal injuries.
Simes's voice has a raspy quality, the kind you'd expect a fight trainer to have. His accent has a strong tinge of the Bronx. His blue eyes, surrounded by deep creases, are crystal clear and they narrow as he reminisces. For a few minutes he's back at trackside, a youngster peering over the wooden barrier that separated him from his hero.
"I could've almost reached out and touched him," Simes continues, "he was so close to the rail. He wore a white silk jersey with an American flag sewn over his heart. And he rode a silver bike. Nobody else rode a silver bike like his. When it caught the stadium lights just right, it almost blinded you.
"His trainer held him up while he got his feet strapped into the pedals. He was a big, handsome man with a beautiful pair of legs and a powerful, well-proportioned body. When he was ready he sat up straight, one arm around his trainer. And he held his head up high, like he was lookin' past the crowd.
"Then the announcer strides up to the starting line and waits till the crowd quiets down. I'll never forget that big booming voice—he didn't use no PA or nothin'—and he bellows out, real slow, 'La-dies annnd Gen-tle-men.... Frank L. Kramer...will make...his last appearance...and he will attempt...to break the world's record!'
"Well, like one person that whole stadium rose to its feet, and when Kramer rode around the top of the track slowly, building up speed, the cheers followed him like a tidal wave. I had goose bumps on my arms.
"You know, at age 42 he broke his own record and tied the world record for one-sixth of a mile that night. After 27 years of racing! I don't care what anybody says, there's never been an athlete, before or since, that could hold a candle to Frank Kramer."
Perhaps Simes is right. It's possible that had Kramer's sport not faded from public attention in the U.S., his name would be as recognized today as those of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey or Ty Cobb. But the sport of bicycle racing on the dozens of steeply banked wooden velodromes that once dotted the Atlantic seaboard in places like Boston, Providence, Coney Island, Newark and Philadelphia just disappeared. Completely.