Cycling in The Fifties
by Lynn Forrest - April, 2004
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times".. Being a competitive cyclist in Michigan in the 1950's was a tough pursuit (no pun intended). Track cycling in the US had effectively died during and after WW II. One or two Six Days were tried at the Olympia in Detroit but they didn't draw.

In the early fifties, my best boyhood friend was David Kennedy. He introduced me to the joys of bike riding for fun instead of just delivering my Royal Oak (Michigan) Tribune newspapers. My first good bike was a Rudge Pathfinder (Reynolds 531 frame, SA 3 speed and steel components $54US) purchased from that" magic shop", Continental Sport Shop at Six Mile and Livernois. It was just across from the University of Detroit Campus. David introduced me to Mike Walden, a modern day Pied Piper. Mike was a tremendous man who had more positive effects on more young people than anyone I have ever known. I had a great Dad but Mike was a second father. He wiped my nose, dried my tears and cleaned my road rash while instilling in me what he called the OBD-The Old Burning Desire. I never became a champion rider but the "OBD" has served me well throughout my life.

The Wolverine Wheelmen were an outgrowth of the Sunset Riders of the 30's and 40's of which Mike Walden and Gene Portuesi were members. Gene opened up Cycle Sport Shop in 1937 on Michigan Avenue just west of Livernois. To the best of my knowledge, Mike opened Continental six miles north some time after WW II. Gene sponsored the Spartan Cycle Club and Mike sponsored Wolverine and later Oak Wheelmen in Royal Oak. With the addition of speed skating, The Wolverine Wheelmen became the Wolverine Sports Club in the mid fifties and is still thriving to this day.

The club had rides every Sunday morning and every Wednesday evening. I believe we had sprint practice on Tuesday evenings. Today we call it intervals. Sunday mornings were a real treat. We could have as few as 25 or as many as 75 riders for these events. We would meet at the Royal Oak Library or the Big Bear (grocery) parking lot around seven am. The rides were usually 35 miles and sometimes 50 miles and I never knew where we were going to go. After a few hours, riders would "peel off" and head for home but there would always be a hard core that would make it back to the parking lot. There were some riders who would make a race of the ride but the slower riders were never left. If you got dropped, someone would always wait and tow you back up into the pack. You learned to ride a straight line and you learned to ride a pace line. The older guys nearly always looked out for the youngsters and novice riders. If someone was being a jerk, they would have to deal with Mike. We would have one or two Century rides per season.

Wednesday night rides in the summer time were the most fun. We would usually ride from early evening until dark or just after. No one used front lights. They were considered dangerous as they were so dim. Better to acclimate your night vision. We did use $1 plastic red bullet lights (one D cell) that twisted on and clamped to the brake bridge. Many times all you saw were bobbing red blobs in front of you and you just tried not hit them. I left a lot of skin on Squirrel Road. Twice in one week on the same knee. I shudder to think.

It wasn't long before the Rudge shed its steel parts and wheels for some alloy wheels with Plessier hubs and Mavic rims. The d'Allesandro tubulars, GB alloy brakes, stem and handlebars made it much lighter. Remember when wing nuts were your answer to quick releases? The transformation was complete with the addition of a 4 speed Simplex derailleur. What a delightful bike. At about 20 pounds, I wish I still had it today. That was a great ride bike but races were held with track bikes. Even on the road!

My first real racing bike was a Drysdale. I believe the frame was won at a Tour of Somerville by a friend of mine named Bill Baker. I bought it for $50 and it was pretty beat up. Alvin Drysdale was an east coast frame builder who built a lot of six day race machines in the 30s and 40s. I went through the scrounge bin at the bike shop for the cranks etc. I am sure that Mike gave me a lot of stuff to get me into racing. I painted that bike more times than I can count. It was white, then black, green and finally dark blue. I bought decals from the hobby shop and really trashed it up.

If you were under 17, you were a junior. Over 17 you were thrown to the wolves as a senior. My racing career was undistinguished with maybe a handful of club wins but I had a ball. It is the people that I remember. They were all my heroes. Tom O'Rourke was an Olympian as was Billy Freund about 10 years later. Clare "Smokey" Young was the perennial senior state champion. Clare was the father of Sheila and Roger* who became world class riders in the 60s and 70s. Charlie Davidson was the Flying Scot (he had Flying Scot bikes and they were beautiful) Ron Segar (Cee-gar) became a Doctor if my memory is correct. Jeannie Omelenchuk** was our annual women's state champ and maybe was a National Champ also. She was a real craftsman on the bike.

We raced on the streets with track bikes. The races were usually held on closed circuits about half mile around. Junior races were seldom over 35 miles and senior races were about 50 miles. Some times there would be a series of races and you would ride for BAR points. (Best All 'Round) For juniors there would be ˝ mile, one mile, two mile and five mile races. The two and five mile races would have sprints each mile and then try and reform. The races were usually scored 7,5,3,2 and 1 for the five places. There was a winner for each race but there was an over all winner also. Seldom were there more than 10 to 15 riders. The seniors would drop the ˝ mile and add a ten to 25 mile race as the main event. There were more seniors than juniors.

When we weren't riding, we would be working at the bike shop on weekends and in the summertime. Lester Konkel was sort of the full time assistant and mechanic. Billy Freund and I worked part-time. Mike would tease us about our pay-"50 cents an hour and all you can steal." We considered working at the bike shop was an honor and privilege. We were always working to buy that yellow Urago track bike. When Urago dried up, we wanted the candy colored Frejus.

More later. My apologies to those if I misspelled names. I'll bet Gene Diggs can fill in a lot of blanks to this story.

Lynn Forrest - www.fixedgeargallery.com #98-99

* Roger Young has coached two U.S. Olympic Cycling Teams (`92 and `98), one Canadian Olympic Cycling Team (`96), six National Cycling Teams and two Canadian National Cycling Teams. As a rider, he won seven National Championships and a Pan Am Games gold medal, and made two Olympic teams.
** Jeannie Omelenchuk, speed skater: Won 19 North American titles in 40 years of competition. U.S. Olympian in 1964-68 and at age 40 in 1972.
click on photo to see full-page.

Yo Yo Yo! (Or More Tales from the Wolverine Wheelmen of Detroit)
…We harken back to the days of yesteryear and cycling in the 50's. If you can believe it we used to ride our bikes up and down Woodward Ave from Palmer Park to Ted's Drive In on Long Lake Road (or was it Square Lake Road). [ed: Square Lake Rd]
Yo, Yo, Yo was a yell issued at the top of the lungs to call to riders across Woodward Ave in case they didn't see you riding the other way. It was amazing you could hear that yell, I'll swear, for a half mile. The riders would look up and spot you and would soon be across the boulevard (Woodward use to have a grassy median where the streetcars ran until 1955) to join you. It was a rally call for the late but faithful riders.
Some of the wonderful rides that I remember vividly were Sunday mornings to the Franklin Cider Mill on Franklin Road and somewhere between 14 and 16 Mile Roads for fresh hot donuts and freshly milled cider. The September and early October mornings would start out chilly and by the time we got there it would be a glorious 70 degrees. T he air was crystal clear and you could see for 30 miles on the tops of the gently rolling hills of what was then out in the country.
The sweet cider and the "plain" hot donuts were just the ticket to reclaim some energy after the last two hours at 16 mph. By today's standard that's pretty mild but it was fast touring stuff in those days (22-23 mph was a race pace in those days as I remember). It would leave us with about an hour left to ride to home.
Another favorite in the summer time was the ride to Metropolitan Beach at the end of 16 mile (Metro Beach Parkway) where you run into Lake St. Clair. The ride out, a couple of hours at the Beach and the ride home was a great way to kill a summer Sunday.
There are many more adventures and I was inspired by Robert Cannon's recent article on the "ride in springtime Texas" which I thought was a knockout. It made me remember what bike riding was all about. Similar rides are still there to be had and we even rode them on our track bikes in those days.
Lynn Forrest #98 and 99