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Albert Zimmerman, September 10, 2006

The greatest pedaller of all time

Long before Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and Greg Lemond there were US cyclists who dominated racing in Europe. Track racing was a huge sport at the turn of the century and one US cyclist stood out as having the best pedalling style of all - Albert Zimmerman. Les Woodland looks at a time when track racing dominated the back pages of the newspapers.

There's a celebrated cycling writer in America called Owen Mulholland. He's been around the sport for decades and he remembers the pain of the 1960s when Americans went off to Europe - and got a thrashing. That was before Jonathon Boyer and George Mount, let alone Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis.

"We used to think Europeans came from a different gene pool", he smiles.

Cycling has always drawn huge crowds
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Well, that proved not to be so. And - as Mulholland knows because is a historian but many others don't - Americans had long before proved that they could take on the best and beat them. In the early days of cycling, Americans were the most glamorous of all.

The most glamorous of the glamorous was Arthur Augustus Zimmerman, 5ft 11in tall, lean and able to sprint flat out "as if the man were mounted on wheels" as a French spectator put it. Victor Breyer, later number two in the Tour de France and a founder of the Union Cycliste Internationale and the man who stood on the first mountains of the Tour and got called a murderer by one of the riders, called Zimmerman "the greatest pedaller of all time."

That speed and style drew thousands to the state and county fairs of America where Zimmerman and others from the great wealthy nation at the end of the 19th century competed for houses, diamonds and horses.

Zimmerman's reputation wasn't slow to cross the Atlantic and in 1892 he was invited to race in England, with a home provided near Herne Hill track on what were then the rural surroundings of southern London. He hated the English weather but got on well with his British rivals. That summer he took the national mile, five-mile, 25-mile and 50-mile championships, all on the track. Next year he came back with two Raleigh bikes he hadn't needed to buy, his name in Raleigh advertising, and quite possibly some Raleigh money in his wallet as well.

Waiting for him weren't the ecstatic crowds and bands that had met his liner when he returned to America but the sour-faced rule-makers of Britain's National Cyclists' Union. They had grown tired of 'makers' amateurs', riders who professed to be amateurs but lent their name and opened their wallets to bike companies. There was little doubt in the mind of the NCU that Zimmerman was less than blameless. The New York Times listed his winnings in 1892 as including 29 bicycles, several horses and carriages, half a dozen pianos, a house, land, furniture and "enough silver plates, medals and jewellery to stock a jewellery store." It is doubtful that he had to take much of this in kind or, if he did, that he didn't soon sell it for cash. There was reason to doubt that he was strictly an amateur.

The trouble for the NCU was that it had little success against even its own members. The Rover bike company feared little when it took a page in Cycling in August 1908 to picture Charles Bartlett under the headline THE HERO OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES and reprinted the Daily Telegraph's report of his 100km victory. On a Rover, naturally.

A huge wooden track
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The rival Triumph company printed its name an inch high after Freddie Grubb came second in the 1912 Olympic road race. Only then, and a fraction of the size, did it add 'F. H. Grubb, Rider.' Apart from knocking a hole through Olympic and amateur ethics, it suggested that Grubb was incidental and that the bike could have turned anyone into an Olympic medallist.

Happily for the NCU, Zimmerman was foreign and less likely to fight back. Being banned from racing in Britain may have inconvenienced him but it did nothing to make life more difficult. Where British promoters had paid him under the table, Continentals handed over the cash openly. Through all that, Zimmerman remained an amateur. When he did turn professional it was, to nobody's surprise, for Raleigh.

Zimmerman's first race at the Buffalo track in Paris included the finish of the first Bordeaux-Paris. That was sensational but it was still less exciting than this brilliant and highly-paid American. His reputation and fees irritated other riders and they secretly ganged up against him. When Zimmerman nevertheless won the first round of the big sprint, the Frenchmen Hermet and André and the Scotsman, Vogt, were fuming and in the next best-of-three they plotted against him openly. Two officials mustered enough English to warn Zimmerman, adding: 'Arthur, give it all you've got and, if you can, show us something new.'

Zimmerman, laconic and unimpressive off his bike as he was magnetic on it, answered simply: 'After the bell.'

And so it went, Vogt attacking first. The others fell in line behind him, Zimmerman last of the four. The crowd fell silent, suspecting defeat. Zimmerman just stayed at the back. And then, well after the bell and into the last lap, he rode past them all. His legs span, his body barely moved. He was, as that observer said, riding on rails. He won by 20 metres.

Just an ancient, a dinosaur good only for his age? Ponder this: on a bike weighing 12kg, on soft tyres 38mm across, without toe-straps and on a gear of 17 x 7, he rode the last 200m in 12 seconds. Many an amateur would be pleased with that today. And if that 17 x 7 gear sounds odd, it's because track riders used inch-pitch chains. In today's half-inch pitch, the gear would be 34 x 14. In other words, minute. The cycling mathematician, Dave Lefèvre, says that according to whether that was exactly 12 seconds or closer to 13, and depending on the precise size of the wheel (which could have been larger then than now), Zimmerman may have pedalled between about 170 and 185 revolutions a minute.

In 1893, in Chicago, Zimmerman became the first sprint champion of the world. Such is his glamour to this day that in 2003 a battered black-and-white Raleigh poster proclaiming his status as world champion - 'over 2,300 prizes during 1892' - sold for $800.

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