Syracuse, Stearns, Coronado, Santa Monica, and the Big Sextuplets

During the first months of 1896 two of the worlds strongest teams were in Southern California. Even then, there was nothing unusual in that. To this day, due to its, mostly, fair weather during the winter months it is not uncommon for professional bicycle racers to travel to the southern part of the state, from whatever colder clime they call home, in order to get a jump on training for the upcoming season. Unsurprisingly, this was also the case a hundred and more years ago.

Both teams were from the United States, both from the east coast - the Syracuse and the Stearns teams. The teams took their names from bicycle manufacturing companies, the Syracuse Cycle Co., and the E. C. Stearns Bicycle Agency, two of nineteen bicycle manufacturers operating in the city of Syracuse, New York in the mid-1890s. There was nothing unusual in that either - among the best way to promote a product, as it still is through association, in this case sponsoring top athletes. Competition among manufacturers was especially acute (I mean nineteen in one city alone!) at the time, so for a manufacturer to be able to point out the records set on their bikes was, as it still is, a huge advantage over the competition.

While the Syracuse team established themselves in Coronado to use the fast track there, the Stearns team set up camp in Santa Monica where they would have use of the Southern Pacific track in that city. Both teams were preparing to make runs at establishing new world records. 

Both teams were in state by the end of December 1895, and being well prepared, much was expected from them. The Stearns team were awaiting the arrival of their "big pacing machines," while at Coronado the Syracuse riders were fully into their training and seemed to "have the best of the game" at the time. Going into the season the Syracuse squad owned five records, the third-mile unpaced from a standing start (W.W. Hamilton), the two-thirds mile paced from a standing start (W. W. Hamilton), the half-mile tandem paced from a flying start (Canby Hewitt and W. A. Taylor), and the two-thirds mile tandem paced from a flying start (Hewitt and Taylor). The Stearns team, meanwhile, owned two records, the third-mile triplet, unpaced from a flying start (W. M. Randall, J. M. Campbell, and W. J. Edwards), and the half-mile triplet, unpaced from a flying start (Emil Ulbricht, F. E. Schefski, and W. Hatton).

On January 20th it was noted that rain was keeping both teams from doing the training that they would have liked. The rivalry between the two teams took an unusual turn when Shafer, trainer / manager for the Syracuse team claimed to have signed Otto Ziegler, one of the most prolific champions of the era, to race with the team. Shafer's counterpart on the Stearns team, H. E. 'Dad' Gleezen immediately refuted the signing, and showed a telegram signed by Ziegler, saying he had not joined with Shafer. Gleezen was among the most respected men in the game; up to that point in time no other trainer had been employed with a single team longer than he had.

While the dirt track at Santa Monica was favorably compared to cement when given as little as six hours to dry following a one inch rainfall, it was hoped that a few days of dry weather would precede world record attempts by the Stearns men aboard their "Yellow Fellow" bikes scheduled for January 25th. Since I have not seen any follow-up to this I am guessing that the rain persisted, and the record attempts were postponed.

In early February the news from the camps shifted to the arrival of the big pacing machine to be used for the world record attempts. Weighing in at 137 pounds, with a wheel base of eleven feet, eight inches, gearing of 120 inches, 30 inch diameter wheels with 2 1/4" tires, this was the famous sextuplet. Motorcycles still belonged to the future so there were no derneys for pacing, instead that task was made by man-power as opposed to horse-power and the more men you had, hypothetically, the faster you could go. The captain and driver of the rig was "Big Bill" Randall, 205 pounds who could "sit squarely in his saddle and push a high gear without any of that waste energy noticeable in many smaller men." Sitting behind Randall came, in order, Robbins, Staver, Winsett, Dow, and "Rubber Bill" Hutton.

This was not the only pace-making machine at the disposal of the Stearns team; also in their stable were a twelve-seater, a second sextuplet, a quadruplet, two triplets and ten tandems. Meanwhile the manager of the Southern Pacific track, where the Stearns riders would make their record attempts, was busy with preparations as well. His track was being put into prime condition with a new covering of "natural cement," the very stuff that composed the roads around Monrovia.

On February 11 the Los Angeles Herald made a detailed examination of the sextuplet which went beyond the dimensions already given: "The frame is so constructed that each rider is sitting now on a complete diamond frame, added to which is three extra braces running parallel to the top bars. The tubing used is 1 1/4 inches in diameter and of varying gauges, according to the strain upon it... The chains are seven in number, each having its own sprocket. The strength of the chains increase as they go back toward the rear, the size increasing proportionately. The first chain has a three-sixteenths block, the second a quarter-inch, the third a five-sixteenths, the fourth is a double quarter-inch, the fifth a double three-eighths... The rear chains are two in number, and the big sprocket wheels are set on both sides of the machine, the driving chains connecting on both sides of the rear wheel. These chains are quarter-inch..."

As for the men powering the machine, the story notes that "they form a double triplet team, the two big men occupying the first and fourth seats. The rest of the men grade down from these two, both in height and weight... by Sunday next, the men will be mounted on the sextuplet, and will try how space looks when being annihilated."

Meanwhile at the Coronado track the Syracuse men had their own sextuplet out for laps. On February 17th, Wells, "the San Francisco wonder" was being paced by his six man lead-out (Stone, Terrill, Washburn, Schmidt, Vaughan, and Swanbrough) in a flying mile and half-mile world record attempts when disaster struck. When near the 3/4 pole "a report was heard and in a second or so nothing could be seen of the wheels or the riders, all having gone down in a terrible jumble." Though all but Wells, who escaped with hardly a scratch, were bruised all about their bodies, Swanbrough was the only one seriously injured, "a piece of bone the size of a half dollar being torn away" from his left ankle.

Back in Santa Monica, the Stearns' sextuplet made its first public appearance during a meet on the 23rd of February. Capping off a days worth of races at the track the one mile spin with Dow, Winsett, Robbins, Staver, Rickard and Hatton pacing Schefski behind them, was nothing more than an exhibition, but was "viewed with much interest on the part of the spectators." You may notice that "Big Bill" Randall was not seated in the drivers' seat of the long bike, his typical spot, as he was recovering from a fall. As if to emphasize the abilities of the Stearns men, they won all three of the Class B races - the one-third mile, one-mile post, and one-mile handicap (Hatton, two 1sts, Schefski, a 1st and a 2nd, and Staver a 2nd).

Two weeks later (March 2) it was noted that Randall would not be returning to help power the sextuplet, but would instead be riding a single due to his outstanding performances during training. Speculation was that Kiser, John W. Campbell, Edwards, and Schefski would be paced for the shorter record attempts, with Hatton, a native Angeleno, pegged for the longer attempts. With two weeks to go before the scheduled record rides, the Stearns men were increasing their gearing to match the pace of the big machine.

The Syracuse racers, at Coronado, were also nearing the end of their preparations, but were struggling to retain their own Los Angeles rider, H. E. McCrea, who wished to maintain his amateur status rather than turn professional as he would have been required to do as a member of a record-setting team. Never-the-less, on March 2 riders of the Syracuse team set three new world records - W. A. Terrell and W. A. Taylor, in the half-mile tandem, unpaced from a flying start (52 3/5 seconds), W. W. Hamilton, in the one-third mile, unpaced from a flying start (34 1/5 seconds), and Hamilton, again, in the two-thirds mile, paced with a flying start (58 3/5 seconds). These records were all recorded in the Bulletin of the League of American Wheelmen, April 23.

On the fifth of March it was confirmed by "Dad" Gleezen that the Stearns team would move camp from Santa Monica to the larger track at Coronado for their record attempts. The reason for this, it was determined, was due to the size of the Santa Monica track (one-third mile), deemed to be too small for the wheel base of a sextuplet. The ratio of the banking of the radius of the curve was fine for a triplet, or even a quadruplet, but was inadequate for larger pacing bikes, and the Stearns management determined that it would be impossible to set records there. At the same time the team announced that Arthur J. Stackpole had been brought in as new trainer. Campbell, filling one seat on the sextuplet had left the team in favor of the indoor races at San Francisco, and was replaced by Howard Raymond.

Interestingly, the Stearns team may have very well been forced to make their attempts at Santa Monica if not for the break up of the Syracuse squad following their own record attempts. Speaking of the Syracuse riders: "...the men were hard at work, and with such a pace-follower as the time showed Hamilton to be, there seems to be no good reason why all world's records should not have gone to the followers of the crimson rim. Various causes are alleged as a reason for the disbanding, but nothing satisfactory can be gathered. Mr. Spooner [correspondent for The Bearings, a cycling publication]... laconically wired two words, "Shafer busted," but whether that means in team, purse or person cannot be ascertained."

With Syracuse no longer in the picture, that just left the Strearns riders to pursue new worlds records. Rainfall at the end of March ended any record bids by the riders, who were going to make their first runs beginning on Saturday the 28th, for a few days, but once the team set to work, and got down to business, world records fell in a flood. The team accumulated so many that a story from April 24, listing the latest four records (the story says five records were set, but lists only four) set by the Yellow Fellows the previous day, also stated that those four made for a grand total of nineteen records set by them at the Coronado track within a two week period. Those four newest records were the quarter-mile tandem, ridden by Edwards and Hannah in twenty-two seconds; the one-mile paced, by Evans, who was paced by a tandem and a triplet. Evans also broke the half-mile paced, and the quarter-mile paced. All were amateur records. 

the Stearns sextuplet in its race against the Empire State Express, July 1896