Thursday, June 11, 2009

Old Timers

Doing some circles outside the velodrome to keep my legs moving between races during a recent installment of the Twilight Series, an old-timer approached me and asked, "Hey, do they have any of these kind of races out in Jersey?"

"No," I said, "This is the only track around. The nearest one is out in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania."
"So, not out in Jersey?" he repeated.
"They used to have these races out in Jersey, I can't believe they don't have them anymore."
"Well, this is the only track around, these days."
"Do you win any money at these races? Any money in them?"
"No - I guess we just do it for bragging rights or something," I replied.
"You know, I used to race. Not anymore. I'm ninety-three years old! And back then if there was any mention of money they'd take away our racing card!"

We chatted for a while longer and he told me that he used to race at the old New York Velodrome (that would be the old one in Inwood, not the hopeful/future New York Velodrome), they Coney Island Velodrome , and the Newark Velodrome, out in Vailsburg Park. He even raced at the old Madison Square Garden, home of legendary six-day races. "Before the six-day races," he said, "there would always be amateur races, and I'd enter those! I'd come in third place, fourth place. Madison Square Garden was the only place you could earn money as an amateur, and I'd win fifteen or twenty bucks, which wasn't bad back then..."

I introduced myself and he gave me his name, Gimelli, as I shook his arthritic hand. He reminded me of my grandfather, who passed away a year and a half ago - not because of similar looks, but it was his baseball cap, his skin of wax paper and wrinkles, and the creaky enthusiasm in his voice that congealed into a sort of familiarity. He was racing this sport in the 1920s, and it just seems fascinating and somehow supernatural for me to converse with somebody who, as a kid, could very well have been in my shoes, talking with somebody who lived through the Civil War. I had a million questions for Gimelli that I didn't get to ask - how'd you start riding? What was the bike like? Why did you stop? What were the crowds at Madison Square Garden like? Did you train? Did you smoke? What was the building like? What were the people there like? What did you feel, think, see? What was the city like? Who did you talk do?

I felt like I was in a Utah Phillips story, knowing that the past didn't go anywhere, that it's with us if we find it. It reminded me of sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table, clutching cups of tea when we weren't holding each other's hand, me writing down recipes that she was reciting off the top of her head.

But it's a tenuous process, ties to the past, which I learned the next time I lined up on the rail. He walked over from the bleachers and leaned on the rail next to me, across the fence. Maybe he came up to me because I was familiar to him from our last conversation, but maybe there was only a faint recognition picking in his mind, because when he leaned on the rail he asked me, "Hey, do they have any of these kind of races in New Jersey?"

"No," I replied after a moment. "This is the only track in the area."
"Do you win any money at these?"
"No. I guess we just do it for ourselves... or for bragging rights..."
"I used to race. I'm ninety-three years old, and back then, if we mentioned money, they'd take our racing card away!"

The race began and I threw myself into a 15 lap Devil's Scratch, properly exhausting enough to make me nearly vomit at the end, so it was a while before I was able to give this man the proper amount of thought. I enjoyed talking to him, and missing the old people who were in my life that I loved to much. And I gave thanks that my grandfather and grandmother lived out their days with continued mental acuity, though the discomfort of progressively diminishing health.

The past doesn't go anywhere.


  1. wow. That's amazing. I wonder what it meant a bunch to him to see a velodrome race after all thse years.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Wonderful mix of cycling and (living) history. Oh to be able to know even HALF of what that guy's forgotten!

  3. What can be said? Just lovely. It does sound like a scene out of a short story. If you didn't do this already, and you happen to see him again, do you think you might get his phone number and go by his house, ask some questions, take some notes? Older people so rarely get taken seriously, and they often soak it up when someone sees them as valuable. This guy might or might not be a treasure trove, but at the least, he obviously would like someone to talk to about track racing! Just a thought.

  4. Our bridge to the past is often a tenuous one with years obscured with layers and layers of memories. I had chance encounter while out on a bike ride a few years ago.

    Today is my rest day and all I have to do is fight my desire to exercise. It is a powerful force that I am trying to control into some coherent plan that will lead to concrete results. Going out on the same routes with the same intensity is what I need to change or remain forever in the middle of the pack. I am focused and ready to face the challenge and give everything I have. It is the fear of facing and embracing the exquisite pain of bridging to the break or failing with my best effort. Developing what Graeme calls "mental toughness" is what I need most. This elusive quality may someday bring me to the top of a mountain I didn't think I could climb, or keep me glued to a break.

    One of my favorite routes in the Bronx is to ride along The Hudson River on Palisades Ave. to Mt. St. Vincent College. On days that I had time I would stop at a very peaceful shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is on an island in a small pond inside the campus. On one particularly spectacular day in May, I entered the shrine for some peaceful contemplation. At the bridge to the island, I dismounted and walked my bike across the metal plated bridge, my shoes and wheels clattering as I walked. Just as I reached the island, I saw an elderly woman of small stature and fine silver hair sitting with a much younger man. As I passed in front, she said: "Is that a bicycle passing in front of me?" I stopped and said it was. It was then I realized that she was blind. She stood up and reached out her hand to introduce herself to me as the widow of a Madison Square Garden 6 day bike racer by the name of Henry Leighfield. She then let go of my hand and in a most natural manner began measuring my bike with her hands. Caressing the cross tube and sweeping her hand up to the saddle and back to the handle bars was a most remarkable act for a elderly blind woman who had just met the owner of the bike. She then pronounced: "Oh my, you're a tall man!" I told her I was 6 feet. She said her husband was short and she was familiar with the dimensions of his bike. We chatted briefly about his life as a 6-day bike racer. She then told me that he died in the 70's, and that she had recently gone blind.

    Ed Nolan