One of the local biking clubs that participated in Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District's sustainable living bike ride around historical Newark. Photo credit: LPCCD

How a community bike ride uncovered Newark as the ‘cradle of cycling’

A fitness ride dipped into a once revered, and highly popular U.S. sport, cycling races at the velodrome.

On the other side of the COVID pandemic, like all organizations across the country, Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (LPCCD) had to reinvent itself. As the global health crisis weaned, they realized how staying indoors impacted Newark, New Jersey community members, including their staff.

“We had to reimagine our wellness platforms,” explained Kim Ford, head of BRND Marketing Group, the marketing and events agency for LPCCD. “People were indoors [for such a long period of time that] they dealt with issues such as social isolation, being stagnant and being in one place.”

Along with figuring out how to handle the muffin tops and pandemic bellies most of us acquired, LPCCD had to also craft events that maintained social distancing. That being so, they leaned on one of their most popular options: to take all matters outside. 

From late summer to mid-autumn, they stewarded the initiative, “Activate the Coast,” which was a series of outdoor happenings centered around the city’s historic Lincoln Park. “Getting outdoors for a stroll or to socialize is an important component for healthy living and Lincoln Park is a beacon for music, art, and fitness as we get back together again,” Marcy S. DePina, the Interim Executive Director of LPCCD said. 

“Newark has amazing outdoor green spaces. [So] we’re using arts, music and wellness as a catalyst to bring new attention to spaces that were formerly blighted or underutilized,” Christopher A. Watson, a planning officer for the City of Newark detailed.

Coupled with a “one-day, dialed back” music festival that is a signature annual event for LPCCD, they also spearheaded a succession of three urban terrain walks through their sustainable living walking clubs. Additionally, LPCCD welcomed community members back into their urban garden to bathe in plants and soil as medicine.

To top off their wellness campaign, they partnered with Newark Community Cycling Center for a 17-mile bike ride touring through the historic parks of the city. 

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Bike riders pose before the 17-mile ride in Newark. In the center, holding of the peace sign in Lincoln Park Cultural Center District director, Anthony Smith. Photo credit: LPCCD Sustainable Living initiative.

“We had just over 50 riders, and the clubs that were represented were RBG (Cyclist), the Spinderellas, the Trendsetters, Brick City Bike Collective and free agents, meaning you’re not part of a bike club, but respected in the community anyway,” said Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District Executive Director Anthony Smith who additionally confirmed the event will be an annual program.

The bike ride is a tell-tale of more peddle-enthusiasts to come. Earlier this month, New Jersey Governor Phil J. Murphy (D) announced that the state earmarked $65 million to create the Essex-Hudson Greenway, a linear park for walkers, runners, hikers, and cyclists. “This new park will be a crown jewel of our state park system, providing much-needed recreational space to New Jerseyans and out-of-state visitors, while revitalizing and protecting environmentally-sensitive areas,” revealed Gov. Murphy.

The 9-mile stretch of a park uses an old section of NJ Transit’s Boonton rail line. Crossing two counties, the 135 acre property connects Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus and Jersey City—all encompassing one of the most concentrated urban terrains in the country.

A wheel spoke from the past

Track cyclists in New Jersey, 1927. The track cyclist Bobby Walthour drives behind his pacer George Chapman on the cycle track in the Newark Velodrome in New Jersey in the United States. Estimated photograph is in circa 1927. Photo credit: Newark Public Library

On a good day, you’ll catch a gaggle of peddle-pushers flying through Branch Brook Park, or zooming by on Broad Street. But before the occasional rider on a clear day, cycling was more than a cultural soiree or exclusive fitness outing, it was a popular means of transportation. “People used to ride from Newark to New York,” said Ford. 

Through their event partners, Newark Community Cycling Center, LPCCD also discovered another important role that the city played in U.S. history. Newark was the bedrock of cycling culture in the United States. So much so, it was called “the cradle of cycling.” At one point, Newark became “a global destination for bicycle racing” wrote Laura T. Troiano in research about Newark’s sports stadiums.

From the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, bicycle competitions on the U.S. northeastern seaboard drew larger crowds than any other sport, but Newark dominated. In the 1890’s, the first cycling track opened at Newark’s Weequahic park. Later, one of the most popular racing tracks in the world at the time was The Newark Velodrome, a wooden bicycle track built in 1907. 

Located on South Orange Avenue in the Vailsburg section of the city, the beloved velodrome housed mostly cycling competitions. Beating out football and baseball, cycling was the marquee event in Newark. At the velodrome, matches were usually multi-day races drawing tens of thousands of onlookers twice a week.

For years, Americans dominated cycling. In fact, a global favorite came from Newark: Frank L. Kramer. Born in Newark, while also training and living there, Kramer held the title of U.S. champion for 16 years straight. Also, Reggie Macnamara, an Aussie known as “the Iron Man” for his rough house riding, which all too many times ended in injury, moved to the area until his death in Belleville, New Jersey. He won several titles at The Newark Velodrome as well.

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Commanding newspaper headlines, and at one time, considered a place to visit for sports enthusiasts in the world, The Newark Velodrome saw the rise of sports figures who imbued the dashing, daring and charismatic template of sports icons. On its decline, the velodrome served as the site where two NFL games were played in 1930 by a pro-team, the Newark Tornadoes. Shortly thereafter, it was demolished for an apartment building during the Depression. 

Although long forgotten, the velodromes of the U.S. set a precedent for the multi-billion dollar sports arenas today. In the 1920’s, an enthusiast could get a prime, box seat ticket for $1.25 at The Newark Velodrome. Indeed, a hefty price for entertainment; especially during the Depression, the sport also established the idea of top-billing athletes. Kramer and Macnamara were some of the highest paid in any sport at the time.

Along with championship-holding cyclists gaining a fair amount of wealth, the sports venues generated generous revenues. Evidenced in the longstanding Madison Square Garden, a popular sports and performance arena located in Manhattan. Known around the world as a behemoth sports and entertainment venue, Madison Square Garden built its financial bones and popularity on bicycle races.

For Newark, playing a central role in American cycling led to a documentary currently in production. During LPCCD’s bike ride, Newark Community Cycling Center filmed cyclists for the upcoming documentary. In the bigger picture, LPCCD reconnected Newarkers and day trippers to the most important idea of a sustainable community: a well community.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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