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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: What might have been

While British and Irish cyclists were making breakthroughs in Europe’s top road races during the 1950s and early 1960s, North Americans were still very much in the twilight zone of world cycling. There were many reasons why road racing remained undeveloped on this side of the Atlantic; but one big reason was apparent in the very name of the body that controlled the sport in the United States, the Amateur Bicycle League of America (my italics). Professional cycling was anathema to the ABL, which was founded by a group of New York cycling clubs in 1920 to counteract alleged corruption in the

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By John Wilcockson

Art Longsjo at Somerville

Art Longsjo at Somerville

Photo: Fitchburg Longsjo Classic

While British and Irish cyclists were making breakthroughs in Europe’s top road races during the 1950s and early 1960s, North Americans were still very much in the twilight zone of world cycling. There were many reasons why road racing remained undeveloped on this side of the Atlantic; but one big reason was apparent in the very name of the body that controlled the sport in the United States, the Amateur Bicycle League of America (my italics).

Professional cycling was anathema to the ABL, which was founded by a group of New York cycling clubs in 1920 to counteract alleged corruption in the long-established National Cycling Association – which was almost exclusively focused on the pro track scene (including six-day racing), a sport that rivaled baseball in the 1920s and ’30s.

What the NCA ignored was the sport’s grass roots, and that’s why the ABL put its energy into amateur track racing and fielding teams for the Olympics. The ABL was largely a volunteer organization and was often so short of funds that it couldn’t even put on the annual national championships. Track was the sport’s lifeblood before World War II, but there were a few American road races – albeit contested on single-gear track bikes.

One of the earliest road races was a 22-mile point-to-point event organized in Elgin, Illinois, in 1894 and 1895; the race was revived under the ABL’s auspices in 1924 as the Elgin-Chicago, varying between 32 and 67 miles before the distance was standardized at 50 miles in the late 1940s. The growing volume of traffic in the Chicago area caused the race to be abandoned after 1960, the year that winner Bob Tetzlaff, a U.S. Olympian, set the course record of 1:43:12.

A much longer and more prestigious point-to-point race was founded in Canada in 1931: the classic 170-mile Québec-Montreal, which I mentioned in this column a few weeks ago. This event would play an important role in the development of U.S. road racing, as did another Canadian event, the Tour du St. Laurent — an international stage race held annually in Québec from 1954 until 1965.

These races saw the emergence of an American rider who had the potential to compete successfully in Europe. He was a New Englander, Art Longsjo, who discovered cycling as great training for his first sport, speed skating.

In 1954, in his first full season of bike racing, Longsjo, then 22, came to the Québec-Montréal classic with a host of excellent rides behind him, including fourth places at the prestigious 50-mile Tour of Somerville criterium and the national championships. According to Peter Nye’s 1988 book “Hearts of Lions,” Longsjo was a fitness fanatic: One of the Massachusetts athlete’s favorite training rides (on a fixed-gear bike!) was a 180-mile loop through the hills of New England, finishing with the 4.3-mile climb to the 2006-foot summit of Mount Wachusett, near his Fitchburg home.

All those training miles proved invaluable in the mid-September Québec-Montréal race. The youthful Longsjo closed a five-minute gap on an eight-man break with Canadian champion Pat Murphy, and then outsprinted Murphy and the other nine breakaways at the crowd-packed finish. Longsjo went on to become the first American to compete at the Olympics in both the Winter Games (speed skating) and Summer Games (cycling), in 1956, before breaking a leg in early 1957.

Longsjo returned to cycling in 1958 and was unbeaten on the U.S. race circuit before starting the Tour du St. Laurent stage race in August. Going into the final stage, a 30-mile time trial, Longsjo was lying second, 2:24 behind defending champion René Grossi – who was the leader of the team Longsjo was racing for at the Canadian event. Grossi did all he could to defend the lead but the smooth-pedaling Longsjo won the stage, to defeat Grossi by an astonishing 2:35, to become the St. Laurent’s first American winner.

Longsjo returned to Canada in September to compete again in the 170-mile Québec-Montréal classic. This time, he instigated the winning seven-man break with 75 miles to go and again won the race thanks to his powerful sprint. With his immense qualities as a sprinter, climber and time trialist, Longsjo almost certainly could have gone to the Continent and been successful in pro cycling. In fact, the morning after his big win, the New Englander was chatting about this with his Canadian team manager, Guy Morin, who told Nye, “We discussed the possibility of Art going to Europe to ride for a professional team…. Art said he was interested.”

Just over an hour after saying good-bye to Morin that morning and heading south in a car driven by a young friend, Longsjo fell asleep in the passenger seat as they took a short cut on a back road linking the islands across Lake Champlain. A bee flew into the car and the driver began swatting at it. Distracted, he lost control on a curve made slick by a rain shower and the car smashed into a utility pole. Longsjo, 26, sustained a fractured skull and died from his injuries that evening.

Longsjo is remembered by the annual bike race, the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, founded by Morin in 1960; Morin also won the first edition. One of the event’s four stages finishes atop Mount Wachusett, where Longsjo’s old training route finished.

The list of Fitchburg race winners includes Davis Phinney (1991 and ’93), Lance Armstrong (1992) and Tyler Hamilton (1996), all of whom have had the good fortune to compete (and win) at the highest levels of pro racing, something that was so cruelly denied Art Longsjo in the formative days of North American road racing.

Next week, I’ll write about another American who won the Tour du St. Laurent and did go on to compete in European racing.