Stillman G. Whittaker, Highwheel Champion, Part II

The spring of 1887 saw Stillman G. Whittaker gaining new respect in all quarters of his life. His record breaking exploits were making him a man to be feared in bicycle racing circles. He was maturing as a young man as well, garnering admiration in his business dealings with Gormully and Jeffery and his social dealings with Carrie Piper back in his hometown of Bedford, Massachusetts. He was a man with more than one purpose. The way in which he was able to pursue goals in several different directions at one time, with equal determination, was a mark that came to follow him throughout his life.

Whit's feats on the bicycle were so spectacular that it was becoming impossible not to notice him. Any tidbit of information about him made its way into the cycling press. It followed his every movement, speculating on what his next accomplishment would be. After some consternation and waffling by John Rogers, the Chief Consul for the LAW in Missouri, concerning the amateur status of his pacemakers, the records set on his spectacular twenty four hour ride in October of 1886 were finally accepted. Local papers started carrying stories about this world record beater. This raised his recognition another notch, bringing him to the attention of the general American public (racing insiders were already well aware of him).

His first test for 1887 was on May 23rd in Clarkesville, Missouri for a 100 mile road race. This was a big race sponsored by The American Athlete magazine. It followed on the heels of the annual LAW Meet held that year in St. Louis, which brought with it some strong competition. The steamboat "Hudson" carried a huge crowd of spectators up the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The starting line was graced by such names as Crocker, McCurdy, Neilson, Ashinger, Rhodes, Munger and, of course, Whittaker. Heavy rains the week before made the track muddy and Whit did not have a good day. First of all, he was riding on the Gormully and Jeffery Light Champion which was twelve pounds heavier than every other machine in the race. His machine had only a 52 inch wheel. Compare this to William A. Rhodes, the winner, who rode a 59 inch Victor racer. But his real troubles were mechanical in nature. At mile 39 he broke his wheel. He remounted on a new machine, but by this time, he was hopelessly out of it. When he crossed the finish line, thirty minutes behind Rhodes, his replacement wheel was falling apart. But even in defeat, he was the crowd favorite. He may not have won the race, but he won the hearts of five thousand bicycle racing fans. (Just a note here: Whit's pal Birdie Munger started this race on a Quadrant Tricycle and was left far behind by the bicycles, but in the process set a new hundred mile record for the tricycle of ten hours, four minutes).

The rest of that spring and summer were spent fulfilling obligations to the Gormully and Jeffery Company. William A. Rhodes, representing the Victor bicycle, issued a challenge to Whit through Bicycling World Magazine. Ned Oliver of G & J was worried about the weight handicap of their bicycle and advised Whit on his tact in answering the challenge. Whit also spent time that summer traveling with his G & J teammate Jack Prince to Omaha, Nebraska and other racing hot spots. The major bicycle manufacturers were making plans for a great Boston to Chicago thousand mile race, to take place in the fall of the year, and the G & J team was gearing up for that. It was to be a test of man and machine, each racer being allowed only one bicycle to last him the entire distance. G & J had high hopes for this as they had one of the strongest teams in the country and much confidence in their machine. In August Whit traveled to Roseville, NJ with teammates Birdie Munger and Wilbur Knapp, and manager Tom Eck for some intensive training on the fast track there. Whit had a good showing in the Roseville Cycling Association's race meet during his stay, winning the One Mile and Two Mile Professional Handicaps, being the only rider in each to start from scratch. He was particularly sharp in his training, turning the quarter mile in 35 seconds on one occasion. Then came a big disappointment as the plans for the Boston to Chicago race fell through. Consequentially he then left there for a brief visit to the Boston area to see his family and his sweetheart Carrie. While there, he raced in the second annual meet of the Rhode Island LAW and came in second to Wm. A. Rowe in the Quarter Mile, Mile and Three Mile races. Rowe and Rhodes were the only men to defeat him the entire year. But winning races was not what he was aiming for just now. His real purpose in all this training was another assault on the 24 hour road record that fall.

Leaving Boston, he returned to the Midwest and Crawfordsville, Indiana. Crawfordsville was to Indianapolis as Clarkesville, Missouri was to St. Louis. Both were country getaway towns just up the road from the big city. Both were bicycle racing spots for their respective cities. Like its Missouri counterpart, it had relatively good roads and was enough out of the way to escape interference and distractions. For his next attempt at a 24 hour world record on the road, Whit chose Crawfordsville. He had raced there before with the only problem being a minor collision with a cow. The cow won that one, but that was not enough to offset the advantages of the area. On October 27th, 1887, at one o'clock in the afternoon, Starter W. E. Roseboro fired his pistol and Whit was off on his record attempt, courtesy of a powerful push by his trainer and manager, Tom Eck. Frank Dingley, his G & J teammate, paced him for a good deal of the way. The course he rode utilized two different routes, one a 25 mile trip and the other a 27 1/2 mile trip. An elaborate system of checkers was set up so that there was no way that Whit could cut across the course. There were fifteen men charting and timing every inch of the way. At about the 120 mile mark, he hit a skunk crossing the road, causing him to suffer from nausea for the remainder of the ride. Encouragement from his teammate Dingley and the local farmers and townspeople gave him the will to press on. Time passed slowly and he continued to crank out the miles through the evening and night and into the morning of the 28th. Farmers lined the entire route, ready to clear the road of debris for him and offer him food and drink. At one farmhouse, a bell commenced ringing as soon as he came into view and continued until he passed out of sight. As he approached the 24 hour mark, excitement began to grow and Whit, thoroughly exhausted by then, seemed to find a new source of energy. The schools let their children out to watch him pass by. It seemed as though every bicycle and horse and buggy in the area were following him as he struggled to complete his last few miles. When the one o'clock hour struck and the dust died down, the officials calculated the distance he had traveled. Three hundred and twenty three miles was the incredible total and a new world record was established. This record, 323 miles by a highwheel bicycle on the open road, still stands today, one hundred and eleven years later. Gormully & Jeffery lost no time in taking out full page ads in all the major cycling publications, touting the fact that the record was set on a G & J Light Champion, a 40 pound roadster. But getting to the heart of the matter, Ned Oliver of G & J showed how well he knew Whit in an offhand comment he made in a congratulatory letter. He states "A little bird tells me that you got a little nearer the petite little lady in the East by your 24 hours". True to form, Whit was succeeding on several fronts.

The rest of that year was spent recovering from the terrible beating his body took in his record setting ride. It took little time for Eck, being the promoter par excellence that he was, to capitalize on the situation. He concocted a match race between Whit and A. A. McCurdy. Whit's 24 hour record broke the record previously held by McCurdy and talk of a match race between the two filled the papers that winter. It turned out to be complete hype as it never materialized but the talk kept the interest in Whit high. Meanwhile, Eck was using this time to make arrangements to take the G & J team to England. The British felt that their racers were superior to American racers, and rightly so. For several years the British had been coming to the big money meets such as Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut and cleaning up. Try as they may, the Hendee's and the Rowe's couldn't stay with the Howell's, Wood's and others. But Eck knew he had a ringer in Whit.

The spring of 1888 saw the G & J team in Philadelphia for some last minute racing before it embarked for England. The six day bicycle racing craze which Eck initiated in Minneapolis was sweeping the nation and now it was Philadelphia's turn. Eck had the entire troupe present; Whittaker, Hollingsworth, McDowell, Rhodes, Ashinger, Neilson, Crocker, Knapp, Dingley, his wife Louise Armaindo and himself. It was the first indoor bicycle racing held in Philadelphia and was quite a hit. The spectacle ran from mid February to mid March with predictable results. The G & J team dominated, with Dingley, the indoor track specialist making the best showing. Whit and Louise Armaindo gave exhibitions. It must have been a wonderful show. After this, Whit's racing activity ceased for a while. One would suspect that he used the time to make a last minute trip to Bedford to visit his sweetheart. Then in May, he set sail for England with Eck, Knapp and Crocker. They intended to show the British how American racers had developed.

Upon his arrival in England, Whit lost no time in showing his hosts what to expect from this new breed of American racer. The G & J team joined up with a few other Americans who had already made their way over. Professionals Wm. A. Rowe, W. M. Woodside, R. Temple and the amateur W. E. Crist were more or less established there and were able to assist their American compatriots in acclimating themselves to the British style of racing. More so than the racing, however, Whit was introduced to the latest in machinery. While still loyal to his G & J benefactors, he couldn't resist having a go at the latest in safety technology. Not withstanding what the American manufacturers had to say about the subject, it was generally regarded that the British were several years ahead of the Americans in bicycle technology. While the safety had been introduced to America by that time, it was still regarded as an oddity and no threat to the ordinary bicycle. In England however, J. K. Starley, nephew of James Starley, the inventor of the high bicycle, was doing his utmost to make the safety into the most efficient mode of two wheeled transportation ever. It had everything going for it: a gearing system courtesy of the chain drive, making it possible to gear it higher than even the largest wheeled ordinary; a lower riding position, making it more aerodynamic (and less distance to fall); it was easier to get on and get off of and easier to balance, making it more accessible to a larger number of people; and it was slightly lighter than most ordinaries. But more importantly, it embodied a radical new style that piqued the interest of the public and took the bicycle to yet another stage, rescuing it from waning interest (a fact which has driven bicycle development from its inception to the present day). There is no evidence in earlier reports of Whit's comings and goings that he had any experience with the safety in America. He was reported to have done some riding on a Kangaroo, but that was an entirely different type of safety. When he reached England, however, their safety soon became the machine of choice for this forward thinking athlete. The first trial for the team was a championship meet at the end of May in Birmingham. Whit raced several ordinary races during the first few days and did well, although he did not win anything. But he caught everyone's eye on the last day when he rode in the first ever one mile safety championship and came in second. His competition included the then current holders of the world tandem safety records for all distances from two to ten miles, F. W. Allard and E. Oxborrow. Allard won the race but Whit led most of the way. Any student of bicycle racing can attest to the fact that it is difficult to win a race without gaining some rest in the slipstream of another rider. Add this to the facts that this was a totally different machine than he was used to riding, he had just sailed from America and had little opportunity to train properly and that being a long distance man and not a sprinter, this type of race was not his specialty. All in all, Whit's performance was remarkable. Eck was so impressed that he immediately issued a challenge to match Whit against any man in a one or five mile race on a safety bicycle.

That opportunity did not present itself because before anyone could respond, Whit removed all doubt of his superiority on the safety. On the Saturday following the Birmingham race, Whit and Eck traveled to Bordeaux, France to participate in an international race there. The next Tuesday, during his workout on the Bordeaux Veloce-Club track, all spectators were in awe. The club members persuaded him to make an attempt at the five mile world record. He agreed and set Saturday, June 3 as the date. Record attempts at that ime were usually paced by other riders, but as there was no one able to ven keep up, he rode unassisted. His start was fine and through four miles he was setting a blistering pace. At that point his wheel slipped out from under him in a corner (it was a flat track) and he fell hard, cutting his knee and bruising his arm. He lost 42 seconds in gathering himself and restarting, and still finished in 14 minutes, 29 seconds, besting the record for both ordinary and safety by over a minute. His safety was a "Premier", built by Hillman, Herbert & Cooper of Coventry. The next day, he won the five mile race by a quarter mile from the best riders France had to offer.

On June 23, back on his ordinary and back in England, Whit took part in a twenty mile professional championship race at the Belgrade Grounds track in Leicester. This race featured the best men in England, Fred and Willie Wood, Howell, Lees, Robb, English, as well as Whit's G & J teammate Wilbur Knapp. A crowd of 5,000 witnessed the action. Whit was at the head of the pack for most of the way, and he and Fred Wood were the favorites, but in the end Willie Wood was the winner. Most accounts neglected to report anything unusual about the race, but one early account told the true last lap, coming into the finish, an overly excited crowd rushed onto the track for a closer look. Whit was knocked off of his bicycle before the finish line and Fred Wood hit the deck shortly after crossing the line. Wood received a nasty cut on his wrist, producing much blood, and Whit was knocked cold, breaking his shoulder and collar bone. He was out of commission for six weeks from this incident. This was his last race on an ordinary.

After recovering, he returned to France and the Bordeaux track for an attempt on the hour record (for total distance covered within one hour). During this time he came under the tutelage of a well known British bicycle trainer by the name of Harry Smith. Smith went by the colorful moniker of "Fat". Eck continued to arrange events for Whit but Fat put him on a training program that would get every last bit of speed out of his body. On August 15, riding J. K. Starley's latest racing "Rover", he succeeded in setting the record, pushing the distance to 21 miles, 126 yards. In the process, he lowered his five mile record to 13 minutes, 33 seconds. This was one of a number of feats accomplished by different riders on Starley's machines, and carefully orchestrated by Starley himself, that pushed the Rover to the forefront in popularity. Besides his engineering genius and inventive mind, John Kemp Starley was a master marketing man. (An interesting side note here is the fact that modern history has the earliest holder of the hour record to be Henri Desgranges in 1893. Desgranges was the founder of the Tour de France. The omission of previous hour record holders does little to elevate his position in the history of bicycle racing. His relationship with the Tour de France alone establishes him as one of its most influential men ever).

Whit, using the Hen and Chickens Hotel in Coventry as home base, was constantly on the move throughout England. He raced at Coventry, North Shields, Leicester and his favorite track, Long Eaton. It was at Long Eaton on September 12, that he was to make another attempt on the hour record. He was well into record pace when he was called off the track at eleven miles because of darkness. Thus, he became the holder of all records for from two to eleven miles, inclusive, on the safety bicycle. He made the eleven miles in 29 minutes, 50 and 2/5 seconds. Being so far from Gormully & Jeffery, and owing no allegiance to any British maker, this time he rode the Rudge "Bicyclette". September 18, he equaled the mile record held by F. J. Osmond of 2 minutes, 31 and 4/5 seconds, covering the flying half mile in 1 minute, 9 and 3/5 seconds. The next day he covered the flying quarter mile in 33 and 2/5 seconds. On September 23, again at Long Eaton, he attempted the hour record once again. He got it, and continued riding to gain the 25 mile record. This he got also, but only for the safety, as the 25 mile ordinary record was slightly lower. Distance for the hour was 21 miles, 380 yards and time for the 25 miles was 71 minutes, 5 and 1/5 seconds. All this was accomplished on the Rudge "Bicyclette". He now held all records on the safety from one quarter to twenty five miles. He quite rightly had earned the right to be called the "Safety Champion of The World".

For the remainder of the fall and into winter, Whit raced a series of events that were essentially showcases, so that the fans could see the record setting American. His usual opponent was Jack Lee, a strong rider in his own right. The two became close and they, along with Ed Oxborrow (world record tandem partner of F. W. Allard), were approached by Walter Phillips and the Rudge Cycle Company to attempt some record breaking on a revolutionary new machine they had come up with. Variously referred to as the "Triplet", the "Quadricycle" or the "Three in Hand", it was a very odd machine. It had four wheels, running in two tracks, thus the "Quadricycle". It was operated by three riders, hence "Triplet". It was big, with 30 inch wheels, weighing in at 120 pounds. Although geared to only 66 inches (Whit's preferred gearing), it had the potential to be a blazing fast machine. Whit knew this and jumped at the chance to be a part once again in advancing cycling technology. He figured this to be just the ticket to set a new world record for the mile. He and his cronies set up headquarters at the George and Dragon Hotel in Buckden, on the Great North Road outside of London. The month of November was spent getting used to each other's styles and learning how to handle the machine. Typically British, the weather was not cooperating and they had to adjust their schedule accordingly. To add to this, at one point the machine broke down and had to be returned to Walter Phillips for repairs. Nevertheless they pushed on until they were ready for a go at it on December 14. The conditions were not very conducive to a good performance. A heavy fog in the morning did not portend well for the trio. A head wind blew in and the roads were rutty and half frozen. The half that was not frozen was filled with thick mud. Choosing to go come hell or high water, go they did. And how they went! Using timers from three venerable cycling clubs, the Catford, the Ripley Road and the Stanley, their watches were synchronized to insure complete accuracy. The fog lifted and the wind died down at midday. At one forty three in the afternoon, with all the timers in place, the single word "Go!" was given, and the three men dug in with everything they had, flying down the Great North Road to the finish one mile away. Two minutes and 29 seconds later they screamed across the line with a new world record in hand. They were covered in mud, frozen and numb, but ecstatic at the accomplishment. The rest of the cycling world joined their enthusiasm. The press couldn't talk about it enough. The oddity of the machine caught the fancy of people looking for the next big development, as they saw in the safety before. Actually, being a four wheeler, it was more a predictor for early automobile design than for any thing that followed in cycling. But the riders were not yet satisfied. Four days later, on December 18th, they rode again. This time they lowered the time to two minutes 18 1/5 seconds. These records, while not able to be classified as "bicycle" records, were nevertheless the fastest that man had ever traveled under his own power. The cycling scribes, taking note of the horrible conditions under which they were made, predicted far more incredible performances when the favorable weather of Spring rolled around. Whittaker, Oxborrow and Lee were the talk of the town. Walter Phillips conveyed his delight in a letter to Whit. The timing was impeccable, for the huge Stanley Cycle Show was slated for the third week in January, one month later. Rudge would have the most remarkable machine at the show.

Whit and Rudge made the show. The machine was a huge success and he was immensely popular, but Whit clearly had other things on his mind. 1889 saw Stillman G. Whittaker involved in a gradual withdrawal from the sport which had brought him so much fame and fortune. He had been in England for nearly a year and had obliterated just about every cycling record on the planet. The one thing left unconquered was back in Bedford, Massachusetts. His seemed to begin to tire of the pace of ever better records on the bicycle and turned to thoughts of a more domestic, sedate life. This was probably in his true nature anyway. It just so happened that his incredible physical skills needed to play themselves out. In early April, he attended a banquet in his honor given by J. K. Starley. Starley was taking the opportunity to thank Whit for his amazing record ride on a "Rover" safety the preceding year at Bordeaux. They must have anticipated that Whit was leaving the sport and their country. After the dinner, J. K. Starley made a speech expressing his appreciation to Whit for what he had done to increase the popularity of the Starley bicycles and presented him with a gold medal commemorating his record and the occasion.

Whit remained in England for a short while and then sailed back to the States. On July 4, 1889 he reached the pinnacle of his goals when he married Carrie Piper of Bedford. Together, they returned to England for their honeymoon. There Carrie learned to ride the safety bicycle, becoming one of the first American women to experience this new thrill. Whit spent his time there using his contacts with the cycle manufacturing community, arranging to export their bicycles to the United States. Severing his relationship with Gormully and Jeffery, he had secured a position with the Sweeting Cycle Company of Philadelphia as their importing agent. His racing career was now in the past. He was retired from racing at the age of twenty seven, an age at which most bicycle racers are just beginning to reach their peak. Other jobs in the cycle industry followed, as well as forays into the fledgling automotive industry. All the while, however, his emphasis was on raising and taking care of his family. He and Carrie eventually settled back in Bedford, where he maintained an active role in the community.

Unlike most of his bicycle racing contemporaries, Whit never tried to relive the glory days of his racing career. His grandson, Dana Whittaker can't recall him mentioning his racing career much at all. He did, however, keep many mementos accumulated in those short few years. The family has retained and handed down through the years publications containing articles about him, as well as artifacts, awards and souvenirs related to the days when he was the best bicycle racer in the world. How he could leave all of that behind, at the top of his form, in order to concentrate on his domestic life should be an example to us all. He apparently had a heart that far betrayed his diminutive size.

Return to Part I of the Stillman G. Whittaker Story

copyright 1998 Buck Peacock