The madison is one of the most popular races in track cycling. Two rider-teams take turns riding a race, slinging each other in to ride portions of the race.
Although nowadays the madison involves teammates doing quick exchanges in an effort to gain the most laps on other riders, the origin came about as a result of cyclists riding on the track alone for hours on end.
Madison Square Gardens and two-rider exchanges
The madison was created as a way to get around labour laws. In 1891, Madison Square Gardens would host its first six-day race. Modern iterations of the event involves various races. But back then it was a gruelling event where one single rider would try and ride as many laps on his lonesome.
All-day (and all-night) racing
They were allowed to ride as much as they want for six days, 24 hours at a time. The cyclist with the most laps would win. Those that did race the events made good money at the time–but they also became zombies, exhausted and dangerously wobbly on the bike. The competitors would take breaks for food or brief rest, but most would end up being on the bike for 18 hours each day.
Riding to the limit…and then some
Spectators would pay to watch the sight of a poor racer ride to utter exhaustion. So, promoters were keen to keep up the show. Eventually, the cyclists would in fact ride for 24 hours a day, knowing that breaks or rest would cost them dearly in the overall push for victory. Rumours of doping–such as using strychnine to stay awake–were rampant.
Media takes aim at six-day racing
In 1897, The New York Times took aim at the event, pointing out the cruel nature in which riders were treated. “The cyclist strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them, is not sport. It is brutality. Days and weeks of recuperation will be needed to put the racers in condition, and it is likely that some of them will never recover from the strain.”
New laws to protect competitors
The following year, New York state enacted a law to protect the athletes from the horrific treatment by organizers. The new regulation said that cyclists could only race 12 hours at a time. (Still a long day in the saddle, but slightly more, “humane.”)
A workaround against the new regulations
But the Madison Square Garden organizer didn’t want to lose out on the half-day of revenue. So, he came up with a workaround: by pairing each rider with a partner to share the racing, the event could continue around the…