Death on the Tracks

JIM McGURN writes about the many dangers associated with early motorcycle racing, and the measures devised to overcome the high death toll (some of which have been passed over to generations of modern cyclists!).

Motorbike pacing, which was especially popular on the Continent, reaped a regular number of lives. Sports journalists wrote of the 'cycle tracks of blood' and asked if 'it will only stop when a thousand have died'.

In 1909, on the Berlin track, a tandem motorcycle pacing team, along with the cyclist behind, crashed through a trackside barrier. The fuel tank exploded, killing ten people and leaving many more injured.

The problem was one of uncontrolled technology. In the 1890s track cyclists had been paced by successive teams of men on multi-seat bicycles. Around the turn of the century motors were fitted to tandems to supplement the pacer's pedal power. A few of these machines had elongated bodies which housed rows of electric batteries.

Soon there were massive motorbikes on the tracks, with a steersman at the front and a 'chauffeur' sitting as far back as possible, often behind the motorbike's rear wheel. His job was to provide the cyclist with a vacuum, and to increase his effectiveness as a windshield he commonly wore layers of thick clothing.

The cyclist was in constant danger of losing control if he hit the rear of his motorcycle, or if he skidded in oil from its engine. Any fall could result in a cyclist being run over by another motorcycle. Speed was ratcheted upwards, on tracks which were too tight for safety: many had been built before the introduction of the petrol engine.

Some safety measures were brought in. A roll-bar, revolving on ball bearings, was fitted behind each motorbike, and legal limits were set on the minimum distance allowed between the bar and the motorbike. Some cyclists circumvented this kind of measure. They kept close to the pacing machine by reversing their forks so that they raked inwards, and by using smaller front wheels.

Crash helmets were introduced, early versions being adapted from old infantry helmets, and a French helmet was marketed with pneumatic cushioning. Motorcycle engines were redesigned to avoid oil drips and oil trays were fitted underneath.

What the public wanted was speed: big machines, lots of noise, thrills and spills — all of which could be had from motorised vehicles alone, doing away with the need for the cyclists!