Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Washington DC Bicycle Racing in the 1960s

This post looks back at the state of bicycle racing in the Washington, DC metro area fifty years ago. It was a very different era. In a recent interview, Gray James told me "If you were riding and saw a rider on a racing bike, you turned around immediately to find out who he was." Now we just acknowledge them with a head flick or by raising a hand without even taking it off the bars.

The Races

Although epic road races and stage races existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the bulk of the racing traced its origin to the New York/New Jersey six-day racing tradition. Flat criteriums, and track-style races run on the road were the order of the day. Until 1965, the national championship was run as an omnium of track events, instead of as a road race. Beginning in 1966 the ABLA forbade mixing of fixed-gear and derailleur bicycles in racing. The 1964 National Capital Open presaged this change, when the winner, Paul Zink riding a derailleur bike, outsprinted local racer Gerry Pease riding a fixed gear. By the end of the decade everyone was on a european derailleur bike.

The state of racing in the 1960s was one big race, the National Capital Open, and a host of smaller races that were, by today's standards, closer to organized group rides than to our local weekend events.

The National Capital Open

The National Capital Open was the central point of the DC Metro cycling in the 1960s, and drew entries from the entire east coast. In an era when the DC metro area had only about 100 licensed racers, the Senior field often had more than 100 entries.

There had been racing on the Ellipse at the White House in the 1930s, and again for several years in the 1950s, when former Virginia District Rep  Gerald Teeuwen was one of the organizers. In 1963, the Federation of Washington Area Cycle Clubs, collaborating with the French Embassy and Gitane importer Mel Pinto restarted the race, which then ran annually until 1988. In the 1970s and 1980s, when NCVC promoted it first under promoter Peter Stevens, the NCO grew into a major stop on the East Coast pro tour. In the 1960s, racers from from New York and New Jersey dominated the event, taking most of the top places every year.

The continuous turn on the course made the race became infamous for its crashes, including one that produced a fatality in 1973.

Present-day map of the Ellipse--the site of the NCO

Paul Zinc outsprinting Gerry Pease to win the 1964 National Capital Open.

  • The NCVC history site has a complete history and extensive resources on the National Capital Open: here including lists of winners.

West Potomac Park

The local racing venue in the early 1960s was the a loop at the polo fields at West Potomac Park. In the early 1960s, the track style races on the road were still the norm. The races at the "Polo Grounds" were only informal, unsanctioned events, announced in "The Spokesman," the local racing newsletter. The actual course is gone; the back stretch now runs through the Roosevelt Memorial.

I have not found any evidence of racing at Haines Point in the 1960s. 

Location of the polo-fields course in West Potomac Park. The finish line was at the present-day Roosevelt Memorial

Racing in West Potomac Park in the 1960s. Charlie Towers and some of the Matthews brothers. From the collection of Mel Pinto in the NCVC archives.

Beltsville Speedway

The '65 and '67 track championships were held at the Beltsville Speedway, now closed, in Beltsville, Md, which opened in 1965.
  • More Information: history of Beltsville speedway on Wikipedia

The Seneca Road Course

Several issues of "The Spokesman" from 1965-1967 mention local racing on the so-called "Seneca Road Course." Interviews with racers from that era confirmed that the course, shown below, is the same as that is used in recent editions of the All American Road Race. 
Route of the "Seneca Road Course" from the 1960s, drawn on a contemporaneous USGS map
  • More Information: the Seneca Road Course in 1965-1967 issues of  the Spokesman


Anecdotal evidence exists that there was racing on the Westgate course that was the mainstay of mid-week racing in the 1980s and 1990s. The race course is on the site of the current Capital One headquarters in Tysons Corner--the course is completely obliterated by new construction.

  • (GPS coordinates: 38.925073, -77.211333) 

Other Events

  • Championship events, for the track-style races, were also held at the Dorsey Speedway in Elkridge, and the Dominion Speedway in Manassas. 
  • Road events took place in the Beltsville Ag Center, near the NSA, and at other locations. The Spokesman is maddeningly vague about the exact courses, distances, and times. 

The Racers

If today cycling is a fringe sport, in the 1960s, it was completely underground. In 2014, USACycling had nearly 50000 licensed racers, and 2000 of them live in the DC Metro area. In 1967, the USAC's predecessor the Amateur Bicycle League of America (ABLA) had 1970 members, and only 72 of them lived in the DC-metro area. Even so, the area produced several racers in the 1960s who who went on to national prominence in the 1970s and 80s.

Mike Hiltner

Interestingly,  Rockville Cycle Club's Mike Hiltner was the second Mike Hiltner to be named to a 1960s Olympic cycling team. The first Mike Hiltner, from California, won the inaugural National Championship Road Race (1967) and competed in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. DC's Mike Hiltner was named to the 1968 Olympic team, but did not compete.

Fun fact: the older Mike Hiltner changed his name to Victor Vicente of America

Chris Meerman

Chris Meerman may have been the singularly most dominant racer in the DC metro area in the 1960s.  As a Junior in the mid 1960s, he was the 1967 National Best All-around racer champion and won the junior race at the 1968 National Capital Open.  Meerman died of a heart attack in 1985 while warming up for a street-sprint event in Allentown, Pa.

Carl Leusenkamp

Leusenkamp started out his career racing for the Rockville Cycle Club. As a senior in the 1970s, he was primarily a track sprinter, and was three times on the podium of the National Championships in the sprint and twice at the Pan American games. He spent most of his cycling career in Portland, Oregon racing at the velodrome there. Interestingly, he was Mike Hiltner's brother-in-law. Leuesenkamp died (of cancer?) in 1990, in his early 40s.

Bobby "the Baltimore Bullet" Phillips

If Leusenkamp and Hiltner flowered into regional racers the late 1960s, Bobby Phillips was already a national figure by the mid 1960s. He was the 1963 Junior Best All-rounder, and 1965 Senior Best All-rounder. He went on to win the 1970 and 1972 ten-mile championships and the 1985 Veteran Criterium Championship. During the 1970s he rode for the dominant New York City CRCA team. 

Ray "Jug" Matthews

"Jug" Matthews was the son of Ray Matthews, Jr, who was the driving force behind the creation of the Federation of Washington Area Cycle Clubs, and the resurrection of the National Capital Open after a six-year interruption. Matthews placed second at the 1960 Junior National Championships, competed as an amateur in Europe, and was the 1962, 1966, and 1966 Virginia State Senior Champion. 

The Clubs

Clubs in the 1960s were small, very local affairs, and drew their membership from a single town or small area. 

The Federation of Washington Area Cycle Clubs

The FWACC was a "club of clubs" created by Ray Matthews, Jr. It functioned as the promoter of the National Capital Open, and published "The Spokesman," the local racing newsletter.  It seems to have functioned much like a local racing association. 

Rockville Cycle Club

Members of the Rockville Cycle Club included  Mike Hiltner and Carl Leusenkamp who went on to national prominence in the late 1960s and 70s.

McLean Cycle Club

The McLean cycle club, was run by Simon Meerman, who owned a McLean lawnmower and bicycle shop. His son, Chris Meerman, was one of the national-caliber racers who came out of DC in the 1960s. 

The Bikes

At the start of the decade, single-speed fixed-gear bikes were the order of the day. It wasn't until 1965 that the predecessor to USACycling (the Amateur Bicycle League of America) even allowed derailleur-equipped bikes, and it wasn't until 1967 that it held a national road race championship.

More Resources


I thank all the people who have taken the time to talk to me and provide information and resources about the 1960s recently, including Gray James, Mel Pinto, Gerald Teeuwen (now deceased), Jim Hargett, John Cox, and many others.