The Myth Track: an original bicycle story by Erich von Neff

“The Myth Track”, an original story by Erich von Neff

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“It seems suspicious to me,” Reinholt Reinhardt said. Murphy  Sabatino’s   board track* has been shut down for a few years. There’s a six-day race at the Madison Square Garden in New York and the Gattos go back there and clean house. The New York Times said that they handled the track like they’d been riding one every day.”

Jesss Shinn took a puff off his cigar, then he looked up at the photo of Rita Hayworth on the wall. Jess spoke slowly.

Remember when there was some money missing at the bank. It wasn’t much, and your boss said that you can;’t expect the books to balance exactly.”

You went over the books anyway and found that a little  bit here and there had been shaved off, but when you added it up 50 grand was missing.

Reinholt crossed his right leg over his left revealing a white sock. Nervously he pulled his right leg down slightly.

“Unfortunately it was my boss who was cooking the books. He’s sitting in a cold wet cell in San Quentin right now.”

“Your instincts were right. Something was fishy,” Jess observed.

“Unfortunately so,” Reinholt replied taking a deep breath and thinking of how he didn’t like putting away a fellow banker especially one he had shared a beautiful redhead with at Sally Stanford’s brothel.

Jess Shinn slowly spun the front wheel of a Sieber track bike that was upside down in the repair stand.

“Yes, it takes plenty of time on the boards to win a six-day race  and you’re wondering where Gus and Vince got it.”

“Let me tell you a secret,” Jess said, rubbing his fingers against the tire of the spinning wheel. There’s a board track in a barn in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”

“Are you sure?” asked Reinhol now uncrossing his legs and sitting on the edge of his seat.

“I thought something was something was funny. But this?”

Jess reached in the tool cabinet.He took out two brandy glasses and a bottle of Korbel brandy.

“Always warms the stomach, ” he said.

“Look, guys, come in this shop and they talk.”

“Anyway it was almost a month ago. I’m sitting here when I hear the front door open. I look and see Dave Staub ** and DanKaljian. They walk over to my rack of team race jerseys. I sit here smoking a cigar. I can’t help but hear Dave say”

“We’ll smoke those guys at the Searsville Lake track. We’ll train m secret.  Tomorrow we’ll drive down to Dewey Maxwell’s board track in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”

Dan replied: “Are you sure you’ve got the training fee?”

“Yeah, sure.”

After a little while they picked out their jerseys and paid with a check.

It’ll probably bounce Reinholt joked as he sipped his brandy.

“I suppose this explains things,” he said, looking up at the photo of Rita Hayworth. “You know after my affair with Marlene Dietrich, Rita phoned me: ‘Listen big boy, she said. ‘You rode her. Now you ride me..” Well  I go over to her house and….”

“Have some more brandy,” Jess said, hoping to loosen Reinholt’s tongue.”

“Let’s see. Where was I? As  I was taking off my socks, or was it my trousers.”

It was the last leg of a San Francisco wheelmen ride. It had started at the Round House restaurant on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, gone over Corte Madera hill, then White’s Grade, and on to Nacasio for lunch, then back again, through the Presidio and along Lincoln Boulevard.

Sprints were run at road signs along the way. These sprints would depend on the mood of the pack. A city limits sign or a road sign would be sprinted to, several miles and signs might pass, until tension would build up in the pack and some obscure sign would signal the next sprint.

So it was that Rickey Tan had sat on George Wolf’s then Harold Kirkbride’s then Oscar Juner’s wheel and nipped the field at the Storey Road sign. Everybody now sat up in their saddles; the pace slowed to a crawl.

As the pack passed some old horse stables on our left, Oscar pointed and said, “It’s down there someplace.”

“What’s down there?” Just horse stables. ” Harold observed.

“No. No. In one of them there’s a board track built for the ’36 team to train on.”

“Bull.  Come on, let’s ride down there,” George Wolf challenged.

“No. No. There’s too many M.P.***s which was true for at that time they were all over the Presidio in their jeeps.

“Red Berti was on the ’36 team. A track was made in secret on one of those horse stables to challenge Hitler’s cycling track team. Red Berti**** rode it once, then the army closed the track though I hear if you join up you can use it now.

“Are you a recruiter? Henry McWhirter****.” Sixteen years have passed. It’s a bunch of rotten boards or worse.”

“I’m no recruiter,” Oscar replied quietly. “I speak the truth.”

The pack rode on in silence. Oscar was no recruiter. He had seen much bloody action in World War II. He kept it to himself except for the horros of a concentration camp he described but did not name.

There was a board track down there someplace. Red Berti of the Unione Sportivo Italiano in San Jose had ridden on it, and perhaps if you joined the army.

There were other sightings of a board track. Some of them quite close.

Ron Arms of the San Francisco Wheelmen majored in math at Stanford.* **The semester had ended and now summer. Ron lazed around until his mother, good German woman that she was, insisted that he go to work.

“Work, It is good for you, Ron.”

But Ron thought differently. Work. He knew what his good German mother meant by that. Sweat. A better idea he would take a test for math aid at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

“Ron,” his mother asked all too soon, “When are you going to work?”

So he told her about the test.

“And when is the test?”

“In six weeks.”

“And the results?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tomorrow we go to work.”

At four in the morning Ron’s mother shook him awake.

“We go now.”

And off they went in the old Hudson to 16th and Mission Street where an old rickety bus was parked near a fireplug. Rough looking men were boarding it.

“Here is work Ron. Your lunch and your streetcar fare home,” his mother said as she gave him a bag lunch and some change. The Hudson drove off. Reluctantly Ron boarded the bus. “Stand up boy,” someone yelled. There were only so many seats. Ron stood up as the bus took the old Bayshore Highway to San Carlos, down an old road and finally stopped in front of a plum orchard. “Out. out, ” a heavy-set man with a freckled face yelled.

The freckled faced man split them up into work gangs each with a ladder. Then they picked and picked and picked. Work. Work. “Work is good for you Ron,” his mother always said.

Day after day, different orchards. Different men. Some of them told not to come back. Work. Work.

With this as a reality check of the bottomless pit into which a failed math major could fall, Ron applied himself very hard that fall semester. There were still the weekend San Francisco Wheelmen rides however, and so it was at a rest stop at the Old La Honda Saloon*****that Ron told this story as we drank bottle after bottle of Wieland’s Beer.”*****

“It was working with this wino. Well, more of a lush than a wino ’cause he’s drinking bourbon. We’re picking plums when some fat foreman yells, ‘Lunch, you bums.’ I break out mom’s salami sandwich. He’s drinking bourbon and eating some plums. He starts talking about World War I.

‘When I was in the trenches we ate rats or any goddamn thing.’ Feeling sorry for him I break off some of mom’s salami sandwich. He wolfs it down. Never even thanks me. He continues, ‘I think I saw Hitlter. Could’ve bayoneted the sonnabitch.’

I’m beginning to wonder about this guy when I hear a rumbling in the orchard across the road from ours.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A bike race at the track,” he answers matter of  factly.

“What?”

“You know like at the Madison Square Garden.”

“Like at the Madison Square Garden?”

“That’s right, a team race.”

“Bull.”

“Don’t believe it. Let’s go over there.”

He starts walking and I follow. Soon we come to a clearing in the adjacent orchard.

“See, just like I told you.”

“Damn if he isn’t right. There’s a board track.” A team race is going on. I recognize Nick Magi, Louie Rondoni and a few others. We stand though we could sit on the wooden bleachers like most of the other pitchers. Soon there’s the bell lap for a sprint. Fruit pickers should out in different languages. But my partner takes the bell as a signal to go back to work. I try to explain but off he trudges and I follow.

“Where is this track,” Joe asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I could find it again.”

“You’ve had one too many, ” Oran said.

“No, it was thee. I could reach out and touch it.”

“Here, reach out and touch a Wieland’s beer.”

“Okay. But I saw it. I could reach out and touch it.”

Joe Lauricella stumbled out of the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco’s North Beach. Bt instinct he headed up to the artist John Newman’s pad above Marie’s Art Gallery******* on Grant Avenue. Thankfully the front door was open as usual. .By sheer will he pulled himself up by the bannister whenever his legs gave out on the steep stairs.

The apartment door swung open. Did John open it? Joe could not remember. He flopped on the couch and he began to dream. Blondes, brunettes and redheads danced the hootchie-coottchie as Joe sat in a large armchair dressed in a white toga; and now they began to dance a lively Charleston. Joe was still sitting in his armchair only now Joe was above the banking of a board track, looking down on them. The crowd was roaring,  Joe gave thumbs-up and that signaled the bell lap which was also the phone. 

“John,” Marie, the landlady shouted. “I told you no friends overnight. ” “Listen, Joe,,,” John started to say.

“I know. I know.” Joe replied ass he hauled himself  off the couch, made his way down the stairs and into the cold night.

A few weeks later at a San Francisco Wheelmen meeting at Oscar’s American Cyclery.*****John Parks had just finished collecting the 50 cents a month dues and now came the good part, donuts and a bull session.

Joe could hardly wait to speak.

You know the track everybody’s been talking about? I saw it.”

“Yeah,” George said skeptically.

“Where is it? In the Presidio? In the Santa Cruz mountains. Where?”

“I can locate it. I can locate it.” Joe replied confidentally.

“Tell us where?”

“I can see it now, Joe said, closing his eyes. “It is in my mind.”

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Image from Swann Galleries, click here

bike
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Murphy Sabatino’s board track was located in San Jose.
Santa Cruz Mountains in San Jose
Board track: Training on such a track was also known as secret training
Dave Staub was U.S.A. National Junior Champion in 1955.
Searsville Lake Track: a quarter-mile hard banked dirt track next to Searsville Lake near Portola Valley, 1957.






Below definitions and the meaning of some of author Eirch von Neff’ story.

Murphy Sabatino’s board track in San Jose.
Santa Cruz Mountains in San Jose.
Board Track: Training on such a track was also known as secret training.
Dave Staub was U.S.A. National Junior Champion in 1955.
Dewey Maxwell’s board track was a quarter-mile hard banked dirt track next to Searsville Lake near Portola Valley, California, 1957.
MP stands for Military Police
Red Berti of San Jose was indeed a member of the track cycling team.
Henry McWhirter beat World Champion Frank L. Kramer in a match sprint at the Sacramento Velodrome circa 1910. He was also trained to by the Wright Brothers and was an early Alaskan bush pilot.
Rpn Arms majored in math at Stanford under Professor Harold Levine, among others.
Taking the bus to a plum orchard: My friend Alfred Schuhmacher’s brother, Patrick, took such a bus to the fruit orchards in the 1950s. Fist fights on the bus were the norm.
Old La Honda Saloon: Oran Arms, Ron Arms uncle was the bartender and owner
Wieland’s Beer made in San Jose and now out of business.
Board track seen by Nick Magi and Louie Rondoni: Hugh Enochs Senior of the old New Century Wheelmen claims he saw such a track.
Marie’s Art Gallery on Grant Avenue in San Francisco: Marie owned the apartment house and the art gallery. The art gallery was run by George Pennguel and his wife. Information supplied by Jane Witaker of the United States Post Office, Rincon Annex, June 2, 1998.
Oscar’s American Cyclery: In the early 1950s track cyclists really did talk about such a track. Supposedly it was in San Francisco’s Presidio, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Santa Clara fruit orchards or in their dreams.

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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