Gotham’s Dynamic Duo | Al Toefield, Lou Maltese, and New York City Bike Racing

Originally I wrote this for the July 1986 issue of Bicycle Guide Magazine. This version is slightly different. It’s shorter. And better. You’re welcome.

I have not updated any time references. “Last year” means 1985, “four years ago” means 1982, etc. There was no internet or cable then, and the only bike racing on TV was the Tour de France. This story is based on personal interviews with Al Toefield and Lou Maltese conducted in 1986. They died in 1989 and never, ever got enough credit for what they contributed to the sport of bicycle racing. That’s why I’m posting this. Thank you, Lou Maltese and Al Toefield.

Copyright ©2017 ©1986 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All rights reserved

New York is a city of five boroughs and two cycling czars. In the battle of nerves that is Big Apple bicycle racing, Lou Maltese and Al Toefield never blink.

Lou Maltese and Al Toefield each have respected racing clubs in New York City. Both were track racing fiends in their youth, and both love to organize big-time racing events. Before there was ever a Coors Classic, before the Colorado World’s Championship was even a gleam in the USCF’s eye, Maltese and Toefield were showing Americans what a real race is all about. There the resemblance ends and the fireworks begin.

Lou Maltese. Photo © Ted Leyson

Lou Maltese. Photo © Ted Leyson

Depending on whom you ask, the reputation of Lou Maltese’s Century Road Club (CRC) Association ranges from Olympic cadet school to marauding band of rowdies. You can’t be the oldest and perhaps largest racing club in the country without developing a certain cachet. The CRC has been raising dust and more since it was founded in 1898 by Charles P. Staubach.

Central Park is the domain of Lou Maltese and the CRC, as it has been since 1963. Before that he ruled Grand Concourse in the Bronx and Harlem Speedway. When he set his sights on Central Park, it was a rough start.

His storied nemesis was legendary civic builder Robert Moses. A colossal asshole with an ego to match, Moses was the State Council of Parks chairman, Long Island State Parks Commission president, NYC Parks Commissioner, New York State Power Authority chairman, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, president of — well, you get the picture. Moses championed a lot of causes. Bicycle racing wasn’t among them.

Says Maltese about Moses’ Central Park welcome wagon: “I used to run like an outlaw. Every once in a while the officials would catch up to us and chase us out of the park.” With time came shifts in city politics. Moses died in 1981 and Maltese holds court every Saturday at the Central Park Boathouse, the de facto CRC headquarters.

Maltese was born in 1907. In his halcyon days he was a record-breaker in 3-mile, 25-mile, and century time trials, holding the 100-mile record for more than 30 years. He first joined a club himself in 1922, qualified for the Olympics but missed selection by a hair, and turned pro in 1928. His specialty was motorpace racing, pedaling 55 mph behind motorcycles on board tracks.

The Great Depression and World War II caused the tracks to fold, and many pros returned to the amateur ranks. Maltese didn’t need to. He took up race promotion, developing a talent that served him as well as his racing skills had.

For 27 years he was Director of National Championships for the Amateur Bicycle League of America (ABLA was renamed the U.S. Cycling Federation in 1975, and USACycling in 1995), organizing thousands of races all over the country. He was responsible for the 1955 National Championships and Olympic qualification trials in 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972, all held in New York. He ran the monthly races at Astoria Park for years. In the 1930s he joined CRC and now runs the club’s weekly races in Central Park, as well as the annual Memorial Races and Mengoni Grand Prix.

While Central Park is certainly glamorous, he’ll be the first to tell you it’s no picnic running a sane event there. Educating parkgoers is about equivalent to informing a zombie horde they’re about to be flattened by a rabid pack of bombers. “They run down the middle of the road,” says Maltese in despair, “even with baby carriages! You learn how to ride your bike like a cat walks.”

Public use hours of the park are posted on signs all over. But problems exist despite a raft of precautions that include advance cars with loudspeakers, race marshals, road restrictions, and suspension of riders who drift out of the designated race path. And that’s just for training races.

To make things more lively, the southernmost end of the 6.25-mile race circuit is carpeted with emissions from police horses, carriage horses, and the riding academy horses. The racers call it Marlboro Country. And yet a CRC membership card is still the hot ticket in town. Maltese expects to log over 400 members this year.

Most CRC members are male. Female riders are especially difficult to attract to a club, and the CRC’s few are a point of pride for him. He has but one complaint. “Our women get better, then the other clubs steal them away.”

By “other clubs,” he could mean the Nassau Wheelmen way out on Long Island, or maybe Westchester Velo up north, or perhaps the Century Road Club of America over in Jersey (no relation, he’s quick to add). But all of them are virtually inaccessible to people who spend all their money on bikes instead of cars. What he probably means is the only other club whose races you can get to by bike: Kissena.

The monarch of that Queens domain is, of course, Al Toefield, who has a reputation for never forgetting a name, and for dispensing the same quality of advice to geeks as to stars.

Al Toefield. Photo © Peter Nye

Al Toefield. Photo © Peter Nye

From where Toefield stands, Maltese’s Central Park operation is more flash than substance, and the CRC serves but one useful purpose: prescreening.

“We turn down an awful lot of people,” he says, referring to CRC defectors. “We’ve found through experience that if they’re frustrated in that club, it means they’re looking for something unrealistic. Eventually they’ll be frustrated with us. We don’t want them.”

In a town where talk is cheap and poseurs are the rule, Toefield has become something of an icon to kids with a dream. His Kissena Cycling Club has a stellar rep for mentoring juniors, and the Kissena Bicycle Shop that he owns is about the only one where a serious racer of modest means can get a competitive bike. It also serves as executive HQ for the 200-member KCC.

A night person, Toefield can be found most evenings fielding phone calls in this tiny place that somehow holds a vast jungle of racing equipment. In a corner hangs one of his old wood-rimmed tires with “Toefield 1972” painted on it in script. It was a good-luck gift the year he went to Munich as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee and manager of the Olympic cycling team.

Before that he was the ABLA’s president (1967-1971), and now is the USCF’s first vice president. For the last 12 years he’s been New York State and New York City regional chairman of cycling events for the prestigious Empire State Games. He also ran the Pepsi-Cola Marathon for 12 years, the 1985 Tour of Long Island, and the 1980s Lowenbrau Grand Prix cycling series.

Toefield was born in 1921. He scored his foundational chops during the Great Depression, working as a bicycle messenger for 15 cents an hour and joining school teams. All of them.

“I learned fund raising early by playing as many school sports as possible,” he says of his high school years. “Each coach dispensed lunch on practice days and 25 cents for car fare,” which Toefield squireled away for bicycle equipment purchases. It was a brilliant plan, he says, “except when different teams practiced on the same day.”

By World War II Toefield was burning up the board tracks at the Coney Island Velodrome, the old Madison Square Garden, and the velodrome in Nutley, New Jersey. He joined CRC in the 1950s. His last sprint was in the 1953 Race of Champions at the now-defunct Flushing Meadow track, a six-tenths-mile oval in Queens.

In 1958 he became president of the Eastern Cycling Federation. Now he runs his track races at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens and his road races in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

In the battle of nerves, Toefield is a front-liner and beloved folk hero. It serves him well in Prospect Park, a scaled-down version of Central Park bordered by rough neighborhoods and frequented by airheads shambling and biking where they shouldn’t. But it also has a world-class art museum, fine botanical gardens, a big zoo, a skating rink, and a famous ampitheater. Its picturesque race circuit measures three miles and change. Vehicles are prohibited all weekend, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily in the summer. But that doesn’t stop some folks.

There’s an oft-told anecdote about a car parked in the middle of the road during one of Toefield’s races. The driver had wormed past a police barricade, then proceeded to ignore warnings from club marshals to leave the park. Toefield, a retired police sergeant with 38 years on the force, approached the party pooper himself. Failing to persuade him to go home by being nice, Toefield produced a revolver. The pooper scrammed.

[Author’s note: Toefield famously tolerated no poopage of any kind in his races. Before motorcycles were commonplace in cycling events, he recruited me to run interference for him on mine. I was impressed at how effective it was to sneak up on hosers and bark in their faces, “Al says get out!” The one time it didn’t work, the perp (an unregistered rider who shouldn’t have been racing) threatened to kill me, which I duly reported. Toefield tore off after the f∪cker in his van. That guy never tried it again.]

Kissena Velodrome in 2005. Photo © City of NY

Kissena Velodrome in 2005. Photo © City of New York

The Kissena Velodrome saga

One of the few things on which the two kingpins agree is the circus surrounding construction of the Kissena Velodrome in Queens.

It was intended to replace the old flat track at Flushing Meadow, the one where Toefield rode his last Race of Champions in 1953. Maltese’s eternal nemesis Robert Moses, who demolished a children’s park to build a parking lot for Tavern on the Green and tried to demolish Greenwich Village to build a highway, now wanted to raze the Flushing track to build the 1964 World’s Fair.

“Many good events, starting in ’55 with the National Championships, were held there,” says Peter Senia Sr., a longtime partner of Toefield and Maltese, former USCF board director, and U.S. team coach for the Pan Am Games and Olympics.

National champion Jack Simes III beat former Olympian Ed Lynch at the Flushing Meadow track for a 1960 US Olympic team spot. Photo Copyright © Jack Simes / Peloton Magazine

National champion Jack Simes III beat former Olympian Ed Lynch at the Flushing Meadow track for a 1960 US Olympic team spot. Photo Copyright © Jack Simes / Peloton Magazine

So while the city was still feeling guilty about depriving the racers of their last velodrome, a deal was struck for a new one. The cycling clubs would raise enough cash to surface it and the city would donate building funds and land — if Toefield and Maltese came back with the money.

And raise cash they did — $10,000. And the Parks Department, who’d expected never to see them again, granted $90,000 and a site for the project after a lot of arm-twisting.

The Parks staff had never seen a banked track, so Maltese had to design the 400-meter Kissena Velodrome himself. The groundbreaking was delayed, however, by bureaucratic red tape; construction prices rose, and with them the cost projections. The city refused to allocate additional funds to meet rising estimates.

[Author’s note: Robert Moses had already built a world-class multi-sports venue on Randall’s Island, Downing Stadium, where he hoped to host Olympics and held bike races in the 1950s. Kissena Velodrome’s construction was likely delayed personally by Moses, who couldn’t have been happy about a rival facility being built.]

According to Toefield, Maltese, and Senia, the city forbade them from privately negotiating with the union contractors who originally bid for the job, and those contractors in turn leaned on other contractors to scare them away.

After years of government sidestepping and relentless perseverance by Toefield and Maltese, the asphalt arena finally got built in 1963 — over a sewer pipeline in a swamp, thanks to the choice parcel donated by the city. Every year the track sinks a bit, requiring extensive repairs. Local racers affectionately call it The Track With A Hill.

To the surprise of no one, Robert Moses took credit for building Kissena Velodrome. It rests but three blocks away from the Kissena Bicycle Shop, and so Toefield assumed maintenance of it (helped by Senia, with the two often paying for and doing repairs themselves) after a falling-out with Maltese that led to the founding of KCC.

That spat started a few years earlier, driven by differences of opinion regarding CRC policy. U.S. junior national champion Perry Metzler, a racer from Brooklyn, was a CRC rider Maltese wouldn’t help. Toefield personally drove Metzler to the 1957 senior nats in Wisconsin, a trip Metzler couldn’t afford to make on his own. Metzler won, becoming the first African-American U.S. amateur national champion.

Rather than abandon CRC’s 1898 charter declaring it a club exclusively for white men, Maltese reportedly told everyone Metzler was a Mexican, a Puerto Rican, or an Indian. By 1963 Toefield had had enough. He started his own club in Queens, KCC, to develop talented young riders of all skintones while Maltese headed to Central Park to get pounded some more by Robert Moses.

Despite the city’s bad behavior and Maltese’s departure, Kissena Velodrome’s season still creaks to life every May, with the faithful arriving on Wednesday nights for racing at dusk.

Kissena Velodrome, National Championships in 1964. Photo © Untapped Cities NYC / Stepanie Geier

Kissena Velodrome, National Championships in 1964. Photo © Untapped Cities NYC / Stepanie Geier

Above: Kissena Velodrome in 1975, © Paul Sery. The “hill” is clearly visible at 0:55.

New York City club wars

Club membership in New York City is a microcosm of the general population: You’ve got your schoolkids, your banshees on gaspipe bikes, your affluent Baby Boomers scrounging around for lost youth, your Gen X-ers who are “serious,” at least until they acquire mortgages. The common fabric is racing fever and a unilateral resentment of joggers who think $150 shoes make them athletes.

The mere mention of the New York Road Runners Club is enough to foment a cyclist shitstorm. Founded in 1958 with 47 members, NYRR now has 25,000 members who also have races in Central Park on Saturday mornings, effectively inflating the club’s influence there as well as its sense of property rights.

CRCA Hincapie Classic in Memory of Lou Maltese, Central Park. © Bicycle Racing Pictures

CRCA Hincapie Classic in Memory of Lou Maltese, Central Park. © Bicycle Racing Pictures

It didn’t take long for the rift between runners and riders to become the biggest undeclared war since Vietnam.

Maltese and Toefield were excited to be awarded the 1960 Olympic cycling trials, scheduled to be held in Central Park. They were unhappy when it took six months to get consent to close the park to cars for four hours. So they organized a coalition of clubs that lobbied the city into closing all parks to cars every weekend. What they had in mind was more bike races. What they got was quite different.

After the weekend car bans began in the late sixties, the Road Runners overran both Central Park and the city’s major events calendar. Says Senia, “They’re allowed to use the park as much as they want. We’re not allowed a permit except once a year” (for the Mengoni race).

[Author’s note: The CRCA was unable for years to obtain city permits for its Saturday morning races, which were held anyway. Maltese called them “training rides with a sprint finish.”]

The NYRR got pretty much the whole city shut down for the 1976 New York City Marathon, while the CRC was ordered to hold their weekend Central Park races at dawn, so as not to inconvenience any runners training for it.

Ask Toefield about the park wars, and he’ll tell you an epic combat story. “A certain corporate mogul and major political contributor likes to run off his hangovers in Central Park. He gets the finger from cyclists. He gets four-letter words shouted at him. They run him off the path — aim at him! And he calls up Eddie [Koch, the mayor]. He calls up Henry [Stern, the Parks Commissioner]. How are you going to fight that?”

Cyclist-versus-runner turf wars rage nonstop. The clubs hate each other, but Maltese denies it. “It’s not the Road Runners Club that gives us any problem. It’s the general public. The runners have one inside lane, and the riders have two outside lanes. The [rest of the] public thinks they own the park.”

Bill Noël, Executive Director of the Road Runners, agrees, explaining how a coalition of eight civic groups is trying to draft ceasefire guidelines and failing utterly. “It’s extremely slow going. It’s very complex. Things that are not very practical are being tossed out on the table.”

Meanwhile, during one particular CRC race, an errant yuppie was plodding in the cyclists’ lane instead of the runners’. The pack saw the jogger and parted like the Red Sea, all except for one novice at the back who did the unthinkable: He creamed what turned out to be a lawyer. The case went to court. The CRC won.

Politics & payola

Everyone agrees racing costs money, lots of it. It will always live in a financial Twilight Zone between municipal and corporate dependency.

For those who promote it, American bicycle racing at its best is a nightmare of permit applications, insurance hassles, and scheduling conflicts. Arguably the toughest problem is how to simultaneously satisfy sponsors, who mostly want love, and politicians, who mostly want… well, something else.

Sponsors, they’re easy. Anyone asks them for a donation, they’ll ask what they’re getting for it. Fair enough. Mainly they want uncritical publicity. If they’re into bike racing, they’re often good with whatever ya got for ’em.

Politicians, they’re different.

Witness the Apple Lap, an ambitious plan by Maltese and Toefield for a 75-mile race in which 300 riders would cut through all five boroughs. New York City initially said yes, due to the success of the first all-borough NYC Marathon that year. Also thanks to the Marathon, the city insisted on not 300 riders, but thousands.

Toefield says, “I finally convinced city fathers that there would be a massacre with 10,000 riders racing.” So it was on, again. But then the police didn’t like the idea of 600 cops guarding 300 riders. And with that, the 1976 Apple Lap was history before it even began.

[Author’s note: When Toefield and Maltese originally proposed the Apple Lap, the city rejected it. But there were in fact two successful Apple Lap races, in 1978 and 1979. Not for nothing are these guys legends; they managed to get nine highways and the Verrazano and Throgs Neck bridges closed to motor traffic. The Apple Laps were among the earliest, if not first, cycling events of this scope conducted in a major US metropolitan area.]

Given the logistics, it’s not hard to understand why corporate sponsors are more willing to commit time and money to lesser events in remote places; it’s just easier and cheaper. But Toefield believes big cities like his have unlimited superior talent reserves begging to be showcased.

“You could sell horseshit in New York City if you package it right,” he says, quoting his ad exec friend on Madison Avenue. “Why should they create markets when they’re already here?”

It’s a good question. And the answer is kind of sad. Access to Central Park — what little of it there is — goes mostly to Maltese, possession being nine-tenths of the law. The outer boroughs have many fine venues, but they suffer from a lack of recognition as commercial race sites for much the same reasons that cycling itself is slow to be recognized as national sport: They have a reputation of being dull, dangerous, and small-time.

Even though Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was designed by Central Park architects Olmsted and Vaux (and is widely considered more beautiful), racing sponsors always demand Central Park. Toefield says, “I forfeited a blank check from Cinzano because I couldn’t deliver Central Park for a Sunday afternoon race.”

Then there’s the other spoiler, which is way thornier.

According to Toefield, Bloomingdale’s agreed to sponsor a race four years ago. The bill from the Parks Department was $25,000 for the use of Central Park. That’s in addition to, you understand, salaries, security, equipment, insurance, prize money — the race itself. Bloomie’s was horrified. They coughed up the dough, but backed off from race sponsorship for the next three years.

“Anybody comes up with $100,000 for me to run a race, I’d gladly give Central Park $10,000,” maintains Toefield. “But if Central Park knew I had a $100,000 budget, they’d want $50,000.”

Toefield is one of the few promoters who will talk about payola. It isn’t pretty. [Read my story from Spy Magazine about the 1989 Tour de Trump, which also addresses this subject. — ss]

A few years ago he provided cyclists and technical advice for the film Key Exchange, which features footage of racers in Central Park. The producer agreed as payment to sponsor another, real race in Central Park. When Toefield filed the permit applications, the Parks Department discovered the film’s backer was Manufacturer Hanover’s Trust. They had a question. Just how generous a contribution to the Central Park Cultural Foundation were Kissena Cycling Club and the fourth largest bank in the country prepared to make?

MHT threatened to back out, but the movie did get made. And eventually Toefield had his real race, but in Prospect Park rather than Central Park. And MHT never sponsored a cycling event again.

It’s easy to argue that until cycling is considered mainstream in the U.S., getting sponsorship will be difficult. Getting sponsorship requires a guarantee of publicity, and getting publicity requires the guarantee of sponsorship. Cycling will never become mainstream without them. This is the Catch 22 of the sport’s future.

That said, it’s worth noting that when the Europeans showed up in Colorado last year for the Coors Classic and this year for the UCI World Championships, the national media lapped it up. And with Greg LeMond, Steve Bauer, and Andy Hampsten proving to the world that North Americans are fierce contenders, the international focus may shift as well. Whenever that happens, America is ready because Toefield and Maltese showed us just what to do. Catch 22 just slipped a toestrap.

Long Meadow, Prospect Park. Photo by Hua Chen (c) 2006

Long Meadow, Prospect Park. Photo by Hua Chen (c) 2006

Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All rights reserved

Author’s note: Shortly after this piece was written in 1986, Century Road Club management was taken over by the membership. They created a board of directors, wrote new bylaws, officially renamed the club CRCA, and became the inclusive organization they are today. Lou Maltese remained CRCA chairman until his death in 1989. Al Toefield remained the head of KCC until his death in 1989. KCC incorporated as a nonprofit that year and is ongoing today. The club still manages the operation and maintenance of Kissena Velodrome.

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! (Also available in paperback.) Thanks.

 

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