An assumed identity, a dramatic defeat, and a champion redeemed at the
National Five-Mile High Wheel Championship
In the fall of 1889, the exhilaration of New Orleans sports fandom swirled not around boxing, baseball, or horses but a race of penny-farthing bicycles. Cycling track races had begun two years before in the Crescent City–a novel spectacle drawing ever-growing crowds to the driving track at Audubon Park. The League of American Wheelman had granted New Orleans the venue for the national five-mile championship at the local League meet. The mustached and muscled native and Southern five-mile champion, C.B. Guillotte, would ride for the title against the smug national champion, Frank Mehlig of St. Louis, New Orleans’ upriver rival.
Another “flyer”, Burt Spriggs, had recently arrived on the New Orleans cycling scene and joined the Louisiana Cycling Club. He swiftly endeared himself with his fellow wheelmen and wowed them with his speed in club road races. Excitement around the national five-mile race quickened with his announced entry. The rival cycling clubs of New Orleans–the LCC and Guillotte’s New Orleans Bicycle Club–would each enter a contender to capture the national title.
Two weeks before the event when a scandal erupted. Mehlig’s brother revealed the true identity of “Burt Spriggs” as M.O. Spring–the St. Louis racer who had been ousted from the League for allegedly violating the rule of amateurism. Making money from cycling races, of which he was accused, was a practice strictly forbidden by League regularions. Spriggs was subsequently scratched from the race, leaving the contest to the local bicycling badass C.B. Guillotte and the national champ, Frank Mehlig.
On the day of the League tournament the stands filled with fans, the better portion being young women sporting hats custom-made with ribbons in the colors of their favorite team–purple and gold for LCC and blue and white for NOBC. The national title face-off capped the event. At the shot of the gun the two men mounted their “shadow steeds” and jammed their pedals, racing wheel to wheel as the crowd hollered from the stands.
In the third quarter of the first lap, a crack sounded from the track–Guillotte’s saddle bolt snapped and sent the New Orleans boy tumbling to the ground. With his knee badly injured, he ran alongside his mount to an umpire and jumped on a substitute wheel that proved too small. He switched machines again–but this one was a size too large. By this time he was an eighth of a mile behind. Guillotte pedaled furiously, bent over his handlebars, his determination fueled by the howling of the home field fans as he passed the grandstand.
At this point the crowd was frantic. According to the Daily Picayune, *”Boys threw their hats in the air in excitement, men shouted themselves hoarse, and even the ladies added their voices to the din and roar. In fact, some of the fair ones were seen to jump from their seats and wave their kerchiefs as if the last hope of their salvation depended thereon.”*
Guillotte caught Mehlig and matched him wheel to wheel again, momentarily surging ahead, then falling back into pace with Mehlig, then surging again to overtake him by a length. As the two men approached the finish line, “straining every nerve,” Mehlig surged again. Guillotte, hampered by the pain in his knee, failed to match him and was defeated by a length.
The outraged people of New Orleans cried foul and demanded a rematch. Mehlig agreed and the friends of both men raised money to re-stage the event three weeks later His sympathies now all-in with the local contingent, “Burt Spriggs” volunteered to train Guillotte.
Three weeks later the crowd filled the stands again, frenzied more than ever. Again the two men locked in fierce battle in a contest now crucial to the hearts of their admirers. This time, the local champion beat Mehlig with ease in a decisive victory of more than a length. The New Orleans racing fans’ ravenous appetite for victory was satiated. Guillotte’s friends swept him from his wheel onto their shoulders and carried him from the track. Guillotte’s new trainer, M.O. Spring–aka Burt Spriggs–shared in his glory and was likewise born on shoulders past a euphoric throng.
Meanwhile, Mehlig skulked to his dressing room, where the Picayune reporter found him despondent. He proved a sore loser, claiming he’d only lost because Guillotte’s machine was lighter and his own foot had slipped from the pedal. One sports writer called this *”an obviously poor excuse. As one need not be an expert to see that the principal part in bicycle racing is to keep one’s feet on the pedals and the machine under control.”*
Guillotte’s legacy was secured, and Burt Spriggs, once-disgraced, remained in New Orleans as a hero.