Draped in chains and locked in a trunk that was tossed overboard, Harry Houdini would be free and swimming to the surface before the trunk sank to the bottom. No jail cell or straitjacket could hold him. But 117 years ago, the great escape artist was just another guy who cried uncle riding a bicycle from Waukesha to Milwaukee in the most grueling race in the country.
A shade longer than 16 miles, the Waukesha Road Race started at the Waukesha County Courthouse in what was then a resort village accessible from Milwaukee only by train or horse, and proceeded east along the Waukesha Road (now Highway 18, or West Blue Mound Road) to Brookfield, then east along Watertown Plank Road through Wauwatosa and finished at North 28th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee.
Sponsored by the Milwaukee Wheelman, the area's biggest bicycling club, the first WRR on Aug. 9, 1890 had a field of 13 starters. The 300 spectators at the finish line saw E.H. Paige of Waukesha pedal in first, but he had started with a large handicap over Terry Andrae, one of the city's first bicycle racing idols, who won the prize for the fastest time, 53 minutes 20 seconds.
"This is at the rate of about 22 miles an hour, and within eight minutes of the schedule of the St. Paul's fastest train between the metropolis (Milwaukee) and the western Saratoga (Waukesha)," translated the Milwaukee Sentinel.
The next year, there were 47 at the starting line and 2,500 waiting at the other end of the course, and N.H. Van Sicklen covered the distance between them in 47:56.
"Nothing the 19th Century has produced in the way of exhibition sport can pretend to equal cycle racing," crowed the Sentinel in 1892, when 200 riders started the WRR, making it the country's second biggest bicycle race behind Chicago's older Pullman Road Race.
That year, the event was shifted from August to July 4 to make it the centerpiece of the area's holiday celebration.
Until then, a committee of Milwaukee Wheelmen handicapped entries according to each rider's experience and ability. Novice riders had up to a 20-minute head start over the veteran or "scratch" riders. The handicaps were posted on the morning of the race. But in ‘91, a mob of cyclists anxious to get a look at the list stormed the building in which the handicappers were deliberating, and after that the list was compiled in secret and announced in the newspapers the morning of the race.
The experts weren't infallible. Ernest C. Huffner of Racine, the 1892 winner, was later unmasked as a ringer, an experienced racer who had received a 12-minute handicap on the basis of his claim that he was a rookie.
Nineteen-year-old Houdini -- then still known as Erich Weiss, an avid bike racer, swimmer and boxer -- started the race in ‘93. "But he was faster with his hands than with his feet," Milwaukee cyclist Ed Aldridge recalled in a 1928 interview, and couldn't overcome the hazardous course.
"For the first mile from the starting point -- the Courthouse in Waukesha -- the road is level and quite smooth and hard until the first hill is reached," reported The Milwaukee Journal in 1892. "Though generally hard to climb, owing to the cinders and dust, wheelmen will find it a much more difficult task this year, as the road has been recently covered with about three inches of soft, loose gravel."
Except for the choking dust, it was relatively smooth sailing until the riders pedaled out of Wauwatosa on Stone Quarry Hill, "about 100 feet long and very steep, besides being very rough."
Today Stone Quarry Hill is North Hawley Road. Surmounting it then was so hard that for days after the race it was littered with fragments of bicycles that had broken apart there. In 1895, George Becker finished the race "in a buggy bearing a snarl of wire spokes and tubes that had been a bicycle until he got to the Stone Quarry Hill."
But the worst was still ahead.
"The last quarter of the race was up Undertaker's Hill from Piggsville," recalled Aldridge. "There was no viaduct there in those days and the Blue Mound Road went down into the Menomonee Valley and then wound up the hill into Grand (now Wisconsin) Avenue Undertaker's Hill was well named, for the fond hopes of many ambitious riders were buried in its dust."
Traversing Piggsville itself was a challenge, said Aldridge, thanks to neighborhood kids who liked to spread tacks over the road and then "sit on the fences along the course and laugh at the fellows whose tires went down."
If he survived that, by the time he crested Undertaker's Hill for the straight shot down Wisconsin Avenue to the finish line, a rider looked more like "a moving bank of pulverized earth than a human being," according the Sentinel. In 1896, the identity of the winner was a mystery until several buckets of water poured over his head revealed him to be Charles Muss of Milwaukee.
When Minnesota's A.C. Mertens crossed the line he croaked, "Dust! I never saw so much of it in my life, and I am going to carry about a ton of it back to St. Paul in my lungs!"
All that for prizes ranging from $150 bicycles and diamonds for the top finishers to a booby prize of a donkey. In between there were shotguns, clothes, tires, pool cues, cigars, beer, "$5 dental work," and other items highly coveted when the average weekly take-home pay was $12.
In the race's peak years up to 20,000 spectators gathered near the finish line, and thousands more dotted the route from Waukesha. Some of them saved the life of Fred Nessel in the 1893 race. He was the leader pedaling into Wauwatosa when he tried to get through a railroad crossing ahead of an oncoming train. Horrified spectators blocked his path. Nessel crashed, but at least not into the train.
The fastest time ever recorded was 40:06, by J.M. Quilty of Sun Prairie in 1897.
The next year, just 76 riders lined up for the race, and only 39 finished. By then other bicycling clubs had their own big races, and the Milwaukee Carnival, an antecedent of Summerfest first held in July of 1898, was the new media darling.
Except for a brief, barely noticed revival in the early 1930s, the event that according to one newspaper had "done more to advertise this city favorably than any event promoted by any single organization, either local or national," was history.