When the Fastest Man on Two Wheels Was on a CCM Flyer

From top left: Willie Spencer as a 15 year-old amateur, as the 1922
American sprint champion and as a promoter at Maple Leaf Gardens

Born November 11, 1895, in Manchester, England, William Gerald Spencer moved to Canada with his parents at the age of three. In 1910 he took up bicycle racing as a 15-year-old amateur. Blessed with a competitive edge and a keen sense of drama, by the time he was nineteen, it was said Willie Spencer had three things in life: a fiancé, $800 and a younger brother (Arthur) who had just won the Canadian Amateur Cycle Championship.

Arthur’s title and Willie’s confidence convinced the boys they could win big money by turning pro in the States. So, much to the chagrin of Willie’s girlfriend, in 1915 the Spencer boys took Willie’s money and headed to Newark, New Jersey, the North American centre for six-day bicycle racing.

 The move paid off in 1917 when Willie won his first six-day race in San Francisco, CA., and Arthur won the American Sprint Championship, defeating perrennial champion Frank Kramer. Unfortunately, Arthur’s success did little to endear him to the American racing fans, who, seeing their beloved champion dethroned, hollered insults and catcalls at the Canadian rider, even going so far as to shower him with bags of peanuts, folded programs and empty water bottles.

It was a display that prompted Canada Cycle & Motor to send a letter to the newspaper admonishing the perpetrators: “Fans be fair, and watch Arthur’s attempts. Can’t you see he is fair, always on the square and trying? He proves his gameness by having a try in spite of all the booing and hissing.” [1]

Nor did Arthur’s victory stand him in good stead with racing promoter John Chapman. When Spencer asked for the same purse as Kramer would have gotten, Chapman balked at the demand, informing Spencer that nobody knew who he was.

As Australian racer Alf Goullet recalled it:Arthur beat Kramer often that season. He accumulated the greatest number of points to take the crown. Everyone knew that one day someone would beat Kramer. Arthur Spencer finally did it. He was the new national professional sprint champion. But Chapman wouldn’t even give Arthur a contract for a single race. [2]

Spurred on by the hard time shown his brother, the 6 foot, 215 lbs. Willie Spencer stepped up and challenged Kramer to a grudge match. With most opponents considering Kramer to be unbeatable and avoiding his heat if at all possible, Willie created a sensation in May 1918 when he actually asked to ride against the American champion.

“I think he is the easiest man in the outfit to beat,” said Spencer. “He may have all the rest buffaloed, but he hasn’t got me.” [3]

Hearing of Spencer’s remark, an irate Kramer immediately demanded a $300 winner-take-all match race against the Canadian upstart. Willie Spencer seized the opportunity and beat Kramer in two straight heats.

   In August of that year the US Army drafted Willie for six months of military service. After his release from the army in January, Spencer continued racing, clocking victories around the world. During the 1919 racing season Willie Spencer won 18 of 23 match races in Philadelphia.

Despite his success, or because of it, Willie continued to encounter opposition south of the border. In June 1919, accused of using rough tactics against Kramer, he was suspended from racing at the Newark Velodrome, an action that again prompted CCM to come to their defense.

“It looks as if the Spencers, like other Canadian riders before them, have been up against a pretty hard proposition at Newark. It has been rumoured that a certain clique of riders constantly work together to block and pocket any rash outsider who comes up against them. As a rule they get away with this, but if the outsider makes the slightest endeavour to retaliate, he is immediately punished.” [4] 

Ever the opportunist Willie Spencer used his ban in Newark to head to Europe, where his self-assurance and determination once again served him well. When promoters in Paris failed to come up with the kind of money Willie wanted, he turned to the local press.

“That afternoon,” recalled Willie, “I went down to a newspaper and found a sports writer who could speak a little English. I showed him my clipping book and told him I was here to ride in the Velodrome. I also told him that the opposition paper was going to use my picture (which it really was, although nobody knew it yet). And they photographed me from all angles.” [5]

With the next edition of both newspapers carrying front page photos of Willie, the promoters who had initially brushed him off now rushed to offer him a contract. Willie Spencer left Europe that year as the world indoor champion, and in 1920 headed to Australia where he set the world sprint record of twenty-five seconds for the quarter mile.

 Willie Spencer lines up against New Zealand champion Phil O'Shea in 1925 at
Athletic Park in Wellington, N.Z.

Back in the States, however, Willie was still unable to come to terms with Chapman. Known as the "Czar of Cycling," John Chapman served as vice-president and general manager of Madison Square Garden, as well as the Newark Velodrome. While Chapman offered Willie $300 a race, Willie wanted $500. When Chapman failed to come up with the additional money, Willie headed back to Europe. In 1921 he returned to Paris where he won 15 of 22 races.

When Willie eventually returned to the States to compete, he captured the American Sprint Championship title in 1922, 1923 and 1926. At the time CCM was quick to point out that Willie's “championship bicycle was not made to order for him, but is a regular store model which other riders may obtain at a very moderate price, considering its championship quality.” [6]          

Commuting between Paris, Berlin and New York, from 1923 until 1927 Willie Spencer and his CCM Flyer broke five world’s records and captured three American championships, but was never able to overcome the bad blood that existed between himself and Chapman. As a result, Spencer eventually took matters into his own hands.

  In September 1927 Willie drew $10,000 (in $50 bills) from his bank account and began to visit the homes of noted bicycle racers offering them contracts and cash bonuses to ride for him rather than for Chapman. By Sunday morning he had signed up twenty of America’s best cyclists, who, like himself, were fed up with the treatment accorded them by Chapman. That morning, with little to no sleep, Willie went to the Velodrome where he won the five mile race. When he went to collect his prize money at the box office, however, he discovered management was on to his endeavours.

“They paid us riders and then closed the Velodrome. It never opened again,” said Willie. [7]

In all, Willie lured a third of the riders away from Chapman’s National Cycling Association, incl. top American riders Jimmy and Bobby Walthour. “Willie’s outlaws,” as they as they were dubbed by the American press, were led by a brash Canadian redhead by the name of Torchy Peden.

In the end, however, Chapman retaliated by banning Willie’s racers from riding at his venues including Madison Square Garden. With Chapman in control of most of the American racing facilities, in 1928 Willie headed back to Canada where he began to sponsor races at Toronto's Mutual Street Arena and then at Maple Leaf Gardens.  

The same competitive spirit that drove Willie as a racer continued to motivate him as a promoter.

“Competition has given me something I wouldn’t sell for a million dollars: the will to win in everything I take on. I have found that second place is no good to me, in business as in racing,” said Willie. [8]

Over time there were those who worried about Spencer’s almost complete control over six-day bicycle racing in Canada. Dubbed the “boss monopolist,” Willie paid the riders, chose their teammates and, according to the hushed voices of some, told them who was to win.

Willie Spencer died October 2, 1963, at the age of 67. By that time he had returned to the States, where, in 1947, he became an American citizen. In Canadian Cyclist's ranking of the "Top 25 Canadian Cyclists of the Century" Willie Spencer was ranked number 5. In 2005 he was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. A champion the world over, Willie Spencer had been among the first to bring the CCM name to prominence.

   1925 CCM Flyer, similar to Willie Spencer's, featuring a Major Taylor
  stem, star racing pedals, banjo-type chain adjusters and striped
wooden rims.


[1] “Art Spencer Again Beats Frank Kramer,” VIM, Vol. 4, No. 2, October 15, 1917.

[2] Peter Joffre Nye, The Six-Day Bicycle Race: America’s Jazz-Age Sport (San Francisco: Cycle Publishing, 2006)

[3] “Willie Spencer Defeated Kramer,” Toronto Star, May 27, 1918 

[4] “Art Spencer Again Beats Frank Kramer,” VIM, Vol.4, No.2, October 15, 1917.

[5] “The Formula For Fame,” VIM, Vol.37, No.1, 1950.

[6] “Willie Spencer Wins Cycling Championship on CCM Flyer,” Toronto Star, August 18, 1922. 

[7] “The Formula For Fame,” VIM, Vol.37, No.1, 1950.

[8] “The Formula For Fame,” VIM, Vol.37, No.1, 1950.