Long before Ryder Hesjedal became Hero of the Giro by winning the 21-day Giro d’Italia, another Victoria cyclist thrilled the sporting world.
His parents named him William John but in the 1930s the world knew him as Torchy.
Early in his racing career, a reporter wrote “a flame-haired youth led the pack like a torch.” The nickname stuck, soon to be emblazoned in headlines.
Torchy Peden became a household name, his winning personality and feats of stamina making him a favourite of spectators and sportswriters. The New York Times described him as “carrot-topped, raw-boned, happy-go-lucky.”
Mr. Peden emerged as a champion of six-day bike races, gruelling events during which two-men tag teams duelled for supremacy day and night, day after day. The events were popular in the Depression, when, for a few cents, a person could come indoors for a few hours of entertainment, as cyclists went round and round.
Torchy showed prowess in these “weeklong rides to nowhere,” as the newspapers called them, winning 38 of the endurance events, far more than any other rider. He made as much as $50,000 a year and was known as the “King of the Sixes” and the “Babe Ruth of Bicycle Racing.”
Mr. Peden was known to whoop and holler as he raced around the steeply-banked wooden tracks. Sometimes, he snatched a hat from a spectator in the front row, wearing the item for a few laps before returning it without breaking rhythm. He’d also wear an item of women’s clothing, or write a letter, or eat his meals while atop his bicycle, anything to keep spectators entertained.
As a young man, William worked for a logging company on Vancouver Island, cycling 30 miles after a long day of physical labour. He qualified for the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam only to suffer disaster when he suffered two punctures in the race’s opening 10 miles.
Torchy turned professional the following year, ending his Olympic career, becoming a popular figure in the sporting culture. He was even romantically linked to Countess Fern Andra, a beauty of German silent movies and friend of the spy Mata Hari. The romance likely was a bit of promotional ballyhoo.
By the end of the 1930s, he had been joined on the saucer-shaped tracks by Doug Peden, a brother 10 years younger, who had returned from the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a silver medal as the top scorer on Canada’s basketball team.
The brothers enlisted in the armed forces during the Second World War, Torchy serving as a physical instructor with the air force.
The spectacle of six-day bicycling racing did not find an audience after the war and Torchy settled in Illinois, where he owned a sporting goods store, selling skates to the likes of hockey’s Bobby Hull. Mr. Peden, who died of cancer in 1980, became a forgotten figure over the years.
One family in his hometown never forgot him.
In the 1940s, a budding teenaged cyclist named Gordon Perkins got Torchy’s bike. He trained on it, riding it to high school and on his daily commute to a job at the Victoria Machinery Depot shipbuilders. He wooed his future wife on the bike and, later, their children rode on it, one of them, Mark Perkins, once doing a header after crashing the brakeless bike. For the last few years, it has been stored in a garden shed.
The Perkins family donated the battered, 30-pound bike to the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. “A hunk of rust,” said Casey Botman, whose task it was to repair the bike. He spent a year on the restoration, scavenging for vintages pieces from as afar as Italy.
Earlier this month, the bike was put on display on a wall at the city’s major hockey rink alongside a bike raced by Mr. Hesjedal. Having travelled countless miles, often in a never-ending circle, Torchy’s bike is now going nowhere.
Special to The Globe and Mail