MCA Quarterly Summer/Fall 1995
By Sydney Schuster Copyright 1995 Sydney Schuster
Let’s say you don’t get out much, but you’re into bikes. Or maybe you get around, and you’re into bikes something fierce, but you’re not good with details. The bottom line is, there are certain things everyone always hopes to see when attending a bicycle race. Speed. Action. Outrageous outfits. Crashes. Fistfights.

But there’s only one thing you can always count on, and that’s Pete Senia.

If you’ve been to any bicycle race in the New York metro area in the last 61 years, you no doubt encountered Pete there. And you should be glad you did.

Pete’s been on the racing scene since anyone around here can remember. In fact, if it weren’t for Pete, we probably wouldn’t have any local racing to go to. He was involved with every New York Spring Series, every Mengoni Grand Prix, the Con Ed Skyscraper Classics, the Apple Lap races, the Self Series, the Long Island Wheelmen Centuries, and a whole raft of district, state, regional, and national Championships. He’s a life member of the Kissena Cycling Club, the Century Road Club Association, and the Unione Sportiva Italiana. His resume reads like a Who’s Who in Cycling entry: former racer; director on the board of the Amateur Bicycle League of America 1959-72; Secretary/Treasurer of the Olympic Cycling Committee 1968-72; Pan-Am Games Team Mechanic and Assistant Track Coach 1967-71; Olympic Games Team Mechanic 1968; New York South District Rep 1967-75 and 1982-83; Road and Track Chairman for three National Championships 1964-70; and Committee Co-Chairman for the Five-Boro Apple Lap races, two Olympic qualifiers, the Self Magazine Series, the Mengoni Grand Prix, the Eastern Sectional Road and Time Trial Championships, the 1989 Masters Road and Time Trial National Championships, and the 1993 Junior Road, Time Trial and Criterium National Championships.

He’s been involved with the Empire State Games for the last eighteen years, variously as its Chairperson and Long Island and New York City regional coach. He promoted the State Track Championships from 1963-1974 at the Kissena Velodrome, as well as the Kissena Twilight Track Series for many years. Before the creation of the U.S. Cycling Federation, he held an assortment positions in the Eastern Cycling Federation from 1959-74, including President, Secretary, and Treasurer. From 1975-89 he served alternately as the President, Secretary, and Treasurer of the Federation of New York Bicycle Clubs, a coalition that was the precursor to the Metropolitan Cycling Association, which was formed in 1990. Pete was elected Treasurer of the MCA in 1991, and again in 1993 and 1994. In the fat years of the sport, Pete made sure we had our share of quality events; in the lean years, he always tried to keep it going, and keep it going here in New York.

So okay. Let’s say you’re new to the sport, or new to the area, and you never even heard of the ABLA, or the ECF, or Pete Senia. Who is this guy, anyway? You know Pete. He’s the one at all the races with the big bullhorn and the even bigger grey car parked by the start line, with that squeaky PA on the top and that trunk crammed full of officiating paraphernalia. You got it now? Okay. Show him some respect next time.

This 76-year-old retired electrician who’s become a fixture at our races was once a racer himself. He saw his first bike race in March of 1934, when his brothers-in-law convinced him to go along to a six-day race at Madison Square Garden.

“I became very enthused about it. I liked the action,” Pete says now. “I liked the spirit of everyone.” By July he’d bought his first bike, “a piece of junk,” he says. “It cost me $40.” To this day, he can’t remember the name of it.

But Pete was encouraged by the president of the IAL [Italian Athletic League of America], a racer and track motorpacer named Mike Santarpia, and by a sprinter named Larry Pepe, Pete’s future best man. Pepe and Pete trained together, and then in 1935 Pepe got Pete to mail order his first decent bike, a Larcaretti.

“That was my first good, real racing bike,” he said. “It was all chrome, a very beautiful bike, well balanced.”
By 1937 Pete was competing in amateur track races at the Coney Island Velodrome and the Bronx Coliseum, but he couldn’t stay away from the pro six-days. Since he couldn’t race at the Garden, he did the next best thing: got himself a job there as a runner.

“We went back and forth between the kitchen and the bunks that the riders rested in. We were the errand boys running back and forth. That was a lot of fun doing that!”
Pete’s hectic racing career was interrupted by military service in World War II. He came home intact late in 1945, started training again in 1946, and crashed memorably in the first race of 1948. The consequences seemed disproportionately unfair, considering he’d just survived a war.
“I was trying to protect another rider,” he explained about the spill that changed everything. “It was the first time in my life that I had ever bruised a leg [so badly] that I was out of competition for awhile.”
He didn’t really intend to give up racing. But apparently Nancy Senia felt it was time for her husband to retire from sports.

“My wife said, ‘Now, you have responsibilities. We’re expecting a child.’ My daughter was on the way.” And so Pete hung up his cleats. Mrs. Senia’s pre-emptory efforts were wasted, however, as both her children took up bicycle racing. Geraldine competed until becoming a senior. Peter Jr. became a National Champion in all categories from 8 to 18 years old. He also was a District Champion, and went on to become a top senior sprinter, setting a half-mile record on the track.

So if it weren’t for Pete Senior’s inlaws dragging him to Madison Square Garden one day in 1934, the rest of us wouldn’t have many of the things we now take for granted: regular racing in the city parks, parks being closed to motor traffic, and the Sigfried Stern Kissena Velodrome which, believe it or not, was once new and shiny and — yes! — smooth as a baby’s butt.

The birth of Kissena Velodrome looms large in local history. Recalls Pete: “When we were losing our flat track at Flushing Meadows [a flat oval that was razed to build Shea Stadium], we planned to get the Kissena track built.” This was the late 1950s. And of course, that “we” is the legendary trio consisting of Pete Senia, Kissena Cycling Club founder Al Toefield, and long-time Century Road Club figurehead Lou Maltese. It is virtually impossible to talk about New York racing without invoking the magic word “Pete-and-Lou-and-Al”.

Anyway, the old flat track wasn’t ideal, but it was the only game in town. “We knew we were losing what we had. Many good events, starting in ‘55 with the National Championships, were held there. We had to start pressuring the [New York City] Parks Department to put a track somewhere, anywhere.
“With myself as chairman, and Al, and Lou Maltese as my co-chairmen, we finally did succeed in having the Kissena track built in ‘63.” It wasn’t easy, as anyone knows who’s ever dealt with the lumbering scratch-and-sniff bureaucracy that is New York City government.

“After many meetings and trips around the five boroughs looking for a good location, the only place we really could come up with was the Kissena Corridor. [Parks Department officials] were reluctant to do it, but after discussing it, we agreed to pay for the surfacing of it.” Senia, Toefield, and Maltese had already gotten a surfacing bid from a contractor for $10,000, which they considered a fair price. The track itself would cost another $90,000, to be ponied up by the city.

“Well, time went by, and more meetings, and they said, ‘Well, we can’t let you bring a contractor in, but could you make the donation?’ I guess they were figuring that we could come up with the money.” Pete laughs now about the idea of some little clubs having that much dough. But Pete-Lou-and-Al put on their best poker faces and agreed to do it.

“Everything proceeded,” said Pete. “We finally got it onto legislation to get a budget approved.” It was then up to Pete, Al, Lou, and the clubs to raise the $10,000 “donation,” which they ultimately did.
“In October of 1962 we had groundbreaking ceremonies, and construction started. It was finally completed toward the end of June 1963, and we ran our first District Championships on it in July of ‘63.”
For sure, it was the start of something great. It was also the start of the end of an institution. 1963 was a pivotal year in many ways. The local scene was not only a hotbed of racing, but also one of strong personalities with conflicting agendas. The Pete-Lou-Al configuration that had been so successful for so long was showing signs of strain.

But before you hear about the end, you should know about the beginning. Pete says it all started like this:
“In 1958, Al became president of the Eastern Cycling Federation. I belonged to the Long Island Wheelmen, and [Lou and Al] wanted me to get active because I knew a lot about cycling. And I became the secretary of the ECF, working under Al. And Al, belonging with Lou and the [CRCA], they worked hard promoting races and doing things for cycling. And we became a trio, promoting a lot of races, working hard for cycling. We accomplished a lot: promoted a lot of races, we traveled a lot of places, helped a lot of people — financially, equipment-wise, and so forth.” Heading a coalition of clubs, they also succeeded in getting city parks closed to cars, so those roads could be enjoyed by taxpaying bike riders instead of taxis, the way designers Olmsted and Vaux intended.

Indeed, Pete, Lou, and Al were responsible on some level for nearly all the racing that was organized in this area from 1959 until 1989, when Al Toefield passed away. Lou Maltese died a few years later, leaving Pete to work miracles alone.

Long before time broke up the trio for good, a string of events around 1963 precipitated their business dissolution. The reigning racing club then was the Central Park-based CRCA. It was run by Lou Maltese, a man of many colorful traits, chief among them his controlling nature. At that time the CRCA also had Pete Senia, Al Toefield, and a 65-year-old charter declaring it a club exclusively for white men.

Small details might change depending on who you ask, but according to my sources the basic story goes like this. Ever on the lookout for fresh talent, Maltese wanted to recruit a 22-year-old former Junior National Champion named Perry Metzler. He lived close by, in Brooklyn, and was a regular top placer in major regional events. The only problem was this: Metzler was an African American.

To circumvent suspicion, not to mention the CRCA’s Caucasian membership requirement, Maltese told everyone variously that Metzler was a Mexican, or a Puerto Rican, or an Indian. In the end it did get the CRCA a hot rider, but it wasn’t a particularly respectful way to treat a National Champion.

Another CRCA tradition was that it had no interest in developing junior racers. In 1957, when Toefield was the district rep, he personally drove Metzler to the national championships in Wisconsin, which Metzler subsequently won. So the story goes on that in 1963, fed up with Maltese’s crass pushiness, eager to develop juniors, yearning for a headquarters closer to home, and miffed about how shabbily a former Junior National Champion was being treated by the CRCA, Toefield and Senia broke away to start the Kissena Cycling Club.

Pete doesn’t confirm or deny this story, because he has too much class. He does say this: “Al and I talked about forming the Kissena Cycling Club right near the track, which we did, concentrating mostly on the younger classes.” They also opened a small bike shop nearby, Kissena Cycles, that catered to young beginners of limited means. They got Atala, the bikemaker, to co-sponsor an elite team comprised mostly of juniors. About any riff with Maltese, Pete just said, “There was really no falling out with Lou. We were still the best of friends. We still worked hard.”

Whatever really happened, the split and the move to Queens proved beneficial to young riders. Emily Miller has been the Chief Judge at countless New York area road and track races over the last several decades. She remembers more juniors showing up in those early years at Kissena track races than all the classes combined who compete there now.

“They had a tremendous amount of sub-juniors then, in the early to mid-sixties,” she said, quantifying Pete’s dedication. He worked with all ages, and all shades of skin. “Anything that he ever did was always for the benefit of the sport.”

Mike Fraysse, president of the U.S. Cycling Federation, was a junior in the early sixties who raced in New York. He has said that Pete Senia and Al Toefield were the only people around who were willing to get up at 3 a.m. to run a bike race for juniors.

The Kissena Cycling Club went on to develop many juniors who later enjoyed distinguished senior careers, among them Harvey Nitz, Jack Simes, George Hincapie, Rich Hincapie, Doug Shapiro, Charlie Issendorf, and John Loehner. All these years down the road, Pete’s heart is still with the kids. Currently he co-chairs this month’s junior Olympic road race qualifier in Harriman State Park. In fact, when not at a race or doing race prep work, which is rare, Pete can be found in his garage, fixing the bikes of the neighborhood kids.

He loves organizing races for juniors. “The Millers [Emily and her husband, Don] and myself,” he said, “we’ve been running races in Harriman State Park for quite a few years. And we were approached after the Junior Nationals that we ran [in 1993]: Do we want to run this Lance Armstrong [race]? We agreed to it.” The Lance Armstrong Junior Olympic Race Series is underwritten by the World Champion, who only a heartbeat ago was a junior himself.) “We know it’s not a moneymaking thing, but we don’t do it for the moneymaking. We do it for the love of the sport and to help the youngsters out.” Pete is co-chairman, along with Emily Miller, Don Miller, and Ernie Seubert. This year’s New York Spring Cycling Classic/Junior Olympic Qualifier is being held on May 14.

Ernie Seubert, former prominent racer, past USCF president and now a prominent race organizer, says this about his Spring Cycling Classic co-chairman: “You know, any time Pete’s asked to do something, you never have to follow up on it. You know it will be done. And to this day, I think that’s one of his most important assets. Like with our committee, and everything we’ve done, if he’s entrusted with a job, gosh — you never have to worry about it!”
Pete Senia: A life in Cycling Part 2