MCA Quarterly Summer/Fall 1995
By Sydney Schuster Copyright 1995 Sydney Schuster

The ‘sixties were heady times for cycling in New York. In 1963 came the new Kissena Velodrome [see the previous MCA newsletter for all the gory details], and with it, the first district track championships. There were road and track national championships (1964); Olympic qualifiers (1960 and 1964); the Schwinn Festival of Bicycle Races (1968); and the starts of the still–ongoing Kissena Labor Day Track Meets (1963) and the New York Spring Series (1967).
True to form, Pete Senia was in the thick of it all—organizing, officiating, training, mixing it up with city fathers, and generally whipping the troops into shape. The hard work paid off.

“During the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Pete says, “we had many champions. We had quite a few members making the Olympic teams from this area, especially on the track. [The Kissena club] developed many: Jackie Simes, Alan Greico, Preston Handy, Sam Zeitlin, my son [Peter Senia, Jr.]. Over the years I’ve trained several riders who went on to be district and national champions.”

During this time, Pete was a director on the board of the Amateur Bicycle League of America, as well as an officer of the Eastern Cycling Federation (1959-74), and was the ABLA’s first vice president from 1972-4. In 1960 and 1964 he co-chaired Olympic road and track qualifiers; from 1968-72 he was secretary/treasurer of the Olympic Cycling Committee; he was the U.S. team mechanic and assistant track coach for the Pan Am Games from 1967-71, as well as for the 1968 Olympic Games; in 1967 he served as the New York district representative; in 1969 he and Al Toefield ran a USOC-funded training camp in Florida; and of course, he organized scads of bicycle races — to date, over 300. And he accomplished all this while maintaining a career as a union electrician with the IBEW Construction Local 3. So far, a pretty flashy resume for a guy who says he never finished high school.

If there was a downside, perhaps it’s that Pete has always contributed a disproportionate share of personal assets to keep racing rolling along smoothly for everyone else. For instance, today as always, his car trunk is stuffed with sundry sports accoutrements: a set of 2-foot lap cards, a dainty little bell, a formidable PA system, the massive car battery that runs the PA, a wide assortment of paper products, signs for every occasion, plastic baggies for rain, stopwatches, folding tables you can’t figure out how he got them in there, and anything else it takes to run a race. “Yo, Pete — got any AA batteries?” Presto! And the race goes on, without anyone stopping to realize it takes a lifetime to amass a tool kit like the one in Pete’s trunk.

Or that it would be pretty impossible to replace it. A few years ago Pete’s car was stolen, complete with all the aforementioned toys in the trunk. The insurance company had written it off and Pete had gotten a new sedan/office by the time the police found the old one, which joyriders had abandoned on a desolate Queens roadside. Anybody else would’ve blown it off. Not Pete. He made a beeline for the thing, hoping the thieves weren’t cycle racing enthusiasts. Indeed they were not, for there in his ex-trunk was the erstwhile bike gear. He grabbed it and took off without looking back.

And so racing was saved yet again, although not from organizers and officials who always “forget” the equipment they’re required to bring to perform their own jobs. Yup, that’s a rule. You can look it up. And Pete always has to bail them out.

Longtime race official and organizer Emily Miller has been witness to this silliness for years. “Pete always brought stuff for everybody’s job. He would bring the bell, even though that wasn’t his thing, and lap cards, and extra numbers, and you name it. And it got to a point, which was really a shame, where people expected it, which isn’t right. They’d run a race and say, ‘Oh, Pete’ll be here. He’ll have the stuff.’”
Invariably, he did. He also obsessively performs necessary but nasty tasks everyone else avoids. For instance, take his thankless war against weeds and fissures at the Sigfried Stern Kissena Velodrome.

“I’ve been taking care of the track ever since it was built,” he says. “Up ‘til 1975, I ran many nights of racing there by myself — the Twilight Races, and one night for the young classes, one night for the masters/seniors, one night for training, two nights for training sometimes. Al [Toefield] and I, every April for Thursday night races [now they’re on Wednesdays], used to go down and do minor repairs to it at our own expense. Many times, it goes to quite a few hundred dollars for some repairs.” Technically the track belongs to New York City, and is therefore under the tender care of the Parks Department. In 1979 and again in 1989, with routine resurfacing long overdue, Pete, Al Toefield, and Lou Maltese were obliged to raise thousands of dollars from clubs and Sigfried Stern’s family to pay for desperately needed overhauls to the “municipal property.” Which is exactly the way the city paid for building the track in the first place. It was deja vu all over again.

Somehow, however, the city scrounged up enough dough to bid successfully for the 1996 Goodwill Games. Part of the budget was earmarked for a new velodrome. It was never built and nobody seems to know why, even though there are only months left to finish it. Meanwhile, Kissena is in need of repair again. Right on cue, the city trotted out the old chestnut about lack of funds. Interestingly, it had no trouble finding cash to exquisitely pave Kissena’s parking lot, a municipal facility shared mostly by car strippers and couples too cheap to go to a motel.

Ask Pete what it’s like getting cooperation from our benevolent city government, and he just laughs. “I’ve had to have the Community Board in on several occasions, to spearhead any meetings on whatever problems we had, to clear them.” He says that while current Parks Commissioner Henry Stern isn’t a hindrance to cycling, it’s all been uphill since Charles Stark left. “He was the director of recreation for all the boroughs [in the ‘60s], and he was a great fan of cycling. He helped us a great deal in securing the Kissena track, getting us racing in the park.”

All setbacks aside, Pete says he has no regrets. “I spent all my life with cycling. It’s cost me a lot of money. Sometimes people tell me I was crazy. It’s been worth it, every penny of it.”

One person who regularly wonders about Pete’s sanity is Nancy Senia, Pete’s life support system/voice of conscience for the past 53 years. Suckered into false hope for a normal life when her husband stopped competing in 1948, she’s since gone to more races than most racers, now that Pete’s “retired.” Hers is the very special appreciation of the racing spouse. “She thinks we’re all nuts,” says Pete. “They get up at those hours in the morning,” says Nancy, who for years got right up and went out with them.

Plenty of angst and sweat distinguished the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, but particularly the ‘seventies. The City of New York had a crippling electrical blackout, and it nearly went bankrupt. New York muni bonds were shunned, so the place got filthy while its infrastructure deteriorated. About the only thing that went right was the Marathon, which got positive media coverage and a zillion joggers hemorrhaging cash all over town. So some big dog concocted a brilliant plan for civic redemption: 10,000 cyclists racing the 75-mile, 5-borough Apple Lap. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and the city was talked down to 300 racers. But not easily. The black hole that was the ‘seventies was a big one. In the middle of the decade Pete’s new racing bosses arrived — the U.S. Cycling Federation, an open can of bureaucratic worms. There was a bike boom going on, so Pete thought it was a good time to investigate his career options. He opened a retail shop, Senia Cycles, in West Hempstead. It lasted until 1980.

You’d never know it from reading this story, but the ‘sixties and ‘seventies did have lighter moments. For instance, no one was marooned during the moon shots. Remember Jane Fonda posing fetchingly with Vietcong artillery? And how about those Corvairs? Mood rings? The Village People? There was another fun event, and it went like this: The German Bicycle Sport Club used to have its annual awards blowout at a huge banquet hall in Astoria, Queens, with a live band and all the other bells and whistles. Everyone went. It was at one of these soirees, sometime in the early ‘sixties, that the cycling world got knocked on its collective ass by a memorable eyeful: Pete Senia, major ABLA poobah, boogying the night away in a Beatles wig.

The face of cycling changed dramatically in 1975 with the formation of the USCF, which replaced the ABLA as the sport’s national governing body. The ABLA years “were lean years,” remembers Pete. “It was tough; membership was low, not much income was coming in. And everything was voluntary. The board of directors was all voluntary. We attended meetings at our own expense. When the Federation came into being, the first few years were a little rough. But after the ‘80 Olympics [when cycling events were reintroduced and televised], with the revenue coming in, cycling just boomed.” Locally, the trickledown gave us such dazzling events as the Tour de Trump, the Wheat Thins Criterium, the Tour of Long Island, the Oyster Bay Cycling Classic, and the Self Series for women. Things were looking up. Business was also brisk at the Federation’s Colorado office, once it had the wherewithal to hire employees and buy computers. Currently there are 28 people on staff, 11 trustees on the board, and 34 district representatives. Pete laughs when recalling how the ABLA handled the same job with a bunch of file cabinets and 21 board members, ten of whom “did most of the work.”

Things also changed in unexpected, less pleasant ways. “When I was doing it all voluntary,” he says now, “everyone around the country knew my name and wanted me to assist. And when times got better, after the Federation came into being, I was sort of pushed aside. They didn’t pick me anymore because now they were paying people. And now I just work locally in our district.”

Their loss is New York’s gain. Since its inception, the Federation has blossomed into a micro-banana republic of ever-changing generals, laws, and petty grudge matches. They had a splendid role model in the world governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, who effectively blacklisted Pete from becoming an international commissaire.

Pete is a Category 1 official. Courtesy of UCI-imposed age restrictions, that’s his glass ceiling. As far as becoming an international goes, anyone over age 39 need not apply. There is also a mandatory retirement age of 65. Pete is 76. Nevertheless, Pete is generous with his praise. He gives the U.S. Federation credit for improving the sport with “a lot of activity, a lot of help to the riders with their coaches and managers, trainers and mechanics. I think they’re doing a good job,” he says. “A very good job.”

Pete still has a job to do, too: running races, keeping things going here in the ‘hood. His overview is a philosophical one. “I wasn’t out there for too much glory or anything. I just went out there — something had to be done. I tried to do it, and get it done.”

That he did. Did the hell out of it, actually. Still does. And what about the “local work” to which he has allegedly retired? Well, in the last decade he was instrumental in getting all the city parks closed to motor traffic, and he’s been Empire State Games Chairman since 1989, and the Long Island Regional Coach since 1987. He also co-chairs the Junior Olympic Qualifiers in Harriman State Park. As Nancy Senia would put it, that’s retirement?

The area races he runs aren’t exactly small potatoes, either: Empire State Qualifiers, Con Ed Harlem Skyscraper Classic, Mengoni Grand Prix, state Track Championships, even the comparatively modest New York Spring Series. Pete started those in 1967 and has run them ever since, ostensibly as “training” enterprises. But they’re notable for the serious players they attract: recent World Pro Pursuit Champion Mike McCarthy, and journeyman pros like Radisa Cubric and Rich Hincapie, and Rich’s baby brother George up until he got shipped off to Europe this year, plus a slew of national champions of all stripes.

Yes, it’s to the New York Spring Series the elite come from all over the eastern seaboard, to race alongside starry-eyed Muffy and Buffy, and to pose an eternal question to the venerable Peter Senia:

“Hey, Pete — got a size 6 Allen wrench?”

This was a reprint from The MCA Quaterly Summer and Fall issue in 1995. I would like to thank Sydney for allowing us to reprint this story. We originally published this story because I knew the value of Pete Senia and wanted a new generation of cyclist to know who he was and how much Pete put into this sport we wake up for and love.

Anthony Jay Van Dunk
CYCLO "formerly MCA Quarterly"