Prior to the advent of auto racing in the early 1900s, bicycle racers were the fastest men alive. And from 1895 to 1900, no Detroiter was faster than Tom Cooper.
Cooper was born in Birmingham, but moved to Detroit with his family at age 18. He became a pharmacist by trade but eventually switched to bicycle racing.
Friend John Colquhoun told the Detroit Free Press about Cooper’s breakthrough race when he beat champion racer Eddie “Cannon” Bald in Battle Creek on July 22nd, 1895.
“Cooper was a low salaried drug clerk at the time, fair and ruddy faced. He had no racing wheel [i.e. bicycle] of his own — he couldn’t afford it.
“As they were lining up for the pistol, Cooper could scarcely keep his admiring eyes off the great Bald. Finally Bald took offense at the individual ovation and asked the ‘kid’ what he means.
“‘I was just thinking,’ Cooper replied, ‘how fortunate I would be if I could finish second to you, Mr. Bald.’
‘”Get t’ell out of my way,’ was all the satisfaction Cooper got, ‘or you’ll not finish at all.'”
That apparently inspired young Cooper who soundly beat Bald. Afterwards Cooper was approached with a sponsorship deal.
“‘How would you like to sign for the rest of the season at $50 a week?’
“‘For $50 a week!’ cried Cooper. ‘Come sign me for life.'”
The bidding began and he was eventually under contract earning $200 a week (~$5,500 a week in today’s dollars) while also getting paid $1,000 to use a sponsor’s saddle and $500 to use another’s chain.
After six years of professional cycling — and most likely being the highest paid athlete in Detroit sports — he’d saved $60,000 to $100,000.
Cooper was the pride of the Detroit Wheelmen cycling club.
He set world records in 1897, was the National Cycling Association (NCA) U.S. Champion in 1899, and spent the 1900 season racing in Europe.
Taylor wrote in his autobiography, “If there were two riders on earth that I wanted to meet in match races above all others, they were Eddie Bald and Tom Cooper.”
The race was held in front of a 10,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Taylor won the first two races to take the best of three. Cooper left humiliated.
He continued to race the U.S. circuit in 1901 but retired afterwards at the age of 25.
Interestingly enough, his last bike race may have been at Detroit’s first major automobile race on October 10th, 1901. He and Barney Oldfield raced a motorized tandem bicycle against the clock, which received “scarcely a ripple of applause” according to the Detroit Journal.
Henry Ford was in that first auto race. He had Tom Cooper ride with him during his warm up laps. The champion cyclist advised Ford on how to best race the track and handle his machine. Ford won the race.
Afterwards, Cooper headed to Colorado to manage a coal mine but he would be back the next summer itching to race once again — this time in automobiles.