Historical Markers
Otto Maya Historical Marker
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Otto Maya

Lake Erie Region


Marker Location:
10th and State Streets, Erie

Dedication Date:
August 17, 1902

Behind the Marker

A full century before Lance Armstrong pedaled into the American consciousness and roused the pulse of the nation's interest–barely beating, at the time–in bicycle racing, the sport was on a par with baseball in popularity. The 1880s invention of both the modern-looking safety bicycle–a tremendous improvement over its unwieldy predecessor, the huge front-wheel, small back-wheeled velocipede–and the pneumatic tire, which replaced wheels with hard rubber, made bicycling far more accessible and a good deal less dangerous. Not surprisingly, bicycle sales increased dramatically.

An image of men sitting on all metal high wheeled bicycles are at the starting line. There are spectators in the foreground.
Start of 1891 High Wheel Championship.
It was at this point that human nature kicked in. People competed to see how fast their bikes could go, in much the same ways they staged races to see how fast they could go on horses, or their own feet. The bicycle didn't disappoint them.

Remarkable both as a feat of engineering and a mode of transportation, the bicycle is not only the fastest human-powered way to go, it is also the most efficient in its ability to translate human energy into speed and distance. By the 1890s, bikes were becoming the most common means of making short journeys, especially in cities where paved roads made riding easier. Effectively bridging the conveyance gap between horses and the automobiles of the near future, they were inexpensive to maintain, increased mobility, and saved time. Since they were fun to ride, they also offered a new and healthy form of recreation.

The 1890s were boom years for the bike. Bicycling societies and social clubs, like the ones that promoted baseball and football, formed first in cities before filtering into smaller towns. As new manufacturing techniques dropped the price to less than $50, and even less expensive used bikes went up for sale, a recreational fad first embraced by the wealthy became more democratic, more middle-class, and widespread. Soon every city had a "Bicycle Row" and every town a bike shop.

Starting line up of racers at the Boston six-day bicycle race at Revere Beach Cycling Track.
Start of the Boston six-day bicycle race at Revere Beach Cycling Track, Revere...
Bicycle racing naturally followed. Sprints were popular, as was road racing between towns, but the distances covered made road races hard to follow. Bicycling then borrowed from stadium sports and began constructing its own form of spectator arena: the velodrome, an oval track, either indoors or out, with steep banks to make turning at high speeds easier. By the 1890s, almost every major city from the East Coast to Chicago boasted one, with races contested on two distinct levels: Amateur competitions for gentlemen–there were few races for women, but the sport was considered too strenuous for them–and professional races, made up generally of working-class riders from ethnic backgrounds for the entertainment of working-class audiences.

Otto Maya was one of those professional riders. Born in 1876, Maya grew up over his family's restaurant on Erie's State Street. By his teens, he was racing locally in and by twenty he was earning his living through the sport. Between 1896 and 1903, he listed his profession in the Erie phone directory as cyclist.

Maya's specialty wasn't speed, it was distance. His endurance was testament to his grit. Indeed, he once barely lost a twenty-five-mile race pedaling the entire route with a broken collarbone that, in the description of the Erie paper, "pushed the flesh up fully an inch and a half." The paper concluded that "Maya rode the gamest racer ever known in the history of cycling."

Image of men riding bicycles on a track.
Preparing for the start of a race at the Point Breeze Velodrome, Philadelphia...
Maya's greatest accomplishments came in the enormously popular six-day events of the time, in which racers pedaled around the track taking breaks only for short naps and to relieve themselves. The winner was the rider who had covered the most ground in 144 hours. By the time Maya reached his peak, the six-day events had become two-man team affairs; soloing was deemed so physically punishing that sanctioning bodies prohibited it. Pitting pairs–one usually a sprinter, the other a distance man–from different cities, states, and even countries against one another, these "Races on the Road to Nowhere" were true sporting extravaganzas, wildly popular with spectators, and widely covered in the press. Winning purses were the equivalent of a good year's salary, and the winning riders were heroes of the sport.

Maya was among the brightest of the sport's stars. Teaming with several partners, he twice placed second at New York's Madison Square Garden–the biggest race of all–in 1899 and 1901, and third in 1902. In that same span, Ott, as he was known, won back-to-back events in Boston in 1901 and 1902, as well as the 1901 Philadelphia crown.

After retiring in 1907, Maya returned to Erie to manage the family restaurant. Though he slipped into athletic obscurity, his sport enjoyed continued popularity into the late 1920s and early 1930s, before finally disappearing in the 1950s. Still, cycling events have been part of every Summer Olympic Games and of course, the sports" interest peaks around the world each summer when cyclists from around the world compete in the Tour de France.

Otto Maya died in 1930, and there was some irony in the cause. "Mr. Maya succumbed to what is known in sporting circles as an ‘athletic heart,"" explained his obituary in the local paper. "Big and powerful, he was unable to win his last race."
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