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Ken Farnum, New York State Cycling Champion and Folk Hero, Dies at age 89

By Peter Joffre Nye

Author Peter Joffre Nye's latest work is his biography of Albert Champion, The Fast Times of Albert Champion: From Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, An Untold Story of Speed, Success, and Betrayal (Prometheus Books). It is available in hardcover and Kindle eBook.

Champion (1878-1927) was an incredible man, as a bicycle racer he was winner of Paris-Roubaix and set more than a hundred world records. He went on to found both the Champion Spark Plug Company and General Motors Division AC Delco Systems.

Just click on the Amazon link to the right to get your copy of this terrific book.

Also on this site is Mr. Nye's story of one of cycling's toughest-ever racers, Reggie McNamara. McNamara won over 700 races and was one of the greatest-ever six-day racers. Oh, and there's more! Nye's story of Joseph Magnani, the Illinois rider who challenged Coppi and Bartali.

Enjoy!


Ken Farnum, New York State Cycling Champion and Folk Hero, Dies at age 89

Ken Farnum, a New York state cycling champion whose racing elevated him to folk hero in the 1950s, died April 4 at age eight-nine in New York City from complications brought on by COVID-19, according to Andrea Lockett, a family friend.

Ken Farnum

Ken Farnum, 1952 Olympics. Photo: Ken Farnum, Jr.

Born on the Caribbean island of Barbados, Farnum began racing there at age ten. He developed in pack races on circuits laid out on the grass of flat cricket fields. Farnum grew to a little over six feet tall and a trim 180 pounds. Tactical savvy and a capacity for powering big gears earned him victories in Barbados and in venues around the Caribbean, including Jamaica and Trinidad. He collected eight West Indies sprint titles.

In 1952 he earned a berth on Jamaica’s track cycling team that went to the Helsinki Olympics when those island countries were part of the British Commonwealth. He raced in the matched sprints and the 1,000-meter standing start individual time trial. He finished out of the medals, but he returned home as Barbados’s first Olympian.

He worked a day job in communications for what is now Cable & Wireless in Barbados. After the Olympics, he moved to New York City. He continued working in communications by day and on his own time he kept training and competing.

“I remember watching him race at the old Flushing Meadows half-mile track,” recalled three-time Olympic sprinter and U.S. Bicycling Hall of Famer Jack Simes III. The cement oval in the New York borough of Queens occupied what is today a parking lot for Citi Field, home to the New York Mets. “He was well built. I remember him dicing it out with New Jersey state champion Walter Grotz. Farnum rode criteriums, too.”

A brown-skinned cyclist in a sport dominated by white players, Farnum won the 1955 Amateur Bicycle League of America (predecessor to USA Cycling) New York state championship. It marked the first time since Major Taylor, an African American who won national and world professional cycling championships around the turn of the century, that a brown-skinned cyclist won domestic races. In 1956 and 1957 Farnum defended his state titles.

“He definitely was a folk hero,” said Butch Martin, a two-time Olympian and a Hall of Famer. “If you think of the sport in the 1950s, kicking some white guy’s ass was a big deal. Farnum could do that. He had a big following.”

State champion medalists qualified for the ABLA nationals, a series of four weekend track races. Points were awarded to the top finishers to determine the national champion. The 1957 nationals went to the Washington Park asphalt velodrome Kenosha, Wisconsin. New Yorker Perry Metzler won the junior boys’ (sixteen and under) title, the first African American since Major Taylor to win a national championship. Farnum lost the men’s open nationals to California state champion Jack Disney, winning his fourth national title.

Farnum influenced a younger African American, Herbie Francis of New York. Francis competed as a sprinter in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He inspired Butch Martin, who rode Francis’s Schwinn Paramount track bike in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics team pursuit.

“Herbie told me he had seen Farnum in a track race where everybody was bunched up close and Farnum’s front wheel overlapped the rear wheel of the rider in front,” Martin said. “They charged into a banked thirty-five-degree turn. Farnum had such incredible handling skill that he kept his bike up all the way through the turn. Nearly anybody else would have crashed.”

According to Lockett, Farnum shifted from cycling to bringing up two children, Ken Junior and Judy, with his wife, Judith.

Barbados was granted independence as a state in 1966 and subsequently sent its own Olympic teams. The Barbados Olympic Museum in Bridgetown recognized Farnum as the country’s first Olympian. In March 2012 he visited the museum to share his experiences at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

He is survived by wife Judith, son Ken Junior, daughter Judy, and two sisters, Colleen and Ann, in Barbados, as well as nieces and nephews.