In the late 19th and early 20th centuries bicycling was so popular in Buffalo that the city was frequently referred to as “The Wheelman’s Paradise.” It was also a hotbed for bicycles races of all distances, indoors and outdoors, and one of the star racers of that era turned out to be the great-grandfather of an NFL All Pro.
Bicycle races were one of America’s most popular spectator sports in the early 1900’s, from the grueling indoor six-day bicycle races to sprints to long road races. Local venues like the Broadway Auditorium and the Connecticut Street Armory hosted many such events.
One of the top local bicyclists about a hundred years ago was Ignatius J. Gronkowski. Iggy, as he was often called, was born in 1897 to Franciszek Gronkowski and the former Mary Bayger, and grew up on the city’s East Side. He was in his teens when he when he emerged as a top competitor on both the roads and on the track, and began garnering a lot of headlines. On March 6, 1920 the Buffalo Enquirer proclaimed, “Polish Biker Smashes Two World Marks.” The story reported that Iggy set records in the ½ and ¾ mile races in a competition held at the old 65th Regiment Armory (now the location of the Masten Armory). Gronkowski would eventually hold five world records in distances of two miles and under.
The 23-year-old was eligible for the US Olympic Trials in 1920, and the community raised money to send the East Side native to New Jersey to compete. Of the six eligible cyclists only one other was able to raise funds for the trip. However, Gronkowski failed to make the American team.
Four years later Iggy returned to the trials, and this time made the squad. Prior to departure to the Olympics a banquet was held in his honor at the Dom Polski Hall on Broadway. The event, along with contributions from his fellow workers at Buffalo Radiator and the Polish American Businessmen’s Association, raised about a thousand dollars. The next day Gronkowski was escorted by a parade that took him from the “Polish District” to the train station to begin his journey to Paris.
Iggy went on to participate in the 1924 Olympics in Paris (If you’ve ever seen the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire,” that was the same Olympics.). Conditions were pretty primitive. According to author Peter Joffre Nye, Gronkowski and his six teammates ended up sleeping in a barn outside Paris, and were “Often rudely awakened every night when horses kicked the walls of their stalls, stomped around, and were noisy when they munched straw.”
Gronkowski took part in the 188-km (about 116 mile) road race, which was an individual time trial rather than the mass start we’re used to today. “The course went out into the countryside, and riders were on their own in traffic and dealing with intersections and railroad crossings,” according to Joffre Nye. All of the riders had one-speed bikes, and rode on pretty rough early twentieth century roads.
Although he was at his best in the shorter races, Gronkowski acquitted himself well in the “cycling marathon” that was dominated by European riders. He finished 45th among 72 starters, in 7:34:41.8, and second among the four US riders.
Of course, by 1924 the popularity of bicycles and bike races in the US declined, as automobiles were taking over American roadways. However, that same year Iggy had a son, Ignatius T. Gronkowski, who would have a son he named Gordon. Gordon had five sons who were all accomplished athletes. One of them was All Pro NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski.