Nov. 5, 2002

Riding High on the Cycle of History

A Neighbor’s Old Bicycle Led to a Chance to See the World, Compete for His Country, and Witness a Global Tragedy Unfolding

By Brian Krause

A sea of on-lookers are massed in Olympic Stadium — a magnificent piece of German engineering that looks as though it was carved from a single piece of stone. The spectators are gathered to watch the world’s finest track and field athletes stretch the boundaries of human athletic accomplishment. More Nazi Swastikas adorn the walls than do Olympic flags.

Edgar Bieber and the rest of the 1936 US Olympic Cycling team watch in bewilderment as a fanfare brings the people to a fevered pitch, arms stretching out in front of them, voices crying out in unison, “Sig Heil!”

Reaching into his bag, Bieber retrieves a pair of binoculars and peers across the mammoth stadium to catch a glimpse of what could be causing the commotion. Adjusting the focus of his glasses, Bieber sees the face that will soon change the course of world history, the face of evil itself, the face of Adolf Hitler.

“You put ‘dat avay,” booms a commanding voice, drenched in a thick German accent. Startled, Bieber lowers his binoculars and turns to see a brawny SS guard towering over him. Knowing better than to resist, he slowly lowers the high power glasses and meekly places them back in his bag.

“We were squeamish while in Berlin. You didn’t know what was going to happen and you didn’t know who was going to follow you,” recalls Bieber. “We had curfew at 9 pm and I didn’t even get to see anything. They didn’t want us roaming around in the streets.”

Sunning himself on a bench in front of the Schenley on H Street more than 65 years later, Bieber’s deep chestnut tan is sharply contrasted by the tufts of white hair that stick out beneath his neon yellow cycling hat. The hat is more for safety than a fashion statement; he says it makes him visible to cars while zipping around on his bike. “Campagnolo,” written in black cursive writing across the up-turned brim of his hat, is a proud advertisement for the manufacturer of his custom-built bike.

His extraordinary bicycle weighs only 10 pounds and has no brakes or gears. Just like him, it is built for speed. “I had it made by an Italian maker. It’s only made by hand, like a Stradivarius violin,” Bieber proudly explains. “My spokes are made out of piano wire. It even rings like a piano when you pluck it. You can’t tune it, of course.”

The swarms of students bustling along H Street at one o’clock in the afternoon are unaware that they are in the presence of an Olympian; that this unassuming 91-year-old man with a gentle lilting southern accent has rendezvoused with history. From Nazi Germany to helping construct the first atomic bomb, Bieber offers a wealth of knowledge and rich experiences available right at GW’s doorstep.

A resident of the Schenley for 63 years, Bieber remembers the days when the street lamps were lit by hand, when there were civil defense blackouts, and when Foggy Bottom suffered from a frog infestation. He delivered newspapers to the Schenley building as a teenager, when the first Miss America Pageant winner, Margaret Gorman, still owned it.

“I’ve lived here so long that I’ve grown with it,” says Bieber. “I know and have become friends with lots of the students. I use Gelman Library and I work out at the Smith Center. You can’t beat the convenience of being so close to everything.”

Fate introduced Bieber to the sport that would become his passion. While growing up in Southeast DC, the United States cycling champion, Charles Smithson, lived across the street from him. While one brilliant career ended, another started when Smithson retired and gave Bieber his equipment, bike, and jersey. Not long after, Bieber won his first title, District of Columbia champion, in 1927.

When a member of the 1936 US Olympic Cycling Team fell ill, he jumped at the opportunity to take his place. Cramped in close quarters on a ship en-route to Nazi Germany, Bieber and other members of America’s Olympic contingent, including Jesse Owens, wondered what would await them.

“I didn’t know it was that bad in Germany, but I knew that something was going on,” says Bieber. “It’s hard to believe I’ve seen all those things.”

A member of the Naval Reserves, just 28 days after Pearl Harbor, Bieber found himself called up to active duty and stationed aboard the USS Vestal, the second largest repair ship in the fleet. It was the Navy who taught him how to weld, and even sent him to GW to take math classes.

“I was in the Navy for six years, and when I got out, I wasn’t in any condition. My legs were gone because I wasn’t exercising. If you were a boxer or a basketball player, and you were on a ship, you could at least practice hoops and fight, but they didn’t have that for guys like me,” says Bieber. “The Navy is not for cyclists, you don’t have a chance to work out.”

A chief petty officer when he was discharged, Bieber used his new skills in civilian life, landing a job at Harry Diamond Laboratories, now known as the US Army Research Laboratory. A highly skilled welder, he worked on the first mock-up of the atomic bomb before going to work for the ultra-secret National Security Agency. Now, he works the graveyard shift at the Naval Gun Factory, spending his Monday and Friday nights welding titanium into 16-inch guns for war ships.

“I’ve got to have something to do with my hands or else I’ll go crazy,” says Bieber. “Welding isn’t a substitute for riding, but at least it gives me something to do with my body.”

His cycling career has been as distinguished as his military service. For the last 35 years he has held the speed record from the US Capitol to downtown city hall in Baltimore, at an amazing 1 hour, 34 minutes, 16 seconds. “Records were made to be broken,” says Bieber, and someone nearly did two years ago, coming within 90 seconds of removing him from the record books.

A member of the Amateur Athletic Union, Bieber never accepts monetary prizes. Instead, he has collected an array of plaques, medals, and watches, so many that he has had to throw much of it away. What he has managed to save, such as a watch given to him by Robert Ripley, who wrote “Believe it or Not,” is testament to the unique experiences that cycling has offered him. He has kept a scrapbook since he was 16, crammed with news clippings and photos documenting his remarkable accomplishments.

More valuable than money and watches, cycling has given Bieber the opportunity to travel the country. Winning the title of District of Columbia Champion four times, he has raced in all but nine states and has competed in many exotic locations such as Bermuda. “I never would have been able to afford to see any of that if it hadn’t been for racing,” says Bieber.

For 88 years, Bieber never broke a single bone, took medicine, or even saw a doctor, a blessing that he attributes to the health benefits of cycling. Although still in phenomenal shape, he is now recovering from a hernia operation and hopes to resume his weekly 35-mile sprint to Mount Vernon, VA, a long-standing Sunday ritual.

In the meantime, he is perfectly content to help GW students develop the same enthusiasm for physical fitness and cycling as he has. Residents in the Schenley often ask him for advice on picking the right bike, and he has taken many of them to the Georgetown Pro Shop to buy their first bikes.

“A girl in my building saves a bundle because she bought a bike and loves it and rides it to work on Capitol Hill everyday instead of using the Metro. Now she’s in condition to ride there,” Bieber brags. “She looks better, she’s got a great tan, and she’s taken off weight.”

With his racing days a fading memory, Bieber hopes one day to reunite with the remaining members of the Olympic team and go back to Berlin to see the city they had been denied access to in 1936. “I want to go back to Berlin for a vacation. I want to see everything I didn’t get to see the first time,” says Bieber. “I want to see Olympic Stadium.”


Send feedback to:

GW News Center


ByGeorge! Online