Outdoors

Adventurer of the Week: Almost 7 decades ago, Tacoma man was fastest kid on a bike in the state

Tacoma’s Richard Perkins displays some of the medals he won racing bicycles in the 1940s and ’50s.
Tacoma’s Richard Perkins displays some of the medals he won racing bicycles in the 1940s and ’50s. Courtesy

In the 1940s, a Schwinn Paramount racing bicycle hung in the front window of Perkins Cycle Service in Tacoma’s Proctor District.

One day in 1949, the shop owner took it down and gave it to his son, Richard Perkins.

“It was my reward for working hard and training,” said Perkins, now 82.

Perkins rode 25 miles at Point Defiance Park before breakfast and again before dinner as he trained for the state championships.

In June 1949, Perkins took the new bike — with tubes sewn into the tire and glued to the wheels — to a quarter-mile track at what’s now Peck Field and won the junior Washington Amateur Bicycle League Championship.

He won the race again the next three years, each time winning all-expense-paid trips to nationals. He raced in San Diego, New Jersey and twice in Columbus, Ohio. One year, he was interviewed by ABC’s Wide World of Sports at nationals.

The first (road race) I did went out to Mount Rainier. Fifty miles out and 50 miles back. On the way back I was so tired that I pulled over to the side of the road and slept for a while.

Richard Perkins, former state cycling champ

As for the results at nationals, Perkins said, “I did not do very well because the competition was fantastic.”

He retired from bicycle racing in 1952, before enrolling at the University of Washington and then joined the Army. He taught biology for 25 years at Tacoma Community College. But Perkins, who keeps his medals displayed in his home office, still has fond memories of his cycling days.

We recently caught up with Perkins to ask him a little about those glory days and what he’s up to now.

Q: What was the format for the races?

A: It was at a quarter midget track, and we would have 1-, 2-, 5- and 10-mile races. At the end of the day they would add up the points you got for first, second and third in each race to decide the winner. I would just wait and out-sprint everybody at the finish.

Q: You said you were part of an early South Sound bike club, the Argonaut Wheelmen. Was that a competitive group?

A: We decided we wanted an exclusive group within the club, so we set up a 100 Mile Club. Riders had to ride 100 miles within eight hours to belong to the inner circle.

Q: How challenging was that for you guys?

A: It was pretty challenging because I was a short distance sprinter. I rode from Tacoma down to Pe Ell (Lewis County), where my grandfather lived. I had to go past it by five miles and then come back to get my 100 miles. I did that by myself. My parents drove the car to mark the mileage, and I took back roads as much as possible. The good old days.

Q: Where did you like to ride when you were a kid?

A: We used to ride from Tacoma to Enumclaw and swim at Pete’s Pool and then ride back. In those days, I was in pretty good condition.

Q: Did you ever do any road racing?

A: Yes, but it was not my forté. I was a sprinter. The first one I did went out to Mount Rainier. Fifty miles out and 50 miles back. On the way back I was so tired that I pulled over to the side of the road and slept for a while.

Q: So you never flew before you won the trip to nationals in San Diego in 1949?

A: Yes, it was a DC-3, and they invited me into the cockpit to sit on one of the stewardesses’ lap. A picture ran in The News Tribune. It was really exciting.

Q: So were you a bit of a celebrity?

A: It was not like being a football star or a basketball star. I went to Stadium, and even though I rode my bike on the track, it was not recognized as anything. If you were a jock, you wrestled, you played football or you swam. And I didn’t do any of those.

Q: Any other interesting stories about your travels?

A: When I turned 16 and just got my driver’s license, we picked up a car (on the way back from New Jersey) for a friend and drove it home. We stopped at the Schwinn factory, and they took my measurements and built a Paramount road bike for me. … They shipped it to the shop, and I rode that bike every day.

Q: Your dad’s friend trusted you to drive his new car?

A: I don’t think he ever knew.

Q: What do you do for exercise these days?

Walk and go to the Y (YMCA) regularly. My love now is birds, ornithology. We walk down at Titlow (Park) regularly and take pictures of birds. I have 62 different species of birds that visit my backyard during the year. And I have pictures of all of them. I really enjoy it.

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