“Mile-a-Minute Murphy”

Guest blog by Michael Hutchinson

Track racing in the 1890s was hugely popular, much more so than today. There were 17 tracks in the London area alone, some with 10,000 capacities. Brass bands, announcers, officials in striped blazers… the picture isn’t hard to conjure.

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The racing would have looked odd to modern spectators, because professional racers were more often than not paced. The usual format allowed a competitor to take shelter from his team of helpers, who were usually on four or five-man “tandems”. A one-mile record attempt might involve six changes of pacing machine, ridden by perhaps 30 pacing riders.

The reason was that for Victorians the true athletic test was of speed – how fast could a man go, with all the assistance he could get? Other than a steam locomotive, a paced cyclist on a good track was the fastest work of humanity on the planet, and that is what the punters wanted to see: pure, exhilarating, dangerous speed.

In New York there was a man who reckoned that it was still not nearly exhilarating and dangerous enough. Charles Murphy had been a member of one of the most celebrated pacing teams in North America, so he knew a bit about fast riding. He’d also ridden at a virtual 100 mph on a set of stationary rollers. And he had put these experiences together, added the only thing even faster than a cyclist, and formed the notion that if he rode behind a train he would have no particular difficulty riding at 60 mph – a mile in a minute.

This idea might have stayed safely unexplored had he not met, by accident, an executive from the Long Island railroad in a Manhattan restaurant. The man with the train loved the idea – he felt it would provide excellent publicity for his railway. It was agreed: a wooden roadway would be laid between the tracks, and Murphy would get to ride behind a train. If the probability of this escapade ending with Murphy making a spectacular arrival in the next world occurred to any of them, it certainly didn’t put them off.

On 21 June 1899, Murphy and the team assembled, complete with steam train, at a section of track that had had the sleepers boarded over. He mounted his bike, and the driver opened the taps.

The first attempt was a disappointing 68 seconds. Murphy could keep up with the train, the problem was that the train couldn’t do 60 mph. After a few more attempts, they sent for a more powerful locomotive.

The heavier engine could go fast enough, but its weight caused the wooden track to distort. Murphy was now riding on a roadway that was bending and springing back below him, forming waves and ridges and furrows. With death or serious injury the inevitable result of hitting the unprotected sleepers and rails if he wavered off line, the four-foot width must have seemed perilously narrow.

Finally, though, he did it. He held on to the observation platform on the rear of the last carriage as the train accelerated and then, with a crowd of suited and hatted men on the platform cheering, and encouragement being shouted through a megaphone just inches from his head, he rode the mile in a stunning 57.8 seconds. There is a photograph of him tucked in right behind the train, with passengers hanging out of the windows on the carriage sides straining to see him – something that would only happen in the event of a lethal accident. That’s presumably what they were hoping for.

Afterwards, he said, “I was riding in a maelstrom of swirling dust, hot cinders, paper and other particles. The whipsaw feeling through a veritable storm of fire became harder every second.” He was pedaling at around 200 rpm – twice the speed of a modern road racer – as his bike kicked and bucked over the slim strip of warping wood.

The train, with Murphy on its heels, flashed past the finishing line. At this point, perhaps not thinking things through, the driver applied the brakes. The triumphant Murphy crashed ignominiously into the back of it, and was lucky that some of the spectators on the platform grabbed him and hauled him on board. Semi conscious he was carried into the carriage. When his jersey was removed so a doctor could examine him, his skin was torn from his flesh where the cinders had burnt through his jersey.

It was the last act of an era. Paced racing died out in the early 1900s, after motorcycles replaced the pacing teams. For promoters they were simpler and cheaper, but the crowds missed the grunt and thunder of the old ways. Paced top-speed record attempts like Murphy’s switched to using cars – the record is currently over 166 mph, set behind a dragster by Fred Rompleberg of the Netherlands. But, when it comes down to it, a dragster still lacks the sheer spectacle of a steam train at full pelt. And “Two-and-three-quarter-miles-a-minute Rompleberg” just doesn’t sound right.

Murphy recovered from his burns. He became universally known as “Mile-a-Minute Murphy”, and eventually joined the New York Police Department, where he used his bike to chase down speeding motorists. He later became the first policeman in the world to fly an aircraft. He died in New York in 1950, at the age of 79.

Want to know more about the history of cycling? Re:Cyclists is available to buy at discount from www.bloomsbury.com

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