Training session – Frank McNally on the Irish-American cyclist who set a (train) track record

An Irishman’s Diary

Charles Minthorn “Mile-a-minute” Murphy talked the Long Island Railway company into using one of its locomotives to pace him to a world record

Charles Minthorn “Mile-a-minute” Murphy talked the Long Island Railway company into using one of its locomotives to pace him to a world record

 

The way in which Charles Minthorn “Mile-a-minute” Murphy earned his nickname was one of the madder events in the history of American sport. It happened in June 1899 after Murphy, a 28-year-old Brooklyn-Irish cycling champion, talked the Long Island Railway company into using one of its locomotives to pace him to a world record.

The feat required a special section of track, with a boarded-up middle strip. Other modifications included a hood on the back of the engine, reducing wind resistance so that Murphy could ride in “dead air”.

There was also a buffer fitted to the rear, at handlebar height, in case the cyclist ended up going faster than the train, however unlikely that seemed.

When Murphy had boasted that he could outride any locomotive over a short distance, he claimed it made him a “laughing stock”. But in fact, on his first attempts, it was the rolling stock that came up short. He tailed it closely over a series of mile-long runs only to find that they had both exceeded the minute, by several seconds.

The company had to find a faster engine, which it did and which, on the evening of 30 June 1899, led the cyclist on a warm-up mile before both hit top speed.

Subsequent events were followed – or rather preceded – nervously from a viewing platform at the back of the train, which carried members of the press and the event “referee”, James E Sullivan.

For the first 400 metres or so, Murphy and train appeared to be at one, as he pedalled furiously but losing no distance despite being showered by dust, track debris, and hot cinders (any one of which was liable to melt his tyres, catastrophically). He also had to negotiate the severe vibration of his track caused by the heavy engine.

Nearing half-way, he began to fall off the pace and lost more time when raising his head to answer a query about his wellbeing from the press platform. Then he rallied, caught up again, and was still pedalling flat-out when they passed the mile marker in just under 58 seconds. 

There remained one further hazard. The special track was only some two-and-a-half miles long, the first mile of which had been used for a lead-in and the second for the record attempt. The engine now had to slow down rapidly, which was more than Murphy could do, because he had no brakes.

As the bike hit the buffer, the back wheel shot into the air, propelling him forward. Happily for cycling history, he was grabbed by several pairs of hands and dragged safely onto the platform. Recalling the event decades later, Sports Illustrated magazine speculated that Murphy may have set a second record that day, as the only man ever to board a train at 60 mph.

For the observers, it had been a nerve-wracking minute. The Irish-born Sullivan, for one, vowed he would never get involved in such a thing again, although it was arguably not the craziest event of his illustrious career in sports administration.

Five years later, Sullivan was chief organiser of the 1904 Olympics in St Louis and directly responsible, in support of his research into dehydration, for the dangerous lack of water made available to participants in the marathon.

The race remains the slowest in Olympic history and also had the lowest ratio of completing runners.

Only 14 of the 32 starters endured the heat, dust, brutal hills, and unpaved roads. The eventual winner had also wanted to quit and needed several doses of strychnine (a stimulant in small amounts) with brandy to keep going, amid hallucinations and exhaustion. When carried over the finish line by supporters, he was still pumping his legs in the air.

Twelve years after refereeing the cycling stunt, Sullivan had his own experience of the dangers of riding the rails. He was injured in a train crash in 1911 and died a few years later, aged only 51. 

As for Mile-a-Minute Murphy, he went on to become a New York policeman, the first in that city to ride a motorbike, which he crashed several times on the way to early retirement. In later life, he had to have a leg amputated.

That and other reasons justify his cameo appearance as one of the supposed correspondents in The Lost Letters of Flann O’Brien, a new book I reviewed elsewhere in this paper recently. The hero of O’Brien’s The Third Policeman also has a wooden leg, while a subplot of the novel is the dangers of molecular interchange between humans and bicycles. O’Brien’s other works, meanwhile, include a tragicomic story about a man who turns into a train.

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