Murphy's era laced with naivety and cow's blood


ATHLETICS:Rás cyclist and “Iron Man” Mick Murphy was made of stern stuff even by today’s standards, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

MICK MURPHY popped up on TG4 on Wednesday night, still looking like a man who eats raw meat for breakfast, washed down with the freshly squeezed blood from a cow. A hardy bastard, as they used to say, when that was the utter compliment.

Murphy didn’t need any introduction, at least not to anyone already familiar with the history of the Rás Tailteann – and would better know him anyway as the “Iron Man”. Wednesday’s documentary, Rothaí an tSaoil, focused on the fiercely political motivations of the race, although the scenes of Murphy with his bulging muscles and old steel bike is what made it such compulsive viewing.

He was 24 years old when he won the Rás in 1958, coming from the proverbial nowhere. Actually that’s not strictly true, as Murphy was already well known at athletics meetings around Kerry, usually cycling considerable distances from the small family farm in Caherciveen.

When, in 1956, he was beaten in a mile race in Sneem, despite getting a 100-yard handicap, he turned solely to cycling, further inspired by witnessing the Rás pass through Tralee that summer.

Murphy was also captivated by the circus acts of the time, engaging with the performers, discovering the importance they placed on proper diet and training. A man ahead of his time, in other words – nettle juice, raw meat and eggs, goats’ milk and honey just some of his pre-race favourites, his weight training almost as specific as modern standards.

“All the years of hardship and training has created an animal that the Rás wouldn’t be able to tame,” he told Tom Daly, in his equally compulsive read, The Rás.

Daly’s book further details the incredible nature of Murphy’s victory in 1958, which began when he took the lead on stage two, from Wexford to Kilkenny. Only Murphy’s stage didn’t end there: he then cycled a 30-mile “cool down”, finishing up in a quiet field to do weight training for an hour, using large stones, and then, after locating a suitably docile cow, used the small penknife he always carried in his sock to cut a vein in its neck, letting the blood run into his water bottle, which he promptly drank.

Murphy actually termed this a “transfusion”, admitted to performing it several times during the race. It certainly wasn’t unique at the time, and plenty of cultures still drink blood. But it would be interesting to know what the World Anti-Doping Agency would make of this now, on the basis of their most recent Wada code, which also popped up in my emails on Wednesday.

Wada reckon their ban on blood doping needs to be more encompassing, and have revised the code for 2013 to prohibit “any form of intravascular manipulation of the blood or blood components by physical or chemical means”.

The last thing Murphy would have thought was that he was getting an unfair advantage, or somehow cheating, although by widening their ban on blood doping Wada might also be widening the grey area.

Anyway, as it turned out, Murphy would need more than just cow’s blood to get him to the finish of the Rás. Things started to fall apart on stage three, from Kilkenny to Clonakilty, when his bike jammed approaching Glanmire, and he famously “borrowed” a farmer’s bike to stay in the race. The following day, on stage four into Tralee, he crashed on wet roads approaching Glangarriff, landing hard on his left shoulder. Instinctively, he got back on his bike, but finished that stage torn and bleeding, and with a broken collarbone.

In obvious agony on the next day’s stage into Nenagh, Murphy somehow survived, fuelled by flasks of hot tea mixed with brandy. He crashed again on stage seven, into Sligo, was almost certainly concussed, briefly riding on in the wrong direction, but by then nothing could stop him: he rode from the front on the last stage, for 100 miles, and in the end won that Rás by five minutes.

I am not making this up, and the Rás has countless more heroic tales of extreme endeavour, in Shay O’Hanlon and Gene Mangan to name just a few.

Indeed it’s impossible to read or watch their stories without wondering how they would have endured in this so-called modern era, when doping is or at least recently was so rampant in the peloton, and what a cyclist like Murphy would have thought of a form of transfusion far more potent than drinking cow’s blood. Would he have been tempted?

After reading The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s blazing tale of his days in professional cycling, as the once trusted lieutenant of Lance Armstrong, there may only be one answer.

Lots of people once considered Hamilton a hardy bastard, and for good reason: in 2002, he crashed early in the Giro d’Italia, fracturing his shoulder, yet rode on, enduring such pain that he ground 11 teeth down to the roots, which also later required surgery. Yet he finished second overall.

There was an encore of that a year later, when Hamilton crashed on stage one of the Tour de France, this time breaking his collarbone, and yet again he rode on through the pain, winning a stage, finishing fourth overall. A year later, shortly after winning the Olympic time trial, in Athens, he produced two positive tests for blood doping, and was given a two-year ban. Turns out that was only for starters.

Against the now familiar backdrop of lies and deceit that governed cycling at the time, from Floyd Landis to Armstrong himself, Hamilton recounts where they got the drugs, how they stored them, how they injected them, how easily they avoided testing positive for them, and how great they were – but even more telling is his recounting of the gradual and seemingly inevitable submission to doping, against all original intentions.

“One thousand days,” he writes. “It’s roughly the number of days between the day I became a professional and the day I doped for the first time. Talking to other riders of this era and reading their stories, it seems to be a pattern: those of us who doped mostly started during our third year. First year, neo-pro, excited to be there, young pup, hopeful. Second year, realisation. Third year, clarity – the fork in the road. Yes or no. In or out. Everybody has their thousand days; everybody has their choice.”

For Hamilton, “willpower might be strong, but it’s not infinite. And once you cross the line, there’s no going back”.

It’s another chilling read with the same theme that now seems to run through every cycling book of the day, echoing the sentiments of British rider David Miller, for example, in his Racing Through The Dark: “I went from thinking 100 per cent that I would never dope to making a decision in 10 minutes that I was going to do it.”

Hamilton at least feels freed by the truth but by the end of his book, gone is the hardy bastard, and all that’s left is another pawn in the game, and the realisation that cyclists like Mick Murphy can feel fortunate to have rode through a different era, when the freshly squeezed blood from a cow was their secret race.

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