Once upon a time, an American was the fastest man on two wheels. That man was Charles M Murphy. He's better known today by the nickname his turn of speed earned him: Mile-A-Minute Murphy. This is the story of how he earned that name.
Murphy's tale takes us back to the early days of cycling in America. The first recorded American bike race was on May 24, 1878, in Boston's Beacon Park. That's a decade after the Parc St Cloud races and nine years after the first place-to-place race, Paris-Rouen. By Murphy's day - the 1890s - cycling in America was a big thing. Big not just for men but for women too: in 1889 there was a ladies Six Day in Madison Square Garden.
By 1897, there were about four hundred bicycle manufacturers in America. The motor car was still in its infancy - against two million bikes produced by those American cycle manufacturers there were only four thousand motor cars made. Chicago had a Cycle Row, two miles along Jackson Boulevard, lined with shops selling everything the gear fetishist could possibly want. The League Of American Wheelmen - the forerunner of today's USA Cycling - had more than a hundred and three thousand members. Ninety years later, in 1987, with Greg LeMond having cracked the Tour de France, USA Cycling boasted a membership of twenty-eight thousand. By the end of the Lance Armstrong era, that was sixty thousand.
Cycling had its celebrity boosters. Arthur Conan Doyle was among them. Writing in The Scientific American Magazine in 1896 he said: "When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought of anything but the ride you are taking."
For the professional cyclists - of which there was about six hundred - there was a circuit of races which took the riders from one coast to the other. According to Peter Nye in Hearts Of Lions: The Story Of American Bicycle Racing, the circuit "started in the northeastern cities in May and migrated west during the Summer to Toledo, Fort Wayne, Council Bluffs, Peoria, Des Moines, Lincoln, St Louis, Salt Lake City and Denver before concluding in November with races in San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles."
Nationwide, there was an estimated one hundred tracks - a third of the number France could boast of by the end of the century but impressive nonetheless. Their quality varied, from dirt tracks to cement ovals to banked wooden tracks. The Newby Oval in Indianapolis had a quarter-mile track of matched and dressed white pine and could accommodate twenty-thousand spectators (by comparison, London's 2012 Olympic vélodrome will have a capacity of six thousand). Nye cites a report from the July 5 1898 Indianapolis News, which shows how curiously American the sport had become:
"Nearly every man, as well as a few of the women, who took to the oval in the afternoon took a revolver and about a hundred rounds of blank cartridges. As each heat or final was finished, the riders, as they approached the tape, were greeted with a discharge of ammunition which resembled a volley of musketry."
This then was the world of Charles M Murphy. Born in Brooklyn in 1870, he stood five foot seven and weighed in at a hundred and forty-five pounds. Slim and wiry. With blue eyes and sandy-coloured blonde hair and moustache you have to wonder where those Murphy genes had gone.
Murphy was a short-track specialist, winning national titles at distances of between one and five miles. In 1895 he had his most successful year and held seven world records, seventeen American records and twenty-nine state records. His fame extended beyond America - in 1896 he was invited to race in Europe, all expenses paid. His real glory year was 1899. The year he became the fastest man on two wheels.
The story of that record ride began in 1887, when Murphy got into a discussion about the speed of some of his peers: "I was asked to give an opinion of the quality and relative speed of various prominent riders of the time. My answer was that there is no limit to the speed of a bicycle rider, that speed depended largely upon the bicycle, gears, tracks and pacemaker. This was based upon an exhibition at a Philadelphia bicycle show when I rode a mile on a home-trainer with a sixty-four [inch] gear in one minute and nineteen seconds. The track record was then three minutes and nineteen seconds."
Murphy took his argument a step further. Riding a mile in a-minute-nineteen on a home trainer convinced him that, if he could ride in the dead air behind a steaming locomotive, he could easily match its pace. The faster he rode on his rollers - he clocked as low as thirty-seven seconds for a mile - the more convinced he was of his own argument: "I declared that I could follow a railroad train, and that there was not a locomotive built which could get away from me."
You can guess the reaction: "I immediately became the laughing stock of the world." All he to needed to wipe the smile off the faces of those who laughed at him was a speeding steam train and a smooth wooden track laid between the rails. Easier asked for than come by. For a decade he tried to sell the railroad companies on his idea. For a decade the railroad companies joined in the mocking laughter.
Down the years Murphy persisted in petitioning railroad companies to buy into his scheme. As steam locomotives got faster the idea evolved. No longer was it simply keeping pace with a speeding train, it evolved into riding behind one at a speed of sixty miles an hour and covering a mile in a minute. Finally, twelve years after he'd first had the idea, someone in the Long Island Railroad company bought into Murphy's dream:
"By chance, I met Hal Fullerton, special agent of the Long Island Railroad at Howes Roadhouse. We jested about my ride behind the train. I pointed out that an exhibition of that kind would prove to the world that the Long Island Railroad had just as good rolling stock, roadbeds and employees as any other road in the world. I believe that this talk hurried along the agreement as forty-eight hours after the conversation a contract was signed."
On Long Island's Hampstead Plains, between Farmingdale and Babylon, the LIR laid more than two miles of pine track above the sleepers and between the rails. A steam engine was prepared, with a single carriage behind it. A hood was fitted over the back of the caboose, extending back about the length of Murphy's bicycle, shielding him on both sides. To stop him from riding into the rear of the train, a rubber-coated bar was fitted to the cab, high enough to let Murphy's front wheel pass beneath it, but low enough to act as a bumper for his handlebars. On the rear of the coach a vertical white line was painted - this was to be Murphy's sole focus during the ride. Drift to the right or left of it and he'd go off the rails.
A little after five PM on June 21st 1899, Murphy made his first attempt to break the mile-a-minute barrier. He failed. He made a second attempt. And failed again. He tried a third time. And a fourth and fifth. Failure, followed by failure and failure again. Finally he tried one more time. One more time he failed. The best Murphy could do was a mile in sixty-four seconds. It wasn't Murphy though who was embarrassed. It was Fullerton, for it was the LIR's locomotive that couldn't reach the required speed. A new, faster engine was required.
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Let's pause a moment while they go off looking for a faster train and we try put some perspective on this. The year before Murphy's ride, another American, William Hamilton, added more than fifteen hundred metres to the Hour record, pushing it out beyond forty kilometres. That's just over twenty-five miles an hour in old money. This was done in Denver, on an outdoor track. Hamilton rode at night, and part of the key to his feat was that he was paced by a revolving light which lit the track in front of him. (When Miguel Induráin took his tilt at the Hour in 1994, his entourage wanted to use something similar, pacing him using a laser. The fun suckers in the UCI put the kibosh on that.)
Now clearly there's a world of difference between riding an Hour on your own and riding less than a minute behind a speeding train. First off, one is an endurance event and the other isn't. Comparing Murphy and Hamilton would be like comparing, oh, I don't know, Mark Cavendish and Fabian Cancellara.
Then there's the drafting effect. Everybody knows that air resistance increases as a square of velocity. And that past about twenty-five kilometres an hour overcoming air resistance accounts for ninety percent of power output. And that if you remove air-resistance from the equation you're down to how fast you can pedal and overcoming rolling resistance. And blah blah blah blah blah ... how come the science bit in those shampoo ads is never this boring? Look, just jump in behind a bus the next time you're out for a ride and you should be able to work this out for yourself. It's not rocket science. Well, actually, it is rocket science. But the easy kind. Oh, and by the way, if that bus stops suddenly, don't come crying to me.
So if we're to compare like with like, we should be looking at short-course motor-paced events, not unpaced endurance ones. Motor-paced events in Murphy's day were not uncommon. In fact, pacing was generally an accepted feature of cycling, more or less until Henri Desgrange came along and tried to turn cycling into a sport for individuals (Desgrange wasn't always against pacers, having himself set at least one motor-paced record, riding a trike one hundred kilometres in two hours and forty-two minutes). Originally pacers were tandem-mounted but soon came groups of three or four riders powering along triplets and quads. Then came motor-pacers, the forerunners of Dernys.
In Murphy's day, these were still in their infancy, their speeds a fraction of what was to come. By a curious twist of fate, on the same day Murphy attempted to set his record, another man was setting a new speed for the motor-paced mile. He was Eddie McDuffie and he set his record riding behind a revolutionary steam-powered tandem. His time for the mile? A minute thirty-one and four-fifth seconds. That's what, the thick end of forty miles an hour? Murphy planned to ride half as fast again. Good luck to him.
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Back to Murphy's mile then. Nine days after his first attempt, on the last day of June, a Friday, with a new, faster engine on the track between Farmingdale and Babylon, Murphy was ready to try again. Dressed in blue woollen tights and a long-sleeved light-blue jersey - no gloves, no glasses, no helmet - he mounted his Tribune Blue Streak, with its fixed gear of one hundred and four inches, and set off once more to try and ride into the record books.
"The signal was passed on to Sam Booth in the engine cab and I was off for the famous ride. I began to pedal fast. The blood tingled through my veins. I soon settled down to business. I was determined to win. I bent over and gripped the handlebars as I never did before. The train gained impetus surprisingly fast. Sam Booth pulled the locomotive and car up to the mile-a-minute speed. The acceleration was wonderfully rapid."
The first quarter mile was done in fifteen and one-fifth seconds.
Murphy's ride was far from comfortable. The new locomotive was heavier than the one before, and made the boards he was riding upon rise and fall with the vibration of its passing: "With eyes glued upon the vertical strip of white on the back of the car I experienced an entirely different feeling compared with my previous ride. The officials knew that there was something wrong, that I was labouring under great difficulties. I could not understand the violent vibration in the track, as though I was riding over an undulation instead of level track; feeling hot missiles striking my face and body. I learned afterwards it was burning rubber from under the car. Within five seconds the rate of speed was terrific; I was riding in a maelstrom of swirling dust, hot cinders, paper and other particles of matter."
The half-mile was covered in twenty-nine and two-fifth seconds.
Murphy began to slip back slowly from the train, inch by inch: "Fred Burns asked me through the megaphone what was the matter. I raised my head from the bent position on the handlebars to reply. Quick as a flash I fell back fifty feet. With all the energy and power at my command I tried to regain the lost ground."
At three quarters of a mile he was timed at forty-three and four-fifth seconds.
Murphy was still some distance back from the locomotive, a good fifteen feet, but closing. He was now riding faster than a steaming train: "I expected to go off the track, travelling faster than the train, with the terrible storm of dust, pebbles, hot rubber and cinders. I looked up blankly. It was getting to a point where I could expect anything."
He covered the mile in fifty-seven and four-fifth seconds.
A mile in a minute.
The real fun though was only beginning. Such a story needs a comedy ending, and Murphy duly provided one. As soon as he passed the mile-marker, the train engineer shut off the steam and the locomotive slowed abruptly. Murphy didn't. You all know what a fixie is like: stop pedalling and it'll throw you like a bucking bronco. You have to let the speed bleed off.
"The locomotive slowed too suddenly; on I came, and crashed head on into the rear of the train. The front wheel recoiled while the back wheel rebounded and continued to revolve in the air. I pitched head forward. A frantic yell of despair went up from the officials on the rear platform. They expected me to be dashed to pieces and sure death."
Murphy reached out to the bar attached to the rear of the train. Hands reached out to him. He was hauled, bike and all, onto the train. There were only seconds to spare, as the train soon shot over the last of the specially laid boards and sped on over naked sleepers.
The crowded carriage - pressmen, time-keepers and assorted hangers-on - hardly knew how to react: "Grown men hugged and kissed each other. One man fainted and another went into hysterics, while I remained speechless on my back, ashen in colour and sore all over from the hot cinders and rubber that came from under the car."
Coast to coast, the newspapers fell in love with Murphy, and the Long Island Railroad company got the publicity he promised them. And some. The New York Times declared that Murphy "drove a bicycle a mile faster than any human being ever drove any kind of machine and proved that human muscle can, for a short distance at least, excel the best power of steam and steel and iron."
Murphy became a hero. He also became a vaudeville star, riding in trainer-mounted bike races. Think of Les Triplettes De Belleville or that ad for whatever-it-is you try to ignore on Cycling News, you know the one. After a short stint on the vaudeville circuit he retired from cycling and became a member of the NYPD. His career as a copper was not without incident. He claimed to have been the first policeman to ride a motorcycle in uniform, and the first to fly an aeroplane. That career ended in 1916, when he fractured his knee in a motorcycle crash. He died in 1950, aged seventy-nine.
When Murphy wrote himself into cycling's record books, the best of that era of American cycling still lay ahead - the glory days of Major Taylor and the Six Day races in Madison Square Garden. The names of Murphy's peers from the 1880s and 1890s - those men whose quality and relative speed first gave him the idea of riding behind a steam train - are all but forgotten, with the notable exception of Taylor. These days, the motor-paced mile is set on the salt plains of Bonneville Flats, behind jet-powered dragsters. Only the eggheads could put a name to the man who currently holds the record, or a number to the speed he reached. Maybe it's the steam-punk nature of Murphy's ride that helps his name endure over his peers and over his present-day rivals. Or maybe it's just that he bequeathed this sport a damned good story.
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Peter Nye covers the basic story of Charles M Murphy and his record ride in his 1988 book, Hearts Of Lions: The Story Of American Bicycle Racing, which is something you might want to seek out if you want to know how cycling in America went from boom to bust and back to boom again. If you can't find that, try pretty much anything with Nye's name on it. The quotes from Murphy are drawn from Long Island History. The NYT article can be found on Bobke Strut. Photo credits: unknown, unknown, unknown, Corbis.