Interview: Bill Humphreys

The Jersey Project - coverBill Humphreys pops into the Café for a quick chat about American cycling history and his recent book, The Jersey Project.

Podium Café: Before turning to The Jersey Project itself, let's start with an intro to you and your own cycling career. You were a rider with various American international teams, which included one of the first organised international forays for American cyclists (outside the Olympics and the Pan-American Games): the Tour of Ireland. How did you get involved in the sport, particularly the international side of it (and, I have to ask, what did you think of Ireland's wee national Tour)?

Bill Humphreys: I got too many speeding tickets with my red Austin Healey shortly after I moved to San Diego in 1970 and had to sell the car and buy a bike so I could keep my driver's license. My first bike was a $110 Raleigh Super Course that I rode to work ten miles as a labourer for a carpenter crew and then rode the long way home for fitness.

I made the mistake of signing up my rugby club, Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, as a ABLA [Amateur Bicycle League of America] club and began racing as their only rider, instead of just joining the San Diego Bicycle Club. I managed a couple of second places and a fourth in the Novice Class in Spring of 1971.

In the Spring of 1972 I was getting blown off the back of every race including Olympic Development Road Races where John Howard and the US Army team were kicking ass and I was getting lapped. I packed it in, in total frustration that May and found another hippie to ride across America with me and we departed on July 1st 1972 panniers and all.

It was a wonderful trip that got me toughened up and got me dreaming/envisioning everyday on how, when I got to the East Coast, I had to be a good bike racer. I ended up moving to Princeton, NJ in March, to join the Century Road Club of America, and they taught me the basics of how to train and race.

I still have my training diaries from those years and in comparing notes from my ride across America notepad in the summer of 1972, I can fast forward one year to the day to the training diary that I started in Princeton and see that in one year I went from a long haired hippie with his hair tucked up under his hat on the wrong sized Raleigh Pro with panniers in the middle of nowhere riding across Nebraska to having breakfast with Phil Liggett and John Howard and John Allis at the Tour of Ireland.

So yeah, I was pretty blown away to be on a team with these legends riding a stage race in Europe.

The bike opened up the doors to so many aspects of the countries we visited to race. The bike trip across America taught me that, but now when you arrived in on the Continent to race, you were not a tourist, you were immediately welcomed and not looked upon as a typical American of that era. We were a bit of a novelty, but we were bike racers, and that made all the difference in getting invited into people's homes and seeing their life from a local perspective.

PdC: How did you find the culture shock of Europe?

BH: Most of the Irish riders had relatives in the USA and had visited but they really knew nothing of the racing scene here. I remember thinking how strange it was that Phil Liggett, who I did not know as the Tour de France commentator because it was not on TV in America yet, had no idea who Howie was and it was comical to see Howie get asked simple questions by Phil.

We knew Phil as the Director of the Milk Race [in the UK] and he was the chief commissar for this race. By spending much time training and racing with John Allis I knew what the big races for Amateurs were in Europe and the Milk Race was one of the top three stage races along with the Tour de L'Avenir and the Peace Race.

This was Ireland and we were fully supported, it was not the Continent as such and although there was a Dutch and French team there, I sensed we were not going to be overwhelmed by the competition.

PdC: A daft question I have to ask: I have a mental picture of American cycling that's heavily influenced by the films Breaking Away and American Flyers. An abiding memory from them is Kevin Costner's soup-strainer moustache (I like that you included Costner's Hell of the West race leader's jersey from 1979 in The Jersey Project). I saw from a photograph in the book that you too sported quite an impressive ‘tache. What is it with American cyclists and facial hair?

BH: I was singled out for my moustache in the Tour of Ireland in Cycle Sport as Wild Bill Hickock, but it was the ‘70s in America so maybe the moustache was just a remnant of the 60s. perhaps to keep our identities. We had to mingle with the rest of society don't forget and this made that transition a little easier.

I would occasionally find myself at a fairly upscale party in the off season and people would ask me what I did for a living and it really threw them off balance when I replied that I raced bicycles. They had no idea that a world (sport) like ours really existed. For conversation's sake or in looking to make an exit from any further conversation, they would sometimes ask things like, ‘how much do you ride or train or where do these races take place?'

When I responded with four hundred miles a week and that in the past year I had raced in Canada, Ireland, and South Africa, that would pretty much end the talk. So blending in with a moustache and trying to look like a regular guy with a job could have been a factor.

The Jersey Project - page layout example

PdC: Let's talk about the book. One of the cool things I liked in The Jersey Project was the economical way you skimmed through the history of American cycling in the second half of the twentieth century and through to these early tears of the new millennium. What's obvious from what you write though is that there are hundreds - thousands - of stories attached to those jerseys. Any plans to try and capture any of those stories in words in the near future?

BH: Yes, I do plan on capturing those stories and I saved many notes and emailed stories that came to me during the making of The Jersey Project.

I'm not sure that many people have actually sat down to read the content I wrote, because the jerseys are hypnotising and readers are consumed with the memories that come flooding back.

The one thing I learned in going back almost forty years to find these guys that still had jerseys hidden away in their attics was that they were hanging on to them for the memories the stories that had never been told. There were so many riders from the ‘70s in particular that had fantastic careers and contributed to the growth of the sport in small ways.

What my partner Jerry Dunn and I loved about the original Dutch book was that it included the water carriers and supporters that are vital to the sport.

My first emails went out to riders who never got a call to be in a book in their lives. Guys that raced with good results up and down the East Coast, Mid-West, and West year after year without making a US team or racing out of the country except for forays into Mexico or Canada which was critical to our growth.

I was real open about not chasing after the rock stars of our era for jerseys but I wanted the ‘workhorses' represented as well.

I approached - via email, facebook, etc - over two hundred fifty riders (men & women) for jersey photos and had forty-six people respond with over two hundred different jersey photos.

For those that did not respond, I am keeping a file now for the next book which will feature mostly American jerseys with more stories.

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PdC: You do a good job of covering jerseys from both the male and the female pelotons. The role of women in re-awakening the American awareness of cycling is often over-looked. Which of the jerseys/stories stand out for you?

BH: I really stressed getting photo's from women and included that aspect in the original press release, but once again, the right women stepped up with just enough photo's for me to make a 3 page section devoted their efforts.

Miji Reoch stands out to me after Audrey won the worlds in 1969, as the woman who really advanced the sport and there are hundreds of untold stories that need to come out in my next book on the women's history and growth.

The Jersey Project - the original KoerstruiPdC: Back to the origin of The Jersey Project and that Dutch book, Koerstrui, cataloguing Henk Theuns' collection of Euro cycling jerseys. What was it about Koerstrui that so fired your enthusiasm and set you on the path of adding an American chapter to it?

BH: As mentioned in the introduction to The Jersey Project, when Rini Wagtmans first showed me the book I got chills looking at the Jerseys of the Gods, the Legends that we all grew up admiring from a distance. Of all the books on cycling this was unique and I saw a chance to put our historic jerseys on the same level as the Europeans. A chance to tell our story through the jerseys we wore.

It occurred to me that most European's do not know the background on how the US became such a power on the Professional World Tour level.

They knew Greg LeMond and still revere him, but he was an individual effort to break through and by the time Lance arrived the Motorola and US Postal teams were all packaged and slick looking, able to compete, but what gave rise to all that?

Rini and I have been friends and business associates since we met way back in 1978 and he is the real deal when it comes to the ‘HardMan' category that all the modern day media refers to with reverence these days.

When I finally got a translation of his introduction to Henk's book, I could not believe what I was reading. Rini gave it all up and was quite, what I would call almost vulnerable, in his praise for what these jerseys and the sport meant to all riders and supporters of the sport and to the sports contribution to the culture of these lowland countries.

The Jersey Project - Henk Theuns and his collection

PdC: Henk Theuns has been building his collection of European jerseys over a fifty year period. You must have been sprinting like Davis Phinney on a good day to pull together the range of jerseys you did in just over a year. Cyclists are, in my experience, by and large a sharing lot but were you surprised by the willingness of so many to help you along?

BH: Every time I thought, ‘Oh I have to have so and so's jerseys in the book,' it turned out they were not that interested in helping me out, or they got busy and forgot to follow up. In one case I actually had a great rider in the ‘Legend' category tell me. ‘Bike Guy you better get out your check-book if you want my jerseys.'

Once again, I went after the workhorses first, the lesser known riders who just by racing week after week and travelling helped move the sport forward. Going back that many years and waking up old memories can be tricky and one has to protect oneself from some bad energy that may emerge from days long ago forgotten.

I did work at it via email and not many phone calls were made. It was an interesting process to say the least, and one where I depended on my good friend Jerry Dunn's guidance.

‘Just go where the love is' he would say. Look at the beautiful photos and stories that are coming in to you, those are the people you want represented in the book.

I was very active in the sport during the ‘70s, as a rider and coach and I thought I knew most of the major players and regional riders during that time. I was amazed to learn about the great careers some of these guys had during my time and after I moved on to race promotion. It turns out many of them went on to race successfully in Europe and were never recognized by our federation for their efforts. So many went on to really pioneer different aspects and come close to pro careers, and then walked away, and moved on with their lives.

I tried to sum this up in the last page of my American section in The Jersey Project:

Did We Really Do This

The years and seasons fly by and then it is over.

We somehow pick up the pieces, and find a more normal life, settle down, get jobs have families, and as years go by we begin to wonder if what we did was real.

The result is that many of you went into your basements, attics and garages to emerge with these fabulous old jerseys and with them came the flood of memories it is time to relive.

* * * * *

The Jersey Project is published by Trichis and available for order from thejerseyproject.com.

You'll find a review of The Jersey Project on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Bill Humpreys for participating in this interview.

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