Where to begin with this Guest Article? When you start talking about a person who makes Fiorenzo Magni sound like, maybe he wasn’t so tough, that is saying a lot! Who needs an inner-tube? On the sliding scale of Hardmen there are a few outliers, a few data points way out past the crowd. Mick Murphy is one of those. Thanks to @Johnny Mac for writing this up.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Hardmen from Ireland. My parents are from Waterford, the same place as Sean Kelly, so I suppose it’s in the blood. I grew up watching him and Stephen Roche race in the ‘80s, and still can’t think of Roche’s climb up to La Plagne in Le Tour of ‘87 without getting goose bumps (‘Just who is that rider coming up behind? That looks like Roche. That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche!’). I was once mistaken for Sean Kelly on a ride around Ireland. I’d just got off the bike – had they seen me riding it they would not have made that mistake I can assure you.
So it was with some sadness that I learned of the death at the age of 81 of one of the true legends of Irish cycling, and the original Hardman from Ireland, ‘Iron Man’ Mick Murphy. Murphy is best known for winning the Rás Tailteann (an eight-day stage race held annually in Ireland each May) in 1958, having just taken-up the sport the previous year (subsequent winners include Stephen Roche & Tony Martin).
Legend has it that on one stage he suffered a mechanical in the last 10 miles, and having no support jumped into a farmer’s field and borrowed a bike, an old bone-shaker with no gears, but it was enough for him to finish the stage and keep him in contention with the leaders. On Stage Four he crashed and broke his collarbone but, against doctor’s orders (he climbed out of the window of the hospital and over the wall), he continued the race for the next four days and went on to take the winner’s jersey by more than five minutes.
He forced the pace so much that year that some of his stage times have yet to be bettered half a century later. ‘The others didn’t like me because I made racing too hard’, said Murphy, who would go for a 40-mile ride at the end of a stage to cool down.
He raced in the Rás for the next two years but then quit cycling in disgust over what he saw as a lack of support for, and poor management of, his team from Kerry.
In addition to cycling Murphy competed in long distance running, boxing, wrestling & even darts. He trained by using concrete blocks attached to an iron bar as weights to strengthen his leg muscles, and is also said to have drunk blood straight from a cow – a tip he had been given by Russian weightlifters or the Masai warriors from Africa, depending on which version you hear. I’m not sure if that would pass a haemocrit test these days.
Murphy then went on to work in construction, and even had a few stints in the circus (he was said to be able to walk on his hands for a mile), before returning to Ireland after a bad accident on a building site in England. He saw out his days in a ramshackle house in the Irish countryside with no heating or running water, but by all accounts he was happy and resisted any offers of help.
There’s some great footage on-line of Mick being interviewed in his home, which I suggest you seek out and watch (see below). There’s also a nice tribute to him on the BBC Radio 4 program ‘Last Word’ which can be accessed here – he’s the first person they discuss.
In our modern cycling world of carefully managed press conferences and marginal gains, we should celebrate and mourn the passing of characters like Mick Murphy as we won’t see their like again.
RIP ‘Iron Man’ Mick Murphy, 1934 – 2015