Breaking a collarbone, escaping body-snatchers, stealing a bike, drinking cow’s blood. Mick Murphy’s story is an extraordinary one which details how after taking up racing only in 1957, he won Ireland’s premier cycle race the following year
On May 25th 2007, a barrel-chested old man got out of a car on the side of a hill called the Maum, between Castleisland and Listowel, Co. Kerry. The old man walked with difficulty on two home-made sticks. He was early. Within an hour crowds awaiting that day’s stage of the FBD Insurance Rás had begun to arrive. Soon the man began to attract attention as people moved toward him to shake his hand. The man was Mick Murphy, also known as “The Iron Man”.
His win in the 1958 Rás is one of the epics of Irish sport. People talked about him on the Maum that day. They said he trained with weights made from stone, that he made a living as a circus performer, that on one stage during that Rás – when the freewheel on his bike had broken – he stole an ordinary bicycle from a farmer and chased down the leading pack. They said that he rode for four days with a broken collarbone, that he would cycle for 40 miles having completed a gruelling stage just to cool down, that he drank cow’s blood and ate raw meat. He was indestructible.
Mick Murphy was born outside Cahirciveen in 1933. At the age of seven he began to dream of the road, of escape as a circus performer. He was already training under the guidance of a neighbour, training that included balancing a ladder on his chin.
The way Mick Murphy cycled became a philosophy of life. He had no predictable rhythm. He led from the front. “The dogs in the street knew my style . . . the more they waited for me to shatter, the stronger I got.” Told to wash so he’d look the part before a race, he tore a bit of a shirt he’d trained in and tied the rag around his neck. You could smell it a 100 yards away. It was like the reek of stale sweat at the start of a fight, or the adrenalin-charged smell of a gym: “Without those things you wouldn’t be there. Something must hype you up.”
Mick was “a convict of the road” – an arcane term, born out of the early days of the Tour de France. The time when cyclists lived on their wits, stole from the fields and slept rough. Men like Maurice Garin, “the White Bulldog”, winner of the first Tour, who was sold as a child by his father to a chimney-sweep for a bucket of cheese.