The paced land-speed record is a whimsical reminder of the long development of our sport.
The paced land-speed record is an authentic reminder of the long development of our sport. In 1899, Charles Minthorn Murphy had an argument with friends in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. He is quoted in the Farmingdale Post, a Long Island newspaper saying:
“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. I declared there was not a locomotive built which could get away from me. The more people laughed, the more determined I became to accomplish the feat. I figured that the fast-moving locomotive would expel the air to such an extent that I could follow in the vacuum behind.”
With this as the motivation, Murphy would then work to convince the Long Island Rail Road to let him lay plywood over the ties between tracks for a two mile stretch between Farmingdale and Babylon in Long Island, New York. Recalling the negations with the rail company, Murphy says “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.” The special agent for the railway, Hal Fullerton, signed the contract within 48 hours and the event was scheduled for June 21, 1899.
Taking into account the quality of the bicycles available at the time, the insanity of the challenge cannot be understated. The weight of the train caused the plywood sheets to sink and then rise after passing by, creating a violent wave to contend with. Murphy clocked a half-mile in 29 seconds, then three-quarter miles in 43 seconds, and the full mile in 57.45 seconds. After the train slowed down, he lost his balance and fell on the tracks, with the train conductor and Fullerton pulling him onto the train platform at the last moment. In 1995 he would write in Sports Illustrated about the immediate aftermath:
“After I lay motionless, face down, on the platform. I was all in. I was half-carried to a cot at the end of the car; the roar of the train was challenged by hysterical yells. 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.”
Charles Minthorn Murphy was known as “Mile-A-Minute Murphy” from then on and his feat would begin a long tradition of pacing bicycles behind moving vehicles to achieve speed records, though never again behind a train. James Edward Sullivan, the referee, said he would never again take part in such an event. Murphy would go on to be a police officer for New York City, where he boasted of being the first police officer to fly an airplane and the first to ride a motorcycle in uniform.