Monday, January 2, 2017

"Iron Mac--The Legend of Roughhouse Cyclist Reggie McNamara" by Andrew Homan

Andrew Homan presents the case that Six-Day racer Reggie McNamara was one of the greatest cyclists of all I time.  During his thirty-year career, starting before the first World War, he won the Madison Square Garden Six-Day, Super Bowl of Six-Days, seven times, one less than the record held by Alfred Goullets and Franco Giorgetti, and in his peak years earned more than Babe Ruth, who attended his races and from time to time fired the starting pistol to start a race.

McNamara was recruited to America in 1913 from Australia at the age of 25 after winning the Sydney Six-Day and raced until 1936 here and in Europe winning more Six-Days than any American--seventeen according to Homan, though Wikipedia and other sources offer a complete list that totals out at nineteen. Two of his victories came in Europe at Paris and Berlin.  He ranks thirty-third on the all-time list of Six-Day winners.

Homan had previously written a biography of Bobby Walthour Sr., a contemporary of McNamara, so he has gathered some expertise on the subject of Six-Day racing.  He was greatly handicapped, though,  by not having much material to work with other than newspaper articles, McNamara's scrapbook and the hazy memories of his grandchildren. 

He continually resorts to "it is unknown" on crucial incidents in McNamara's personal life, such as his falling into alcoholism during a return to Australia to visit family in 1930 after a ten-year absence.  Nor can he determine whether McNamara knew his girl friend was pregnant when he went to Europe early in 1914 and whether he was surprised when she showed up in France several months later with their one-month old daughter, or even if she had come on her own or if McNamara had sent her a ticket. They married two months later in New York.  They had another daughter, but the marriage eventually fell apart.  He had met his wife in the hospital where he was recovering from a deep gash to his leg that he suffered in his first practice session on the velodrome in Newark, New Jersey shortly after his arrival in America.  But he was back racing much faster than anyone imagined possible, soon earning himself the nickname "Iron Mac."

As all the SIx-Day racers of the time, he had countless injuries, including concussions and sliver  wounds from the wooden tracks and seventeen broken collarbones. By the time he retired at nearly fifty, he was covered with scars and to some was a horror to look at.  In the early days of the sport teams of two raced for 142 hours straight on high-banked velodromes.  That was soon deemed inhuman and was reduced to racing just twelve hours a day for six days straight, still a most demanding test.  Drugs were rampant in the sport to fuel the racers, but Homan writes that not much is known about McNamara's drug use nor even about his training.  He does quote a "New Yorker" article from 1933 that stated he tried to get eleven hours of sleep whenever possible.

Homan contradicts Mark Johnson's thesis in his recent book on doping in sports, "Spitting in the Soup," that doping was accepted and that it was considered being professional in the early decades of the sport. In 1921 New York tried to pass an ordinance for "better" enforcement of the "unlawful use of drugs" at the New York Six-Day.  The New York promoter didn't want his race tainted by drugs and flatly denied his racers used drugs.  Anyone with sense knew that not to be the case.

McNamara's first Six-Day win in America came in Chicago in 1916, where he won four times more in a total of twenty-six appearances.  He also won there in 1926, his best year of racing, when he won four Six-Days--New York twice and also Boston.  The following year after the Milan Six-Day in Italy he had an audience with the Pope in Rome and also met Mussolini, who was an ardent fan and chided McNamara for not winning in New York one year when his partner was an Italian.

McNamara wrote about that race in an essay entitled "The Race Goes to the Swift...Sometimes," that Homan discovered without determining whether it had ever been published.  He took the title from his explanation to Mussolini for why he didn't win that Six-Day.  The large New York colony of Italian immigrants booed him mercilessly for that failure.  The book includes the entire seven page essay.

After McNamara's first win in New York in 1918 he signed a contract to appear at various theaters around the city to ride on the stage on training rollers.  That was easy money compared to the racing.  It was exciting to read about an era in American sports when cycling was widely popular and its stars were prominent figures.   Police often had to be called to restrain crowds trying to get into venues as the races reached their climax.  The New York Six-Day had greater stature than The Tour de France. Tour winners Lucien Petit-Breton (1907/1908), Francois Faber (1909) and Octave Lapize (1910)  all came to New York to race in its December Six-Day.  It was so popular that in 1920 New York began holding a spring race as well.  When the new Garden opened in 1925 its first event was a Six-Day.

By 1933 there were fifteen Six-Days held in America.  Cycling in America was reaching its climax that year with a 4,300 mile race from Montreal to Chicago and back, longer than The Tour de France, except that it had to be cut short when the promoter didn't have the $1,500 that US customs officials demanded for the race to enter the US at Detroit.  McNamara was one of the featured riders, but crashed out on the first stage.  If only that race had established itself, the history of cycling might have been just as glorious on this side of the Atlantic as on the other.

That aborted race would be a good subject for Homan's next book.  This University of Nebraska publication was too short at barely two hundred pages along with twelve pages of footnotes, a twelve-page index and twenty-four pages of photographs.

As for the "tear index," there were six incidental mentions, one more than in Homan's previous book.  Some might have been literary license--a "tearful reunion" when McNamara meets his wife in Le Havre upon her arrival in Fance in 1914, at the New York railroad station in 1930 McNamara "brushed tears away from his eyes" in response to the large crowd that gathered to see him begin the first leg of his trip to Australia via train to San Francisco, and "a tear discernible here and there" when McNamara abandons one of his last New York Six-Days.  

More substantial tears came from the great Major Taylor  when he was greeted by masses of fans upon his arrival in Australia in 1902.  Taylor said, "I could not restrain my tears."  Homan could not find any evidence that a young McNamara saw him race in Australia, or even if he was an inspiration.  Homan attributes tears to Gaetano Belloni in the 1929 Giro d'Italia after he hit and killed a young boy on its eighth stage, causing him to abandon.  He also cites tears from a trainer, Charlie Meyer, during a New York Six-Day.  He was hit and knocked unconscious by McNamara.  Tears flowed when he was revived in fear that his carelessness of being on the track causing McNamara to crash might have knocked him out of the race.

These were more substantial tears compared to those in Homan's Bobby Walthour Sr. biography.  Two of the five instances in that book were of his young daughter and two of his wife.  The only manly tears came  from the French rider Paul Guignard after a crash that led to the death of a fellow rider.  That book covered a slightly earlier and more dangerous era just slightly overlapping McNamara's time, as there was more motor-pacing.  Homan mentions no deaths in this book, just quite a few broken collarbones.

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