Excerpt: Iron Mac
The following excerpt is from Iron Mac: The Legend of Roughhouse Cyclist Reggie McNamara (Nebraska, 2016) by Andrew M. Homan.
Chapter 1: Rabbits and Slingshots
Reggie’s older brothers acquired bikes at an early age—probably before Reggie was born. Given the time frame, one of the bikes could have been an old-fashioned “high-wheel.” With the introductions of both the diamond-framed “safety” bicycle, with two equal-size wheels, and the pneumatic tire at the same time in the late 1880s, it was more likely the boys owned the kind we are all familiar with today.
Whatever the case, young Reggie longed for the day he could have his own bicycle. By the time he got one, he was already proficient from riding his brothers’ bikes. It was purported that he first straddled and rode a bike at the age of two.6 No doubt, it was a fixed-gear bike without brakes, like the ones he’d race on for his entire career.
The boys built their own dirt racetrack on the McNamara property by having a team of horses pull a weighted drag around. They worked on the track whenever there was a break from chores, and it was built up with banked turns. The brothers raced each other, kicking up the red dirt as they rode around that track until each knew the slightest bump and impression. Like most brothers, they were competitive against one another and constantly pushed each other. They fought, wrestled, and had plenty of laughs together too. Reggie’s two oldest brothers, John Cecil (J.C.) and Denis, were eight and seven years older, respectively. Joe was only a year older than Reggie, and there were two younger brothers, Leo Vincent and Ignatius Patrick, who were five and six years younger, respectively. Then there were his sisters, who no doubt joined in the merriment on the track and rode bicycles on and off the farm as much as they were able. Margaret was two years older than J.C.; Alice, Bertha, and Sybil were between Denis’s and Joe’s age. Reggie’s younger sisters were Eileen, Kathleen, and Mary Anne, the baby of the entire flock.
In New South Wales, where Reggie grew up, and in most other sections of Australia, there was no such thing as amateur racing. When they could, youngsters Joe and Reggie went along with J.C. and Denis when they competed in local races. The young lads got inspiration seeing their brothers amid the dust, noise, and rough-and-tumble high-speed excitement.
When Joe and Reggie went up on their home track against their older brothers, they had a real fight on their hands. No big brother was going to let a younger brother beat him on purpose. As Joe and Reggie honed their cycling skills, J.C. and Denis moved on with other things. But for Joe and especially Reggie racing bikes started to become more than just a pleasant diversion.
On May 30, 1906, in what may have been his first entrance into professional racing, eighteen-year-old Reggie did well in a series of races to support the local hospital. He won the one-mile Empire Wheel Race as well as the one-mile District Handicap (starting from scratch) and took second in the half-mile Pulican’s Purse. For his efforts he earned a good amount of money. Months later he had a race fifty miles from home. He strapped a few spare wheels on his back and rode out to the race and won enough money to take a train home. Earning money doing what he loved motivated him to train harder. By the time he turned twenty, he had made up his mind to pursue a racing career and left the farm for good.
Whether it was long road races or short track races, on grass, on dirt, or on pavement, Reggie did all he could do to earn a living. He began to earn a reputation as a rider, not gifted with a great sprint at the end of races but, rather, with a remarkable ability to sustain high intervals of speed over a long period of time. His modus operandi was to zap the sting out of sprinters’ legs and lungs before they had a chance to go against him at the end. Reggie’s stamina and strength were phenomenal.
He found another way to make money—or at least free bicycles and bike parts—by advertising an “Austral” bike, which he rode. The ad was in the Sydney Morning Herald and encouraged patrons to come to the “Austral Cycle Dept” at 73 Market Street in Sydney. Reggie’s youthful exuberance was unmistakable: “I have won races everywhere. I won a wheel race at Cobar on 7th October, from scratch, also the wheel races at Willington; seven days later I defeated A. J. Davies and A. P. Quinlan at Dubbo on the 28th October, giving me only 14 yards. Won scratch race the same day, in which Quinlan and Davies also started. In the 50 Speedwell Mile Road Race I won, and made the fastest time on 3rd July. . . . I might mention that I have five gold medals, fifteen first, five from scratch, seven second, four third, and only been riding eighteen months and am nineteen years old.”7
By late 1909 Reggie was known as the “Western Champion” and the “Country Champion” and had changed his allegiance from an Austral to a Massey-Harris bicycle. He was riding against the best riders in Australia, including Alf Goullet, Gordon Walker, George Horder, A. J. Davies, Frank Corry, and Alf
Grenda. On September 15, 1909, he won the forty-mile Forbes to Parkes and back road race sponsored by the Forbes Federal Bicycle Club. McNamara started fifteen minutes after many of the riders and took first place in a time of one hour, fifty minutes, and forty-nine seconds. Months later, on a day when it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit, he won the Coolamon Wheel Race in front of four thousand people and took home twenty-five pounds (US$2,100 today).8
In case he needed more money, Reggie always had the family farm to fall back on. But with his passion in pursuit of a sustainable and successful professional bike racing career, along with his great physical and mental abilities, he continued to improve year after year. He never went back to the farm. To McNamara professional cycling was so much more exhilarating; he wanted it to be part of his life forever.
- “Honors for M’Namara but He Wins Anyway,” Newark Evening News, September 16, 1916.
- “McNamara and His Austral!” Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 1907.
- “Sporting,” Riverine Grazier, February 1, 1910.