Q&A With Jock Murray, Aussie racer and quiet inspiration

When I lived in Australia, I rode with several guys I met on a bicycle forum. One of them was an unassuming rider by the name of Jock, who used the earliest hours of his Saturdays for training. He would ride from Maitland to Newcastle and back, which was the reverse of a trip I dreaded in a car 5 days a week. Once we met up in Newcastle, we’d do a lap around the city, and he’d point out all the points of interest, like churches, the bus depot, and pubs he remembers going to but not leaving. He’s quite the storyteller, so I thought his interview would be the first one I do. Nothing like starting off with a bang of sorts.

So here’s my 7 questions for Jock:

Q. Some of us started on a trike and lost interest when we got a driver’s license. How long have you been riding, and when did you get your start?

My sister knocked her two front teeth out on a tricycle when she was four! Couldn’t eat an apple until her adult teeth came through at age seven. But the general rule in our family was that we weren’t allowed to ride bikes when we were young. Period.

Living on what was National Highway One at the time, with a coal truck barreling past our house on average 1 per minute between the hours of 6:00am and 10:00pm, probably caused mum some concern. Or maybe it was because another sister got hit by a car and broke her femur while riding a scooter on a suburban street.

So of course there was always going to be a time to revolt against this heinous family rule. For me it was at age 10. My mum was very clear as I left for my mate’s birthday party: “No riding that bike of his”. “OK mum”. Yeah, right! At the first opportunity it was straight onto the bike and around the block for a one-lap dash. The thrill of the moment was heightened by the fact that I would have to run the gauntlet by riding past our place in the face of a possible pants-down thrashing. I survived intact, which is somewhat of a miracle because I’d never ridden a bike before, only scooters. It seemed such a natural thing to just get on and ride it. Easy. And cool.

Then nothing happened for the next four years until I stole my older brother’s single speed. It was way too big for me, but that wasn’t going to stop me, for he had his shiny new Bennett 10 speed. He didn’t blink an eye. He was happy as long as I didn’t steal his new pride and joy. Of course I ended up doing that too!

Man, I rode that old single speed bike everywhere. 46×17 with standard beater pedals, rusty and badly buckled wheels, leather seat and only a rear brake. It taught me a lot about riding. How to let the bike move underneath you, how to remain part of the human race when you have no chance of stopping (rear brakes just don’t cut the mustard in an emergency), and so on…

From there it was a natural progression to riding a paper route on a weird-looking single-speed bike with rear pedal-brakes, a small front wheel, and a cage that held all the rolled papers and magazines. Each day became a challenge to deliver the goods in a better time than the last. It was extreme fun grabbing maximum air off driveways and gutters and still managing to get all the papers and magazines to land back in the cage. In the end it was nothing to take traffic on head-on in a race to beat the clock. In some ways it was like the precursor to today’s bike couriers on their fixies. Mind you, if there was ever a Playboy, Penthouse, Mayfair or Ribald on the delivery sheet then the times were always slow.

Then at about age 17 I just went to the local bike shop (the original Hadley’s at Adamstown for those of you playing Nostalgia at home) and handed over about $700 for a metallic blue Bennett Mirage that was at least a size to big for me. I don’t think mum was pleased that I’d spent my entire life savings (i.e. her money!) on a bloody expensive bike.

I was pushing enormous gears on that thing. It wasn’t uncommon for me to start in 54×12 and finish in 54×12 having not shifted the whole time. Luckily for me I got the cleats arranged correctly otherwise I would have been in a wheelchair waiting for a knee replacement within 18 months!

That was all good, and I sure was getting strong, but when I left school I found other “interests” which hampered any chance of progress. In my only two seasons of racing I managed to scrape in a single, solitary third placing in C Grade and also brought down about 30 riders in a single splendid flick acceleration (not my fault, the guy behind me was half wheeling).

Once I got a paying job I discovered boundless new opportunities like beer, bourbon, wenches, and playing in a band. And I was going to be world champion in at least two of the categories and cycling wasn’t going to be one of them.

…Well, not for another 20 years anyway…

Q. When you first switched to clipless pedals, you ran into a bit of a problem that brought your cycling career to a standstill. Tell us a bit about that.

There was never any cycling career. I was always just a hack with a liver that could withstand copious amounts of liquid punishment. But don’t let that get in the way of a good story…

Before clipless pedals there were your garden-variety cleats, toe clips, and leather straps. Simply pull up hard and you’re out. In 1997 I was still riding the same Bennett Mirage that was bought fifteen years earlier. On the maintenance front it was easy to get away with only having to rebuild the wheels because it wasn’t ridden frequently. And fifteen years on the bike still had cleats, toe clips and leather straps.

But time had passed me by, and at age 35 when I finally made the decision to train for one final fling at a full road season in 1998 the (really) old shoes needed replacing. At the time there wasn’t a single local shop that was selling the old style cleats. Being an IT guy from way back it wasn’t hard to work out that cleated shoes were obsolete, so replacements had to be found.

So on went a cheap pair of clipless pedals, new shoes, and strange bits of plastic that supposedly held your feet in place. They were red and they were horrible because your feet moved all over the place. My knees were going to be chopped out in a couple of weeks with all that play. But after being fitted with the latest and greatest, it was back to getting ready for the 1998 winter road season. For a day at least…

The morning ride to work went as per normal, even with clipless pedals on board. The journey home was going to be a little bit different though. I passed an unladen semitrailer not long into the ride. About 800m later I missed my merge opportunity in heavy peak hour traffic and had to pull up behind a couple of stationary buses.

I was standing on the pedals when gravity took hold and I started to fall… I started to fall towards the next lane of traffic.

Now any sane cyclist with a little bit of experience would have just pulled up hard on the handlebars to straighten thing out. But no, not me, I could get out of these pedals and put my foot down. Well that didn’t happen in the first instance, or the second, or the third. By the time the third attempt at releasing the foot came around it was far too late: I was committed to the fall.

It was slow and graceful. I uttered the simple expletive “SHIT!!” as I fell past the point of no return only to realise that I was trying to become best of friends with the truck I had passed a little earlier. Sadly the truck didn’t want to be my friend and continued on its merry way. That left me in an uncompromising position because I was unable to right myself. So I ended up underneath the passing truck. On the plus side my feet remained safely locked into the clipless pedals, so I’d certainly made a good choice!

My last hurrah was over only weeks after it started, and I was to be left with “what if” scenarios for the next six forgettable years.

Q. Did that hurt?

It hurt on a number of fronts.

The pain associated with being run over by a truck was like fire. It hurt is so many different places at once that my brain couldn’t figure out what was going on. But my injuries weren’t really super-severe, despite being run over by a very large and heavy object. On admission I was treated for 13 broken ribs (9 back, 4 front), punctured plura, broken scapula, suspected trauma to one or two vertebrae, and a goodly dose of road rash.

My wife found the whole ordeal very difficult to deal with, as with each explanation of the cause the truck got bigger and bigger and bigger. The ultimate insult for her was to have the bike rolled out in perfect working order at the Police Station, with not a single new scratch on it.

And my little girl didn’t understand what was going on, but sensed the trauma, and weened herself of mum, which didn’t help. At age 18 months she instantaneously matured on an emotional level much faster than she ought to have, and it really affected everyone in the family.

Q. During your time in the hospital, did think you’d ever even be back on the bike, let alone racing?

Whilst my initial injuries weren’t life threatening there were some complications. First of all the blood from the punctured plura squeezed the bottom of my left lung to the size of my thumb. Only an operation could correct the problem. It would allow me to breathe but would weld about ¼ of my lung wall to the plura by way of surgically induced scar tissue. From now on I would never be able to reach my genetic limit, even if my liver allowed that to happen.

But that was only a minor issue. When you’re a fit and virile 35 year old it’s all too easy for physical problems to weigh on your mind. Maybe it was worse for me because I went into hospital just as things were closing down. Maybe it was the fact that everyone around me in Ward D was having or had had a bypass or pacemaker and was miserable. Maybe it was spending Christmas day in that God forsaken place. Maybe it was the girl who came into intensive care because she’s taken an overdose when her boyfriend said the wrong thing. Maybe it was the fact that I went into hospital riding like a champion and was leaving almost as an invalid. Who knows? But it definitely wasn’t a fun time for anyone in there, especially me.

Getting back on my feet was the hard part. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve broken one rib or all of them: every breath hurts. All I wanted to do was lie down and stay comfortable, all day and every day. It wasn’t really helping me to heal. In the end the missus simply told me to get on with life and I had to learn to walk and breathe and care for my daughter on my own. And within a reasonable amount of time I was back at work. Good thing too, because the taxman cometh.

But even going back to work was not a panacea, it hurt like hell even just to sit on the train to get there and back. Bike riding and racing were the furthest thing from my mind. But I managed to complete the Gong (Wollongong) ride that same year. And it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, 90km into a block (nee gale) headwind with no training and only 10 months out of hospital. It gave me something to think about while the rest of the six years drifted aimlessly past

Q. Support from your partner is important for any athlete. But part of your recovery was sneaking out for some rides, without the missus finding out. How is she with it now?

For six long years my trusty old steed remained hanging on the garage wall. I’d even gone to a number of different hardware stores looking for brackets that would attach to brickwork to get the job done.

But after six long years of looking at it hanging there all sad and lonely it was too much. Many times within that six year period my wife would ask “What’s wrong?” and the answer would always be the same: “Bike.” A single word, and yet it conveyed so much for us both: my need to ride it, and her reluctance to let me do so without fear.

In the end it all became too much and I just jumped back onto the bike while the rest of the family was on holidays. By the time they came back the damage had been done. The bike was no longer hanging on the garage wall and I was surely in for some troubled times. But when the good wife saw the damage she simply turned to me, said “Oh” as if in desperation, and that was the last we spoke about it for two years. In those two years I trained hard, made it to A Grade, tended to my young family’s needs, and then broke my collarbone on a pick-a-plank bridge whilst preparing for the 2006 winter road season.

These days her diary revolves around kids parties and my race calendar. My race calendar is given careful consideration, but kids sport/parties come first. This year could be very difficult with it being the first year of the world championships being held in Sydney. There’s going to have to be some give and take in the race program, I can just feel it.

Having said that it was a real pleasure to receive a brand new track bike for my birthday last year from my wife and littluns. Perhaps they see as much in the cycling as I do.

Q. These days, with jobs and families, it’s sometimes hard to make time for a ride. But you manage to race both road and track. Any tips on how to manage that balancing act?

When I found a coach and started out on a structured training regime there wasn’t much time in the day for training. I mapped out my typical day, scrubbing out the times allocated to work, sleep, meals, kids, etc, and found that I could only get the training done in a single block if I completed it between 3:30am and 7:00am. And that’s what I ended up doing for the first 18 months.

In the last 18 months I’ve done a bit more in terms of evening training, and racing, to the point where my children no longer complain when I ring them to say goodnight instead of being there physically. I don’t think that that is an entirely good situation, but I know that the kids are willing to forgive. Once the world championships move offshore again I don’t think there’ll be such latitude.

Q. Anything you’d like to add?

There is a perception that the only people interested in Masters racing are the competitors and (maybe) their families. It’s a troubling theme, but close to the truth.

My problem with it is that Masters riders, with all their experience, have the capability to put on a damn fine show, to be a marketable product, and to be fantastic ambassadors for any age or cycling related sponsor (eg. pensioners’ insurance companies, health care products for over 35’s, pharmaceutical companies, hair care companies, hair removal products, skin care products, sunscreen products, etc.)

Despite that, the Masters concept seems to be fading for no good reason other than people are happy to believe in the false perception that no one is really interested.

Well I’m interested, and over the next three years I’ll be chasing a rainbow jersey. And when I earn one I’ll be the proudest old fart ever to wear one…

See you all at the Worlds.

Postscript:

The World Masters Track Championships are being held at Dunc Gray Velodrome in Sydney in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The World Masters Games is also being held in Sydney in 2009 and will include both road and track events.

My eldest daughter is a determined young trackie too, and already she has a very smooth pedal stroke. Look out world.