The McCormack Brothers.
If you compete in any sport for a length of time there will be some random day when you cross paths with an athlete that instantly reminds you of your place in the world. They possess the raw power, cavernous lungs, silky finesse, and ironclad grit you have only dreamt about. I have witnessed this a few times in my years on the bike and this is a story of one of those encounters.
In the summer of 1984, a muddle of older juniors stood on the infield of Epping Speedway in New Hampshire talking to the head official Grace Jones about the 3km pursuit. This is the closest thing we had to a real track at the time. We were all there for the Mass/RI State track championships and we had an odd number of riders competing in the junior category. Grace asked us if anyone would be willing to ride with a solid looking 14 year old named Frankie. Alan Cote put up his hand and accepted the invitation to ride against the youngster. My teammate Alan is an exceptional climber and a solid Rouleur so we were expecting him to put time on this unknown entity from the Mass Bay Road Club.
I lost my 3km pursuit rather handily to Karl Geotze but we were still placed 1st and 2nd as the last race between Alan and Frankie began.
After a clean start by both riders, Alan was a couple seconds ahead as they reached the end of the first kilometer. Then we watched as Frankie dialed up the pace and the time gap had reversed by the second km. Frankie was riding away and Alan was holding on.
“Come on Alan!! Allez, Allez, Allez!” I yelled as I glanced down at my stopwatch and went, “holy shit!”
I showed the split time to Karl and he followed with another “holy shit!”. We were about to get beaten by this powerful 14-year-old, grey-clad whippet. Frankie blasted thru the last lap and I hit my stopwatch as he crossed the line. I was glad my watch was unofficial because I clocked us in with a nearly identical time. Alan rolled through a few seconds later shaking his head and taking it all in stride. That kid can really go I thought to myself. I held on to 2nd but only by a few tenths.
A couple of weeks later we were all at the Worcester Criterium. Not the classic downtown four-cornered square, but the one time it went up and around the state hospital. As the race wound down I think it was Stuart Orr who made a solid attack and was gone for the win. Going into the bell lap a grey blur flew by on the right in what was obviously a suicidal last-lap move. Everyone looked at each other and there was no reaction at all. I recognized Frankie and thought about that effort on the speedway.
“We have to go get him right now!” I said to Jon Turbitt and
he looked at me like I was crazy.
“No, we have to get him right now. He can hold it!”
We stood up and launched after him and started to close the down the gap. We switched off and I dug even harder but we were running out of road. Jon rolled by me coming out of the last turn at the top of the hill and absolutely crushed it and flew toward the line.
Another rider came passed me fast on the right just before the finish but I was at my limit just hanging on to “Turbo.” We never caught Frankie but you can see how close it was. You can also see that we left the group trailing well behind in this unsuccessful, mad dash to catch him. (William Harting Photo)
Fast forward to one of the first races of the following year. I was warming up for the Senior race and the juniors were on the course. I watched as Frankie opened a 5 second lead and the chasing field was forced into one long serpentining line. He was flying. A couple laps later he was magically joined by a teammate and I wondered out loud who the hell was strong enough to do that. As if he heard me, Dick Ring’s voice boomed over the loud speaker and answered my question. This was obviously accompanied by some of his patented play by play that went something like this.
“Now that Mark McCormack has linked up with his older brother Frankie we are sure to witness a Bahn-burner!”
“Frankie has a brother?? There is another one?? Where the hell did he come from? Oh man, I am so glad I am not a junior anymore. That is going to suck for all the other juniors.” I remember thinking at the time.
I was beyond correct in my assessment. We all watched as this pattern repeated itself in every race that summer. One McCormack would take a flyer, the other would bridge up, and off they would go. That happened in every single race save one. I think Jason Snow was the only junior to break that streak by winning Pawtucket that year. It is also worth mentioning that Frank and Mark never assumed the teenage punk attitude you might expect from two champions that Hollywood loves to portray. They both had a down to earth, humble charm that shifted slightly the instant they swung a leg over a top tube. If you wanted to beat them, they would make you earn it.
Over the next few years, like every bike racer in New England, we watched with homegrown pride as two local kids rocketed onto the pro scene after collecting a few National Championship jerseys and medals along the way. Frankie even won the International Junior Tour of L’Abitibi in Canada. Frankie and Mark also turned out to be “pretty ok” at cyclocross and collected even more Championship medals and jerseys. Fortunately for the local mortals, their national travel schedule meant that they didn’t show up for many races but it was always fun when they were around. Just hanging on to them for a sprint garnered bragging rights for weeks. I will link a couple websites for Frankie and Mark's results here if you want to dig in and learn more. There are some amazing photos of them in their winning ways out there on the “interwebs".
I could also write another article about how Frankie was not selected for the Olympic team. Even after winning all three Olympic qualifier road races. Yeah, you read that right. Three words. Lance Armstrong, Politics. (In the end Lance had a bad day and Pascal Richard won that Olympic gold. Maybe someone who could think for himself would have been a better option,..... But I digress)
A few months ago I was able to chat with Mark and let him know I was planning to do an illustration of he and his brother. I asked him a few questions but my main one was “What was it like to have one of the best riders in the country as a live-in training partner?” He didn’t really have an answer at the time but said he would think about it. I pinged him over text after I finished my latest illustration and asked if he had an answer yet. My phone then began to flood with photos and a web link to a little park in Carver near their house.
"I keep coming back to thinking how fortunate we were to have each other as training partners from our earliest days." Mark wrote as a few more photos popped up.
I was super curious about the old sliver of road and trees. Mark told me that he and Frankie used do their Tuesday Sprint training on this picturesque quarter mile stretch of one of America's first scenic highways. Highway 58 was turned into a park as time and progress paved over the rest.
“I don’t think I ever beat Frankie in all the weekly sprint sessions but the motivation I had to make it a close race definitely pushed us both to our limits every time we sprinted on Tuesday mornings. ” Said Mark.
I could easily picture Frankie making him work for every inch of those sprints. I then asked about the finish photos from the New Bedford Criterium. That year they rode for the new Plymouth/Reebok junior team. When they showed up on their matching Dura Ace equipped blue and white Shogun bikes and complete matching kit they looked like pros already. In McCormack fashion the brothers were off the front and crossed the finish line together holding their arms aloft. Mark slightly ahead to take the win.
“It was a gift.” He said.
Plymouth/Reebok swept the podium that year with John McKinley coming in 3rd and Jon DiPippo in 4th. I watched that race and have a vague memory of John finishing a few seconds clear of the chasing field. Quite a statement of dominance as the New Bedford Criterium was a race everyone wanted to win.
After a couple more questions he added, “I remember the Pawtucket crit we were away in a two man break in the Junior race. We decided to pick a spot on the finish straight and started side by side, just like our Tuesday morning training sessions…Frankie won."
"That's funny." I wrote back.
An image popped into my head of two brothers sprinting elbow to elbow on that little tree-lined stretch of road with the dappled light lacing over the pavement. I could also imagine many “argy bargy*” sessions that only brothers could get away with. The image was so complete in my head my first sketch turned into my final drawing.
I have another personal memory of Mark and Frankie from 1991 that left a huge impression. I drew this black-and-white illustration for a local cycling newspaper the week after the race. The Providence 1/2/Pro criterium had one of the strongest fields I can remember and a few national-level teams had riders in attendance. As the race unfolded a break of 4 forced their way off the front. The break contained a rider from Subaru Montgomery, a rider from Coors Light, Frankie McCormack from IME, and his teammate Paul McCormack (Not his brother but still confusing I know). They were a minute and a half in front of the ever-shrinking field as they started the last lap.
Frankie appeared first out of the last corner and sprinted to the win. Paul punctuated the defeat by sprinting around the other two in the final meters to take second. I was sure that Frankie launched another “Long Range” attack on the backstretch and their competitors hesitated just long enough to play right into IME’s hands. It was a thing of beauty to watch and I knew all too well how the vanquished felt.
In any sport, it isn’t often that you get to say you were there to see the appearance of one star, let alone two. Beyond that, the brothers managed to keep each other on an incredibly arduous and perilous path. A journey that has proved too much for so many others who showed similar early promise.
I am sure Bill Sykes had a hand in that too. He was the director of MBRC and Plymouth Reebok teams and created an amazing template for what a junior program could look like. I can see that same level of professionalism and drive carried forward all these years later by Toby Stanton and his next-level Hot Tubes Development team. Both Mark and Frankie rode his cyclocross bike over the years. You would be right if you guessed I will be doing a post and illustration about Toby and his team in the near future.
Thank you for the inspiration Mark and Frankie.
Argy-bargy: jostling and banging for position during a sprint. AKA “banging handlebars” or “banging elbows”
Extra reading. A great comment from Peter Vollers that certainly rounds out my impression of Frank and Mark.
Frank and Mark McCormack are probably the two most unsung heroes of the modern era of US bike racing. Although I had raced against Frankie and Mark numerous times prior, I had never trained with them. I'll never forget the first day of our 1991 IME/Bolla team spring training camp in FL. It was just the three of us as the other team members had not arrived yet. I had been training well all winter and felt pretty fit for Jan/Feb. Towards the middle of the ride, Frankie suggested we do some "pursuit intervals" for intensity training. Never done those before. The idea is one rider takes off and the other two wait about 30 seconds and then set off chasing. Once the first rider is caught, another rider attacks and the first rider recovers a bit and then chases with the third rider and so on. Seemed pretty simple. Mark attacked first and Frankie and I waited the 30 seconds and then Frankie jumped to begin the chase. I can honestly say that despite by that time having been a member of the '85 Junior Worlds TTT team, the '89 Collegiate National Champion largely won by having solo TT'd the last half of the criterium and having placed top 5 at Jr. Pursuit nats on the track, I had honestly never witnessed such incredible power and finesse on a bike while training. Frankie could just float on the pedals stroking it along at 30 mph. I couldn't even begin to take a pull and I eventually just got dropped and the whole exercise unraveled after the first chase. A belittling yet inspiring experience all in one. Many people think it was just their talent that made them so successful, but they were honestly the smartest riders I'd ever come across, both in training and certainly in racing. As a rider who had to rely mostly on tactics to be successful, I was acutely aware of this and did my best to learn from them every chance I had. I often find myself saying this at this stage in my life, but what an incredible honor it was to be racing with riders like this at that time in US cycling history. Thx, Bill Cass, for bringing back some great memories.