Phil O'Shea was born in New Zealand in 1889 - his twin brother died at birth. As a child, O'Shea was prone to frequent bouts of quinsy, a disease now better known as peritonsillar abscess, which would cause his throat to swell and become so painful that he couldn't eat and had difficulty breathing. This seems to have stunted his growth - at 17 and although his father was a large man more than 183cm in height, he stood just 167cm tall and weighed less than 54kg.
However, he took up cycling when he was 19 and found it suited him very well - two years later, he had increased his muscle mass so much that he weighed in at almost 71kg and he went on to dominate the cycling scene in New Zealand and Autralia between 1911 and 1923. In the early days, be made up for brawn with sheer determination and a canny ability to read his opponents: when he started the Timaru to Christchurch race in 1909, he was given a 45 minute head start over the rest of the field and yet nobody expected him to finish. What they didn't know was that the young rider had spent much of the time when his childhood illness confined him to bed poring over the sports newspapers and had created an indexed record of races, which over time instilled him with an expert understanding of race tactics that would be the envy of any modern directeur sportif. He didn't just finish the race - he won, despite having to ride with a buckled rear wheel after another entrant rode into his bike while he was stopped at a drinks station enjoying a glass of milk.
Two years later, the race became Christchurch to Timaru because the organisers felt that the people of Timaru had been such good hosts of the start in years gone by that they deserved the opportunity to see the finish. O'Shea was there once again, but during the race a dog ran into the road and got between his wheels, sending him flying. He landed heavily on his head and was covered in cuts and bruises. Yet he got back on his bike and won the race - bleeding all the way.
O'Shea remained a household name for a long time after his career came to an end and by the end of the 1960s there was talk of him becoming recognised as New Zealand's greatest ever athlete. Even today, a century after his peak, he remains well-known in his home country.
Source: Cycling Archives