Legendary Adventure Cyclist Dervla Murphy Dies at 90

Pioneering endurance cyclist Dervla Murphy has made her final trip. The only known woman to successfully cycle from Dunkirk, U.K., to Delhi, India, died this month at age 90.

Murphy grew to love cycling in Lismore, Ireland, where she grew up. The story goes that she got a second-hand men’s pushbike and an atlas for her 10th birthday. Soon, the 10-year-old made a connection between the two that would become her life’s work. If her legs kept pushing the pedals down to turn the bike’s wheels, she’d keep covering ground — all the way to India, for instance.

Soon, Murphy did precisely that. She first made international headlines in 1963 when she pedaled into Delhi after a ride that covered over 7,500km. The 32-year-old soon chronicled the adventure in Full Tilt, which became her best-known book.

 

Dunkirk to Delhi

It’s impressive enough to imagine Murphy’s sheer physical task on her spirited ride. Even with modern cycling technology, the distance and terrain are staggering. But the more significant obstacle she overcame must have been the challenge of doing it as a woman in a relatively prehistoric gender rights climate.

In 1963, women in Ireland had possessed the right to vote for four decades. But Murphy’s ride took her through Afghanistan, where women still couldn’t vote at the time — and experienced other well-documented social restrictions. Dervla also withstood the unique threats women still encounter while traveling alone.

She lit out for the six-month trip with only her bike (nicknamed Roz), a change of clothes, a dozen pens, and a pistol. She returned with the story of a lifetime and permanent status as a cycling legend.

Dervla Murphy in the 1950s

Murphy in the 1950s, in Barcelona. Photo: Wiki Commons

Dervla Murphy: ‘Fearless’

She developed an attitude she called “fearless” — and even qualified what she meant by the word.

“If you’re fearless, you don’t need courage. It’s only if you’re fearful that you need courage to overcome your fears,” Murphy said in a 2021 interview.

Those acquainted with her described her with an affection approaching reverence.

Dervla Murphy at home in Ireland

Murphy at home in Lismore, Ireland. Photo: courtesy of The National

 

“She is unique, an incredibly precious witness to the world who is also tough, brilliant, forthright, honest,” said Barnaby Rogerson, her London-based publisher. “[She] will no doubt in future ages be saluted as a humanist prophet.”

Murphy endured poor health in her final years, including osteoarthritis, hepatitis, and an immobilizing heart condition. As late as 2020, she still lived in the same Lismore home where she grew up.