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Spears, Robert Adam (1893–1950)

by M. P. Sharp

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Robert Adam Spears (1893-1950), professional cyclist, was born on 8 August 1893 at Dubbo, New South Wales, second surviving son of John Spears, bricklayer, and his wife Sarah Ann, née McLaughlin, both Irish born. He won his first race at Dubbo at the age of 14 and in 1910 competed in South Australia and Queensland. That season he won the New South Wales half-mile and mile titles and next year the 5-mile (8 km) Australian championship. Early in 1913 some 25,000 spectators at the Exhibition Ground in Melbourne saw Spears win the final leg of a six-day race and receive his share of the gross gate-takings of about £1000. Relaxing in a hot vinegar bath after his victory, the 6 ft. (183 cm) tall Spears told reporters that he had weighed 12 st. (76 kg) before the race and lost only 7 lb. (3 kg) during the event.

Later that year Spears went to New Jersey, United States of America, where he won the Vailsburg 5-mile championship. In 1914 he took the 3-mile American national championship. He remained in the United States throughout World War I and in 1916 married Marguerite Laggy (d.1970), a champion figure-skater from Vailsburg, Newark. Spears won twenty-seven races in 1918 and became American all-round champion. Often appearing in a hopeless position 150 yards (137 m) from the end, he used his tremendous finish to win by the barest of margins. With broad shoulders and a distinctive cycling style, 'Bob sat on the [specially-made] bicycle … his seat several inches behind the centre bracket [and] … his long arms pushed against the handlebars like props'.

After the war Spears toured Europe; he won nineteen races in 1919 and was recognized as the world's best sprinter. Having visited Australia, he began the 1920 European season by taking the coveted 2000-metre Grand Prix de Paris and went on to win the world sprint championship at Antwerp, Belgium. His European successes included the grand prix of Copenhagen, Milan, Paris and Bordeaux (three times each), of Dresden, Amsterdam and the Municipal Towns in France (twice each), and of Leipzig, Turin and Lisbon (once each). Americans claimed Spears as their own: in 1923 doubts over his nationality almost led to his omission from the world championships, but he was eventually allowed to compete as an Australian.

He returned home for a series of international matches in 1924. Although initially overweight, Spears beat the American Willie Spencer and fellow Australian Harris Horder. The Victorian Cyclists' Union boycotted the series in protest at 'the meagre prize money offered for handicap races' compared with the appearance money paid to the 'imported riders'.

Continuing to race in Europe and Australia for the remainder of the decade, Spears never reproduced his earlier form. A heavy drinker even at his peak, he attempted a comeback in Sydney in 1932, but was by then 'only a glimpse of his former self'. When he retired from racing he became track manager at the Sydney Sports Arena, Cleveland Street, the State's only indoor velodrome. While visiting Europe, he died of cancer on 5 July 1950 in Paris.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Grivell, Australian Cycling in the Golden Days (Adel, 1954)
  • 100 Famous Australian Lives (Syd, 1969)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Mar 1913, 6 Nov 1914, 12 July 1921, 10 Aug 1923, 14, 20 Feb 1924, 23 Oct 1928
  • private information.

Citation details

M. P. Sharp, 'Spears, Robert Adam (1893–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spears-robert-adam-8597/text15013, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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