John S. Phillips Sr., 90, competitor in bike races for more than 70 years

September 08, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John S. Phillips Sr., who competed in bicycle races for more than 70 years, died of bladder cancer Monday at his home in the Loch Raven section of Baltimore County. He was 90.

Mr. Phillips, who was born and raised in Highlandtown, didn't learn how to ride a bike until he was 14.

"His father had died, and he did a lot of odd jobs like delivering coal and ice to help support his family and couldn't afford to buy a bike," said his wife of 57 years, the former Zazella "Zay" Bussard.

"One day in 1925 he was standing on the Erdman Avenue bridge watching trains when a family friend gave him a bike, and he won his first race that year," she said.

He began to seriously compete locally on wooden tracks and in six-day marathon races aboard fixed-gear bikes, winning many trophies and medals.

After he graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 1929, Mr. Phillips competed in races at Patterson Park and Lake Montebello, and rode cross-country to test bicycle parts.

In the 1930s, he was named an alternate rider to the U.S. Olympic cycling team.

In 1934, he appeared in the First National motion picture The Six-Day Bike Rider, which starred comedian Joe E. Brown.

During World War II, he worked building airplanes at the Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, and after the war worked as a warehouseman for the Seagram's Distilling Co. in Dundalk. Until retiring in 1975, he drove a truck for 17 years for the Mudge Paper Co.

All the while, Mr. Phillips made competitive bicycle racing a family event.

"After working all day, he'd come home, change clothes and then we'd all ride from Dundalk to Clifton Park, where he trained for an hour," Mrs. Phillips said.

"Then we'd ride back home, making it roughly a 30-mile round trip," said Mrs. Phillips, who took up the sport after marrying Mr. Phillips. The couple's two sons also rode.

"I was 22 years old when he first taught me how to ride a bike," said Mrs. Phillips, who was a Maryland women's state cycling champion for 14 straight years, beginning in 1947.

Mr. Phillips also competed in national time trials and in races of 20, 30 or 100 miles, often riding either his Paris Sport or Pro Miyata racing bicycle.

"We'd pack up the blue Chevy station wagon with the bikes and take off," said son Robert E. Phillips of Parkville, a 13-time national U.S. Cycling Federation champion.

"We went all over the country racing on roads, grass and dirt tracks and at automobile raceways," said Mrs. Phillips.

He was 84 when he earned the silver medal at the Master's National Championship in Nashville, Tenn., in a tandem time trial he rode with his son, who is also known as Bobby "The Bullet" Phillips.

"His whole life was cycling, and all he wanted to do was race. He just loved the sport," said Joseph E. Fischer, a fellow bicyclist and friend since 1946.

Mr. Phillips won many Bicycle League of America national championships in his age category, Mr. Fischer said, and also helped found the Chesapeake Wheelmen, a Baltimore-area racing club.

Mr. Fischer described him as a "powerful rider" who "sat back in the pack and at the end of a race came on like a sprinter."

"Bike racing is also a head game, and he always used that sprint-like speed at the end of a race to win," said his son.

Though he last raced in 1985, Mr. Phillips continued to ride until several years ago, when his eyesight and hearing began to fail.

Mr. Phillips was also an accomplished big-band drummer, playing for years with the Bill Conrad Band and the Hi-Tones. In addition to playing at weddings, society events and private parties, he also played aboard Chesapeake Bay excursion steamers and cruise ships to Bermuda.

Services were held Saturday.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Phillips' survivors include three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Another son, John S. Phillips Jr., died last month.

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