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By Peter Joffre Nye, Special to VeloNews
Nicholas “Mickey” Francoise, national amateur and professional sprint champion between 1936 and 1940, died July 20 in a hospital in Glen Ridge, N.J., of heart complications. He was 86.
Francoise also raced in the late 1930s in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, where he and Billy Guyatt were popular rivals. In January 1939 Francoise captured the Grand Prix of Melbourne.
A second-generation racer born in 1918 in Montclair, N.J., and trained by his father James, Francoise started racing at age 15 in 1933 as a member of the Bay View Wheelmen on the half-mile dirt horse track in Newark’s Weequahic Park. Young Nicholas, riding on the leather saddle his father had used, won consistently. He acquired his nickname Mickey when a newspaper reporter misheard his name Nicky and dubbed him Mickey.
In 1936, Francoise was a high school senior when he won the National Cycling Association (predecessor to U.S. Professional Racing Organization) national amateur title for junior boys (14 to 16) on the new outdoor board velodrome in Nutley, N.J. The championship was based on points earned in six half-mile contests. Among his rivals was a local rider Cliff Bullivant, great-uncle of future Tour de France Champion Greg LeMond. Another local rival was Oscar Sellinger, whose mother made the first Stars & Stripes national champion jerseys. Francoise was the first junior rider to wear the Stars & Stripes jersey.
Francoise also won the dirt NCA Eastern States junior championship on Weequahic Park track. Despite capturing more races from sprints to 10 miles on board and dirt tracks, his father discouraged him from accepting offers to turn professional. The elder Franoise had competed as an amateur on the Newark outdoor board velodrome and saw Newark’s velodrome and many others disappear during the Great Depression. The Amateur Bicycle League of America, predecessor to the U.S. Cycling Federation, couldn’t afford to organize national championships from 1931 to 1934, and audiences at the few remaining velodromes dwindled.
What piqued Francoise’s interest was staying amateur to compete in the 1940 Olympics, awarded to Tokyo, Japan. Looking for international experience, Francoise traveled in late 1936 at his expense Melbourne, Australia. He received press notice right away by defeating Tas Johnson—a recent Olympic veteran and holder of 25 Australian and Victorian track and road titles, in Johnson’s final match race before turning pro.
Francoise specialized in match races. He was coached by Cecil Walker, an accomplished pro who sponsored the American to ride Cecil Walker bicycles. Then politics intervened. After Japan invaded China, Soviet troops invaded Finland. The Olympics were cancelled.
Francoise turned pro in 1938 and raced the Melbourne Grand Prix on the Exhibition Board Track before 10,000 spectators against his rival Bill Guyatt. Francoise won his match in two straight heats. After more races, Francoise moved to Sydney and won the Sydney Grand Prix.
In 1939, Francoise returned to New Jersey. He won the 1940 NCA national championship, held on the Coney Island, N.Y., velodrome.
When the United States went to war, Francoise entered the Army. He saw action in North Africa and Europe. During the battle of Anzio, Italy, he suffered leg wounds that resulted in nine operations and kept him in the hospital for 18 months.
When he was released from the hospital and discharged in 1945, he resumed cycling as part of his recovery. He improved enough to enter a six-day race three years later in a New York Armory.
Francoise opened a clothing store in Upper Montclair, named Olympic. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Gerlinde, sons James and Nicholas, a daughter Gerlinde, a sister Lois DeFrancesco, and six grandchildren.