Monday, August 16, 2010
Heroes and Inspirations
For no particular reason I wanted to post some of the pro cyclists (and bikes) of the 70s and 80s that inspired this little long-haired tyke in the army shirt and the too-short shorts...
...into becoming something loosely approximating a bicycle racer in style if not talent...
...and who eventually became the slightly rotund (but powerfully built) bike repair guy who writes this blog.
I don't race often these days, but when I started out everything about it consumed me; the riders, the bikes, and the preparation occupied every fibre of my being, and the rest of the week was merely a prelude to the race on Sunday mornings. I was egged on by my friends Bruce Stewart and Henry Chlebowicz and the fantastic support from many mates in my beloved PNP club. Special mention there must go to Andy Bray and his wonderful family, who truly opened the doors for me.
Talking of Wellington cycling clubs, here's a wonderful rendering of the local club jerseys that riders proudly wore as they fought for the wins in the early 1980s. Sadly many of these clubs are now consigned to the history books. Thanks to PNP stalwart and junior coach, 2009 SPARC Wellington Regional Volunteer Coach of the Year, and professional graphic designer Gary Gibson for this cool reminder of days gone by.
I was also encouraged in my burgeoning love for bike racing by great older guys like the late Bill Johnson and Alan McLay, the gentleman in the Wainui jersey behind me in the racing shot above. In one of my first races, a rainy Balfour-Pennington race of two circuits of the Pauatahanui Inlet, I crashed on a slippery descent on the first lap and lay on the ground crying and ready to go home. Alan stopped his own race and remonstrated with me to get back on my bike and continue, and I reluctantly did. I have no memory of where I finished, but finish I did and I knew even then that if I had given up then that would probably have been the last time I ever raced. I can't honestly say that crash gave me more character (I still DNFed nearly as many races as I finished!) but the act of simply getting back on my bike kept me racing and helped me realise that crashing every now and then is a part of this great sport, and lucky for that as I sure crashed a few more times as my riding continued!
The copies of International Cycle Sport and Cycling Weekly that I read voraciously in those early days gave tantalising glimpses into a world I wanted very much to be a part of, but knew at heart I wasn't good enough for. The library too was a font of cycling knowledge and, among other tomes, the Guinness Guide of Bicycling was on a constant cycle of lending between me and a few other keeners of the time with it's evocative pictures of the Giants of the Road...
And the beautiful bicycles they rode...
I'm sure my list won't have many surprises for the cycle sport enthusiasts and historians among you, but here in loose historical order are some of the riders that captured my imagination over the years. Click the links if you want further info...
Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi.
The first five-time winner of the Tour de France, Jacques Anquetil.
The first race of my "career" was a handicap race from Miramar Wharf to Seatoun and back in which I finished sixth, winning my first ever bunch sprint. In an eerie parallel the great Eddy Merckx also finished sixth in his first race! After that our palmares diverged slightly (have I done this joke before?), but perhaps due to that synchronicity I've always felt a strong kinship with the Cannibal. His pro career was winding down as my less than pro one was just beginning, but his presence was still keenly felt and to this day he bestrides the sport like a Colossus. Getting the autograph of Merckx was the Holy Grail for me, even though it was actually my friend Fraser who procured it on my behalf. The power of coffee in action.
My love affair with the famed Celeste Bianchi began with pictures of the classy 1973 World Champion Felice Gimondi, who won the Tour de France at his first attempt and in his debut year as a pro.
Check out the cool team photo and the Alfa Romeo! Gimondi is on the right in the colours of Italian Champion and on the left is the 1972 World Champion, Marino Basso.
By 1978 I was fully immersed in the cycling milieu, and I watched with interest from afar (and as much as three months delayed!) as a mighty new force emerged in the sport. Bernard Hinault (known as the Badger for his tenacity) won the Tour at his first attempt, dominating the field with both his legs and his sheer force of personality. Widely regarded as the last great "Patron" of the peloton, he was a tough and uncompromising rider who was capable of winning Grand Tours and one day Classics alike. Here he is close to dropping the rest of the shattered field on his way to a dramatic 10 minute solo victory in the blizzard that enveloped Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 1980.
One of the most sylish riders ever to swing his Belgian knee-warmered leg over a steel top-tube was the great Gypsy of Eeklo, Roger de Vlaeminck,, forever known as Monsieur Paris-Roubaix for his still unmatched four wins in this terrible struggle masquerading as a bicycle race.
The late 70s and early 80s saw one of the most powerful and all-conquering cycling teams of all time in the famed and feared TI Raleigh squad, run with an iron fist by legendary ex-Six Day champion Peter Post. My first two proper racing bikes were in the replica livery of this dominating team; first a 531 version then a magnificent Clem Captein copy custom 753 that I will forever regret selling to Neil Lyster at Bluebird Cycles to pay rent and bills in my dissolute mid-20s.
One of my favourite riders on the TI Raleigh team was burly bespectacled sprinter Jan Raas, the 1979 World Champion.
If you're interested, check out a build I did of a stunning restored example of the Team Raleigh bike.
Twice World Champion ('76 and '81) and at one time regarded as the first "next Eddy Merckx", the wildly mercurial Freddy Maertens fascinated me - I think the wide variance of the results in his turbulent career awakened the first glimmerings of awareness in me that perhaps some of the riders I idolised might not be riding on mineral water alone...on song he sure was a great of the sport.
Italian sprinter/Classics rider turned Giro d'Italia winner Guiseppe Saronni was always great to "watch"...
...but I was always more of a Francesco Moser man, perhaps because I was built more like him and fancied myself as a three-time Paris-Roubaix winner too. These two Italian stallions had a feud that echoed the legendary Bartali/Coppi feud of the 40s and 50s, but still together and apart they eked out some of the great wins of the late 70s and early to mid 80s.
Laurent Fignon won his first Tour in 1983 in the absence of his team leader, the injured Hinault. He won his second Tour the following year by crushing the Badger mano-a-mano, as they were now on opposing squads. The legend goes that when Hinault attacked him on the fabled Alpe d'Huez Fignon laughed out loud as he shut down the Badger's every move. Perhaps it was hubris that brought him down, but he was never to stand on the top step of the Tour podium again...these days M. Fignon is fighting another battle, a battle that sadly many of us will be in some way familiar with; the battle against cancer. I wish him all the best.
Greg LeMond was a phenomenon from the time he first appeared on the radar of world cycling, winning the Junior Worlds in 1979. He went on to become World Champion in 1983 then followed what seemed a natural progression to being the first English speaking winner of the Tour de France in 1986, winning again in the incredible eight second 1989 win over poor Fignon, and finally without a stage win LeMond ground out a final victory in 1990. He was also World Champion for a second time in 1989. His recent years have been dominated by his at times slightly barmy anti-drugs crusade, but he'll always be dear to my heart for helping bring the Tour to New Zealand television via the rabid jingoism of the US networks.
The end of the LeMond era was the start of the Indurain era. Miguel Indurain was an unlikely Tour Champion at first glance; tall, heavy (6' 2" and 80kg) and so placid of nature he was almost bland, he went on to become the fourth man to take 5 Tour wins (after Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault) but the first ever winner of five consecutive Tours. The year he won his first one in 1991 was the year that I came back to cycling from what I call my "Lost Years" where I jobbed about doing not much of anything but brawling, boozing and smoking 60-80 cigarettes a day. Being welcomed back into the fold by Henry and Wheels was a major turning point in my life for which I'll be forever grateful, along also with my gratitude to Patrick Morgan for providing the bulk of the first bike I would have owned for nearly five years.
The rise and eventual Tour and Giro domination by this gentle giant also coincided with NZ getting the half-hour nightly SBS highlights, and watching the Tour the day after the stage was run was a revelation to those of us who cared.
During the flat stages that used to dominate the early week of the Tour we were privileged to be introduced to one of cycling's most flamboyant characters in the stylish shape of the great Mario Cipollini. His powerful straight-line sprints were truly a wonder to behold, even if he never managed to drag himself over the mountains all the way to Paris to collect the green jersey he should have won at least once - I suppose his 2002 World Championship, his Milan-San Remo win, 12 Tour stages and his record 42 Giro stage wins are some small comfort to him in retirement....
While Indurain was going about his soul-crushing business and Cipo was dousing the peloton with Brylcreem a young American upstart was starting to rattle the cage of the Euro-pro scene. I first read about Lance Armstrong in a tattered and grainy newsprint VeloNews when he won the prestigious 1991 Settimana Bergamasca as an amateur. The rest of his career is so well documented I'm not even going to try and precis it, but his magnificent Worlds win in the pouring rain of Oslo, Norway over Indurain himself sealed him as my new favourite rider.
When we heard the news that he had cancer my friends Henry and Margo and I decided to cheer him up with a tribute in photo form, after all who wouldn't feel better after seeing these smiling faces? We casually draped replica Lance jerseys over ourselves and gurned cheesily...
Amazingly we even got a response! Despite being slightly miffed he didn't sign it himself or send us some valuable mementos we were nonetheless delighted to have been acknowledged at all, putting the lack of ink down to the chemo but feeling quite sure our picture was smiling down on him from the wall above his sick bed.
Of course Lance went on to become the greatest Tour de France Champion ever with seven consecutive wins in an amazing and enthralling series from 1999 to 2005, coinciding with (or more likely directly causing) full live TV coverage for us to watch every move live as it happened...
...during that era and since I have enjoyed the performance of many, many riders (and I hope to keep enjoying many, many more) but Lance for me feels like the last time I'm really going to be a fanboy for any of them. The current climate of drug scandal and suspicion make it hard to give your heart to these athletes any more, plus I find myself in recent years being far more inspired by some of the world-class riders (women and men) that have been and are being produced on our fair shores, too many to name but including many I have been privileged enough to ride or work with...
So I'm going to sit back and spectate both here and overseas and continue loving the sport that has dominated and inspired my life for well over thirty years, and keep my hero worship for people who deserve it like my friends and family.
As always, thanks for reading. Cheers, Oli