Sunday, 21 September 2014

Lamentations of a Failed Racer

I was burrowing through  some junk at my parents house during the week and found an old scrapbook which chronicled some of the exploits of my all too brief cycling career. The highs and lows, races I should have won but didn't and the regret that I never gave myself a chance to reach my full potential came back and gnawed at me like a dog chewing a piece of gristle.

 No matter. Water under the bridge and I am no worse for wear for all the reminiscing and heartache over lost chances. I've enjoyed my life for the most part and been very lucky. May it continue for many years yet! But it is fun to look back on those times which are now blurred yet burnt into my memory and I do find myself hankering to be able to ride that odd handicap final again or take the chance at the end of a road sprint in a certain town when I let a victory slip through my fingers. Yes, I'm sure we all wish we could do certain things again. Alas, time moves on and we move with it. Perhaps it is just as well.

 You may be able to pick me out in the grainy photo above which was published in Wagga Wagga's Daily Advertiser in February 1987. Young, fit and lean. All of sixteen years old and receiving my prize for finishing third in the Wagga Wheelrace final.

 Wagga cycling stalwart Wayne Collingwood who sponsored the event through his affiliation with Kiewa Milk is congratulating the winner, Simon King from Melbourne. The second placegetter, a rather stern and bulldog faced fellow standing defiantly as he melts the camera with a malevolent gape is Jim Burke from Griffith, a man of whom a million stories could be told, most of which are bad! He had ridden out of his skin in that final and almost stolen the victory and caused a huge boilover. He certainly wrecked my night!

 And then there is me. Pimple faced. Self-conscious. A boy mixing it with the men. But that night still rattles me. The 1987 Wagga Wheelrace is an event I should have won!

 I realise not everyone who reads this blog is a cycling fan or understands even the rudimentary details of a handicap track cycling event so some may be shocked to find that a great deal of collusion between competitors occurs in these events. It is of course against the rules and one has to be subtle when executing such maneuvers in a bike race with fellow riders lest the wrath of the officials is brought to bear on you. As if they don't know what is going on!

 I have heard these arrangements which are made prior to an event being run, described as "cheating" by  shocked bystanders who have only recently become acquainted with the complexities of traditional Australian track cycling but it is far from that. Just gentlemanly agreements between like minded competitors which gives you a better chance to squeeze some petrol money out of the particular carnival you are riding.

 These "arrangements" do not occur in every race and certainly not in the heats of prestigious wheelraces where it is every man for himself but once the final fields have been settled, delegations meet and riders who are handicapped on similar marks for a 2000 or 3000 metre wheelrace often come to an agreement to help each other out by working, that is "breaking the wind", for the rider most likely of the unofficially organised team to win. This is called a "joke" and the designated rider is the "pea". There is no other way to win a big track race.

 A joke is most efficient with only a few riders involved as track handicap finals generally have a field limit of a couple of dozen although I have seen jokes executed with eight to ten or more riders in a final which only dilutes the intensity of the event and makes it all very lame. Half a dozen or so small jokes in a final can make a race spectacular. And making it a great race for the paying spectator is surely what it is all about in the end.

 Going back very many foggy years I can tell you that I was the "pea" in a "joke" in the 1987 Wagga Wheelrace Final although I can't for the life of me remember who was riding for me! I rode off a middle mark of about 170 metres, that is 170 metres in front of the best riders in the field who start off "scratch".

 Jim Burke, a tough nut from Griffith was quite an aggressive character although he had always been very pleasant to me due in part no doubt that he had a son of a similar age who raced and the fact my father was both the state handicapper and president of the cycling association. Don't want to go abusing the son of the most powerful person in the immediate vicinity do we?

 Jim had been declared "out" of our joke. That is he had been told he was not needed or wanted and I know it wasn't me who told him that. I would certainly remember it! From all accounts Jim was seething from the snub and obviously had determined in his own mind that he would win the race "one out", or by himself and stuff those who had conspired to chop him out of the prizemoney.

 The old phrase "mad as a meat axe" crosses the mind when remembering anecdotes about Jim Burke and that February night in 1987 he certainly used his famous emotional characteristics to throw a spanner in the works on my part and nearly steal the race.

 I can't remember anything about the race except that I hit the front about 200 metres from home and all but had the wheelrace won. I had won the under 23 sprint title the night before so my form was good and once I had my nose in the wind should have gone on to take the victory.

 For some reason and I know not why, I eased slightly with about 50 metres to go. Perhaps I subconsciously thought I had the race in the bag. It was a fatal mistake. Simon King, a young rider from Melbourne with a very fast finish had proven himself over the course of the season to be in very good form and as I eased he moved around me very swiftly and I was unable to respond given the proximity of the line. An even bigger shock was that Jim Burke, teeth grinding, jaw jutting into the wind and riding well above himself, was attached to Simon's rear wheel like a limpit mine stuck to a battleship and he too overtook me at the vital moment and was able to squeeze me out of second place. An ignominious defeat.

 Jim's tenacity and determination was stoked by being left out of the joke and almost won him the race and made me realise you can never take opponents for granted. The poultry sum for third place did not go far amongst my "team"  when we split the rewards and I daresay there were are few harsh words directed toward the young whippersnapper by some who were expecting a bigger payday for their effort in attempting to guide him to victory.

I never did win the Wagga Wheelrace. I actually was runner-up in 1988 after being part of a joke in which the designated pea was a local who was desperate to take the race. I was in perfect position to overtake him at the death and could have easily done so but honoured my pre-race arrangement and let him have the victory.

 My promising track cycling career fell away after that. Work commitments in the years which followed saw to it that I was unable to train properly for specialized track events and I really raced just to make up the numbers each summer in the years which followed.

 But looking back through old scrapbooks do bring back the memories of those distant days and makes me wonder where the  time has gone. It was great fun and I still have great friends from those days when I was a budding young racer.

 Have a nice day.

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