A strange question to start an epic ride story with? Not really.
A friend and I had a strange motivation technique when we raced. We were teenagers so some of what we did lacked any sound logic. It may sound strange but our motivation technique was faith. Absolute faith in our performance on the bike.
Names have not been changed to protect the innocent because there are no innocent parties in this tale. And the man starring alongside the author didn’t make it out alive. Robbie succumbed to his love of the bike on August 9th, 1991. If you want proof of the need for helmets, send your stupid helmet-less friends to me for a motivational talk. Robbie was to be the best man at my wedding. As a junior he was a state medallist on the road and a state champion on the track. He was the best bike handler I have ever met. This was in the days before compulsory helmets and as with most of us, if he was training alone he didn’t wear a helmet. One afternoon he lost his balance trackstanding at a set of traffic lights, fell and hit his head. He cut his ride short because of a headache. A week later he was dead from the undiagnosed bleeding inside his skull. The photo below showing him in full flight sits on my desk.
Rewind several years. Through autumn and winter there was an open road race somewhere in the state every weekend. And in spring and summer it was the same deal on the track. And we were at all of them. From 1985 to 1988 Robbie and I travelled to all of our races together. We alternated cars and shared expenses, but like many teenagers we were poorly organised.
On payday I would pay my board, give back any money I had borrowed leading up to payday. Buy any bits and pieces that the bikes needed and… well that was it. Normally about that point in the process the money dried up. It wasn’t unusual for us to be using the coin jar for petrol money to go racing.
How does faith play a part in this? We were both quite good performers on the bike and it came to our notice that one or the other of us won something most weekends. We discussed this and it became a way of avoiding the stress of finding petrol and food money for going racing. We would fuel the car for the outward journey and put ourselves in the hands of our racing skills for funds for the return trip. This was always more of an issue on the second weekend of my fortnightly pay period.
One such weekend in early August there were actually 2 races within striking distance. Home and the 2 races formed a tidy triangle on the map roughly 250km (155mi) on a side. My car was good for about 600km (370mi) on a full tank, so we used all but $20 to put in half a tank and set off. We packed some (very little) food and the $20 would be used for rations or fuel depending on what we needed most.
We set out Saturday morning from home on the Sunshine Coast for the first race near the Gold Coast. A hinterland out and back road race with a fair amount of climbing which didn’t suit my sprinters physique. But hey, I had Robbie on my squad and he was a greyhound – to look at and to try and keep up with. Unfortunately for us and our grand plan Robbie punctured about 5km (3mi) from the finish and never got back to the bunch. I performed as expected.
After that disappointing outcome we packed up our mess and drove to the venue of the next days race, a criterium in Toowoomba. We stopped along the way, putting $10 in tank and eating the other $10. We forgot that the Sunday race was on the top of a range and being winter, the temperatures would be a bit low. We pulled the bikes out of the car about 8pm and rode 6 or 8 laps of the course to get a feel for the corners and bumps and to measure back from the finish line to know when to make THE move. We got moved on by the police for riding without lights.
Time to pack up again. We drove out of town to a roadside rest area and settled in for the night, using the blankets that usually separated the bikes to keep ourselves warm (sort of).
The sun came up late and lame. We were very achy from sleeping in a little 4 cylinder Datsun in the cold so we headed back to the course. Our absolute final option for getting home if we didn’t pull any prize money was to borrow from a club mate and play the cash merry-go-round on pay day. Sadly, there had been some rain over the previous week and the road that ran from home directly to the Sunday race was cut. We would be going home the long way and apparently no-one from our club was coming to the event for us to scrounge from.
Hunger was our friend. We rolled the course for half an hour in the daylight and then went for a couple of hours out on the highway while the ladies, youngsters and lower grades raced. The course was almost exactly 1 kilometre (0.6mi) with a gentle downhill and slight left curve to the finish. 45 laps of pure pain coming right up.
The race paid down to 8th with a field of 60. Robbie and I were planning on hitting out from about lap 30 one after another until one or the other of us were up the road in a group of 8 or less. A guarantee of prize money (read food and fuel money). We both punctured on lap 7. I love criteriums with their lap out for mechanical problems rule. Roll around to the start/finish area, change wheels and wait for the bunch. No chasing. Perfect.
We were both feeling great and talked through the plan while we lapped away the first 40 minutes. Everything was set for a big cash day hopefully. As we passed the finish line with 15 to go Robbie attacked. A couple of people followed but the bunch didn’t show much interest. As they moved further ahead another rider jumped over to them. The bunch woke up after about 5 laps when the break had over half a lap. I was sitting comfortably in about 8th or 10th wheel staying away from the front to preserve my legs. When it looked like the break would come back I started rolling through and breaking up the rhythm a little. It didn’t work and they were caught.
As the break got swallowed with 7 to go a member of our national development squad counter-attacked. I followed and as we crossed the line with 6 to go the announcer called that a couple of spectators had put a $100 prime on the next lap. That lap was crazy with the bunch trying to get us back. And it was all elbows, knees and headbutts on my piece of road. And $100 in the bank. The pressure was off for the finish. We could eat and refuel the car.
I sat up to go back to the bunch who were only about 50 metres back with 5 to go. As the bunch picked me up Robbie grinned. Then he… didn’t attack. I rolled back up alongside him and asked what was going on. He grinned again and asked “How’s your legs?” “I’ll finish hard.” “OK, I’m going with 2 to go, you’re with Glen and John.” While I was up the road he had built us a team. We had my $100, but for the finish money we were in profit share with 2 lead-out men, half of the state team pursuit team no less.
4 to go. Attacks were going all over the place. And our pursuiters were grinding on the front, just dragging it all back.
3 to go. Most of the serious attacks were over. A couple of solo hopefuls were having a stab. As the bunch hit the last corner of lap 3 Robbie was in 3rd wheel. And then he was gone. 10 metres. 20 metres. 30 metres. The bunch was confused. Our hard chasers were sitting up. A couple of guys started hammering at the front but they were badly isolated with the 2 pursuiters behind them not helping and me in 5th.
We took the bell in that configuration and swept through the next corner smoothly at about 45kph (28mph). As we hit the third last corner the pursuiters surged and we ran the back straight at 55kph (34mph). For me, everything was in slow motion, the zone. I was sitting tight up behind Glen with John pulling hard. As we hit the second last corner John peeled off and Glen accelerated through the corner. I checked my gear for the sprint and my computer was registering 58kph (36mph) in the short straight before the last corner.
As we hit the last corner I checked where Robbie was. I didn’t want to go too early and drag anyone past him, but he was still about 80 metres away with only 350 to go. I stayed behind Glen a little longer and he seemed to still be accelerating. I glanced at the cluster one last time and then the computer. 61kph (38mph).
With a slight left curve to the finish, at the exact moment that I got out of my seat to go, Glen eased to the right about 10 inches. Perfect. 200 to go and I was out of my seat. I heard someone swear and looked over my right shoulder to see Glen belting someone in the shoulder with his head. The bunch was spread out across the road but they all seemed to be moving backwards. Check forward. Check back. Check forward. Robbie was almost home. As he raised his hands for the win, so did I. Half a length behind him. Matching jerseys, matching salutes and somehow nobody managed to get a photo.
Somewhere along the finishing straight my computer had collected a maximum of 74kph (46mph). We gave half the finish line money to John and Glen, $400. Glen held on for 6th and added $60 to his pot. Robbie and I had $500 with the prime money included. Our faith was repaid.
We packed the bikes in the car for the 4th time that weekend and headed to Sizzler. For an overdue breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner. Followed by the 350km (217mi) drive home.