To understand why returning to elite level cycling was so important to me, I think it is necessary to share a story.
It is funny, but I cannot remember a time when I could not ride a bicycle. I have very few photos of when I was a small kid, as money was scarce growing up and my parents were more focused on getting food on the table than spending money at the photo lab. But I do have a crumply white bordered picture from when I was maybe 3 years old, sitting on a rusty metal three-wheeler. I have very red hair, fair skin, loads of freckles and a beaming crooked-tooth smile.
A bike was an essential childhood tool for a kid growing up in a small country town in the country Australia. There were miles of trails and jumps in the bush that ran along the muddy Goulburn and Broken rivers that meandered past Shepparton. In the summer we would ride our bikes to our favourite swimming spots, or go fresh water crayfish catching in the irrigation channels that criss-crossed the orchards on the outskirts of town.
In the mid 1970s we all had dragsters, and then I got a second-hand BMX for my 9th birthday. The arrival of BMX was a life changer for me as I finally discovered a sport that I enjoyed and was reasonably good at. As a scrawny little kid, I was really not cut out for Aussie Rules football, which is a violent cross-between of rugby and judo. And I found cricket, which is basically like baseball on valium, unbelievably boring.
So I joined the Shepparton BMX Club which had its track at the back of the Twilight Drive-In Movie Theatre on the outskirts of town, and I would race there every Saturday morning. My training involved doing a newspaper delivery round for an hour every night after School, and racing around the bush with my mates.
When I was 12 I decided to have a go at track racing. My brother Robbie had messed around on the track, and I was good friends with a kid named Paul O’Brien who’s big brother Shaun was a talented cyclist who raced at the State and National level, and eventually went on to become an Olympic medallist. There was a cycling club in Shepparton, and the club had constructed an Olympic standard concrete velodrome – quite an undertaking in a town of just 14,000 people in which bike racing was considered a bit of an oddity. I remember going along to watch Shaun race, and I was captivated by the speed and excitement of the banked piste.
My fascination with the track soon turned into a passion for road cycling, and my bedroom became like a shrine to the Tour de France, with posters of my heroes Phil Anderson, Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond and Miguel Indurain. One of my club mate’s Dad was an ex-professional cyclist, and their family had a VCR. I remember racing to his house whenever a Video of the Tour arrived, and watching my first Belgian classic and Paris-Roubaix. All that I dreamed about was becoming a professional cyclist in Europe, and I started to train harder and harder.
By the time I was sixteen years old I had qualified to race the Australian National Championships in Launceston, Tasmania. On the way to Launceston I had achieved high-level results at the provincial and State championship level, and had discovered my ability as a punchy climber. At just 168cm tall and around 62kgs, I was built to go fast when gravity kicked-in. It was difficult for me to always do well – most of the junior-level racing in Australia was on flat terrain that favoured bigger kids. But the state selectors saw my potential.
I never forget being woken up by my Dad at 5am the morning that the State junior team for the Australian National Championships was announced. In those days, the team lists were released in the Sun newspaper, and my dad had waited at the newsagent all night for the papers to make the journey up from the printing presses in Melbourne.
My father was so proud that I had made the team, and we both knew that this was a huge step towards a possible place at the Australian Institute of Sport, and my dream of racing in Europe. In the end, the National Championships were an anti-climax – I fell terribly ill with a virus a few days before, and barely made the top ten. But I knew that I had the ability to race with the best in Australia.
Then, my family’s world began to unravel. My Dad had always been a troubled person, battling alcoholism and a complex personality. But by 1987, the same year that I qualified for the Nationals, he had been suffering from worsening bouts of depression. This manifested itself in full-blown bi-polar disorder, and during 1988 he stopped working and was institutionalized.
My Dad’s mental decline was devastating for my mother, and also hit my 14 year-old brother very hard. Relations between my parents and several of my other brothers and sisters were strained, so I felt a huge responsibility on my shoulders – not just to support my mother and little brother emotionally, but also to contribute to the family financially through working part time.
At the same time that my Father’s illness was worsening, I was also entering my final year of High School. I was an intelligent kid, and had always done well at School. I had never found it difficult to balance my schoolwork and cycling, but with Dad’s illness and the added burden of needing to increase my part-time working to help Mum financially, something had to give.
With my Dad in and out of psychiatric hospital there was no money for us to travel, and I had to rely on friends to get to races. It was a struggle to buy racing-quality equipment, and I remember being laughed at on the start line of more than one race for my cheap balloon like tubular tyres. I became an expert on bike maintenance, wheel truing and puncture repair.
The second half of the 1988 road season was a disaster for me, and I will never forget the moment I was dropped by the lead group in the State Championships. Twelve months before I was the one attacking on the climbs, and now I was being left behind. My Mum and little brother were waiting at the car after the race, and we drove the 150 kms home in silence.
A couple of months after the State Championships I sat my High School finishing exams, and remarkably did very well. In fact, I did so well that I was offered a place to study an undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne, as well as a state-funded scholarship for the underprivileged.
Everyone around me was so happy with my academic achievement – my family, our neighbours and friends, my teachers and even the people at the supermarket where I worked. My brother and sister who lived in Melbourne offered for me to live with them for the first year, as the scholarship was not enough to pay for university housing. I would also have to continue part-time working to get through.
Of all of the hundreds of kids on the housing estate where I had grown up, only a handful had gone on to tertiary education, and now I had the opportunity to join that privileged few. But for the previous six years – for more than a third of my life – all I had dreamed about was racing my bike in Europe. And it was not just a dream – I really believed that I had the engine and the self-discipline to make it as a professional. Now my dreams were crashing up against cold reality – my father’s illness, economic necessity and social expectations.
I was not yet 18 years old, and I had to make a choice.