I picked The Unknown up in the paper, might have been a hundred bucks. It was sticker free, the owner had no idea what it was. It was steel and about the right size, that was all that mattered at the time.
I don’t know why I didn’t petition my parents to buy me an actual decent racing bike - by this stage it would have been justified. I suspect I was becoming a bit arsey and contrary at this point - why be beholden in favours to my parents? Where would that get me? Nowhere. I was beginning to be obsessed with making my own way in the world - typical only-child divorced kid behaviour I guess. If that meant that the bike I would ride was the club joke, then so be it.
The Unknown was various colours, mostly a disgusting puce. The paint was old and chipped, the geometry a bit old-fashioned, so I suspect it was a racing bike from the late seventies. I immediately stripped all the parts off it, put all my stuff on it including _The Wheels_and started riding it.
It kinda proved my point that the frame doesn’t matter that much as long as the wheels are good. My results stayed exactly the same.
Actually they got even better. I was sixteen now, I had served my apprenticeship and, as this was my final year as a ‘colt’ I was among the oldest and strongest in my age group. I was confusing statistic likelihoods with personal merit, but such ideas were way over my head at the time, I just liked being near the front most of the time.
At this point I had managed to recruit my very good friend Dan into the cycling fold. Dan was a total natural on a bike and was beating me within a month of starting to ride properly. He was an excellent climber and had that useful body type - long and lean - that makes good athletes. We’ll meet Dan again in a few years time, at this time time he joined PNP and started riding races with me.
Dan was part of a core of guys I hung out with at school. We were all in the same class and hung out together all the time. Dan, Greg, Danny, Peter… I imagine we were a bit exclusive, but we had a lot of fun. We weren’t geeky like the Dungeons and Dragons brigade (who, to be fair, were very bright and all went on to do interesting things in technology and science) but we were a witty bunch. The others had a real outdoor focus so I was always being dragged out on tramping trips.
We would go tramping in the Tararuas, carry in truck tire tubes and wetsuits and float out, that kind of thing, all without adult supervision, badges, levels or any of that kind of rubbish. It was terrific and, despite the occasional bad decision which thankfully cost no one their lives, we were safe. Having been toughened up on cycling the physical demands were easy. It was all completely analog - no phones, just maps and compasses and lots and lots of wool - lightweight gear was still a dream in someone’s head and the Tararuas were still the domain of possom hunters in Swandris. Tramping there is pretty simple - you are either on an exposed ridge, in a quiet, wet valley, or on a two-hour ascent or descent from one to the other. By benefit of not being a one of the featured NZ parks it is also dead quiet. I remember a five day walk Dan and I did once - we saw maybe four people. Magic.
Dan and I even did the Tongariro crossing (with an ascent of Ngarahoe) in a day, running in our tramping boots - an early version of what gets called adventure racing these days. Gregg went on to create several adventure races. All good fun, and looking back I am amazed at how fit we were and how much activity we packed in.
Back in the cycling world I would pick him up in Mum’s car (a fantastically ridiculous bright orange Datsun 120y) and we would drive out to a race. In those days you could get a full driving license with one test the day after you turned fifteen (cue a high level of rural road deaths).
The thing that Dan and I bought to our racing at this point was a good dose of teenage ‘awareness of absurdity’. That is we found quite a lot of suddenly very funny. Everyone’s so effing serious. We would ride races together, and, at the same time, have a good laugh.
Somehow being on a rubbish bike made things even more fun. Riding in groups with expensive immaculate bikes while riding something that looked like it was put together in a couple of minutes and was clearly out of date was hugely entertaining. It was like racing against Ferraris in a battered old Escort and winning.
This is why the comedy was divine - we could laugh, give the flash guys the finger and win - all at the same time.
It was on this bike that I won my only two medals. Half way through the season the region had a round of races where riders from clubs that didn’t normally race together could compare themselves before the end of year regional championships - they were called the ‘Halfway-Centres’. That year it was held in the Nelson area, so after a quick flight in the morning we had a ten mile time trial in the afternoon. I can’t remember the time I did, but I remember a fast tail-wind out and a furious stomp into a bad headwind on the way back, so the time wouldn’t have been great. But I did get second, which surprised me. Antosh (see below) was first from memory.
The next day I somehow read the race perfectly, timed my sprint just right, and won it by a matter of inches from a guy called Darien Rush. His Linkedin profile says: ‘Former NZ & Oceania Elite Road Cycling Champion, Olympic & Commonwealth Games Squad Member’.
If the course had been two feet longer he would have won it, but I wasn’t complaining.
So - two medals, silver and gold, both on a the anti-snob bike, a bike that shamed everything around it and absorbed light. Being naturally skeptical of my own abilities I would say I was lucky but then you don’t do well in a time trial by luck. I must have been right on form.
Of course it’s nice to win, but the problem with that is that people start to want you to take things seriously. And this was not a time of my life to start doing that.
Well, not sport at least. As I have said somewhere above kiwis take their sports, even their obscure sports like cycling, very seriously. I didn’t quite know it yet but that laugh I was sharing with Dan would soon turn into a full-on anti-sport rebellion.
I was sixteen and suddenly aware there was a world beyond Miramar and Wellington High School. How did I know about it? The newspapers were no good and magazines took three months on a boat to reach us and were too expensive to actually buy. So I got to know a version of the outside world through… novels.
My friends with older siblings started passing round the kind of books that a group of clever arsey boys might like - Catch 22, World According to Garp, that kind of stuff. I loved this style of American writing, the pure energy, the language jumping off the page.
But left to my own devices I read Euro fiction: cool, intense writing from Hesse, Grass, Mann, Camus. I’d been visiting Silvio’s bookshop on Cuba St where you could buy a tatty, discarded novel from the Penguin modern classic series for a dollar a throw. I stacked them up by my bed and retreated there in the evening, and read late into the night, avoiding my curdling father downstairs.
What have cheap paperbacks got to do with cycling? Nothing. And that was the point. Up to this stage in my life I had wanted to be that thing that seemed obvious that a clever kid should be - a scientist. I had a bent for Astronomy and even at twelve I was going to lectures up at the Carter Observatory on it. I think there was the boys natural curiosity there - where am I in the universe? But also there were decent, big ideas in Astronomy. Black holes. Concepts that made your head bigger on the inside.
I was beginning to need that. Something more. I was beginning to notice art and girls and clothes and girls and how my hair was cut and girls.
Cycling was not a cultural phenomenon in its own right back then. There was none of the hipster cultism, the MAMIL networking, the post-ride espresso culture. It was just riding a bike, as fast as you possibly could until the finish line meant the hurt could stop.
I was an above average rider, but I was never going to be great. How do I know this? Well let me introduce to the real thing, a guy called Antosh.
Antosh was a cousin of Henry’s and he was a total natural. Absolutely gifted. He was naturally lean but somewhere in there was an engine and a resolve that never gave up. I remember him leaping off the front in a race up the coast and getting 50 metres on four or five of us. Four or five riders is about the perfect size group for pulling in a lone rider - it should take anywhere between one minute and five to pull back 50 metres. We got him back to 5 metres, and then the others kinda assumed he would give up and slip back to us, which would have been the sensible thing to do, to conserve his energy. Nope, he just kept going. I remember rallying the others to go again and then winching him back, seemingly a centimetre at a time, until finally he was back in the fold. If you gave him an inch he would take a hundred yards and keep it until the end.
That was what talent looked like. He had what the top riders have, a brutalising strength coupled with a deep but very well controlled aggression. He probably didn’t realise that he had the ace up his sleeve though - a mind that was an ally. If you have a mind that is more than usually prone to bad thoughts, feeling of self-doubt and the like you are going to find it harder to push yourself physically.
Antosh is still a pretty awesome cyclist, and although club supremo Alan Rice always said he could take it to the top if he wanted he must have never wanted enough. He lives in Melbourne and runs a bikefit business, and for many years he was a regular local face, wrenching bikes in Wellington shops, decimating training rides and dominating local races.
People who are good at sports have a blend of ambition, aggression, the right genes, kinaesthetic talent and the ability to treat training as a serious pursuit. The good ones study training, they set goals, train for them, analyse. I am guilty of being someone who just rides my bike.
The truth is I was not - nor am I now - mentally suited to enduring pain. That is to say I find it difficult to put my mind outside the pain. I am too neurotic, not steady enough, too flaky, hot and cold. Good athletes find a way of shutting out or moving outside of pain, and that requires mental toughness, a single mindedness, that was beyond me.
So there I was, being confronted with my own physical limits by the superior Antosh, having my mind blown up in a series of terrific books, and was beginning to see sport as a contradictory thing, sometimes humorous and divine but more often than not a paradoxically pointless waste of time.
These things were not pointing to a career at the highest end of cycling! Not that I had ever deluded myself into thinking I was going to win the Tour de France - and maybe that was the marker; if I had dreamed about winning the Tour de France then that ambition might have taken me somewhere. As it was I had stumbled onto a moment of success as indicated by two pieces of rapidly tarnishing metal - one silverish, the other one a bit goldy. Did I know it would be the highlight of my sporting life at the time? Nope. Am I still just a little bit proud of winning that day? Yep.
But with my two medals freshly won, my cycling club no doubt a bit humiliated by the state of my bicycle, decided to do something about it and they chose to help me out by being the first recipient of the club Alan. Or, as we knew it, the dead man’s bike.
Next: Interlude: On Suffering