Road Cycling

Pez Bookshelf: Wheel Life 2 – PezCycling News

The Commonwealth of Nations, currently 56 countries that were primarily once colonies of the British Empire, have been a varied lot in terms of sporting prowess. Canada is Hockey Country, South Africa has produced great runners, New Zealand mountaineers, and Australia loves its football. But Australia has, over the years, been characterized by a lively cycling culture. In addition to its unique domestic scene, the Lucky Country has done well internationally since the first Aussies went to the Tour de France in 1914. “Wheel Life 2” is a fascinating look at Australian cycling in the 1970s and 1980s, as it was poised for success.

Cadel Evans’ overall winning of the Tour de France in 2011 and Jai Hindley’s victory at the Giro this year have been built on years of effort by Australians. The country’s isolation from mainstream European racing meant that enthusiasts had to find their own way and “Wheel Life 2” is the reminiscences of the riders who were sports celebrities five decades ago. Author Ben Schofield, himself a racer for three decades, conducted interviews online with those stars. Perhaps the best-known of them is Phil Anderson, who was the first English speaker and Australian to wear the Yellow Jersey, which he did in 1981, and inspired others, including Allan Peiper, currently a DS with UAE Team Emirates after a successful European career.

Phil Anderson throwing Allan Peiper at 1979 Victorian madison championship

The book is the author’s second after “Wheel Life,” interviews with cyclists from the 1950s and 1960s. The interviews follow a set format of questions, ranging from biographical information to equipment used, memorable events and current activity. Australia’s climate is suitable for year round racing, with track racing in winter and road in summer. The majority of tracks were outdoors and ranged from dirt to concrete to the rare board version. Australia has produced many top track riders, including World Champions, but many of these also were competitive at road events.

The Sansonetti twins at the 1974 Tarax 12hour team race

From the book it appears that Victoria was the Australian state with the most active racing and interstate rivalry was very strong. The National Championships were an example of the unusual nature of the country’s racing as for many years only four riders from each of the six states could participate, limiting the field to 24 and giving Victoria, with a bigger pool of strong riders an edge. Another peculiarity of Australian cycling was handicapping in road races, with riders setting off at different times. Although no reason is given for this in the book, it may have been to simply even out the field given the limited number of racers—and from the interviews it appears that every Australian cyclist knew every other one in the era covered! There do not seem to have been teams in the way we think of them today but a lot of individuals in competition. This did not prevent combinations from forming to share prize money so characteristics seen in European pro racing were not unknown Down Under.

The focus in international events seems to have been much more on the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics rather than the traditional European races and while Track World Championships saw Australian success, And Six Day Races, where Tasmania’s Danny Clark was a standout, also saw Australian participation.

Don Allan and Danny Clark, 1979 Bendigo madison

It was clearly a different era in terms of equipment, with wool jerseys and shorts, and track bikes being converted to road bikes, depending on the season. Training was more basic and Phil Anderson talks of the big breakthrough in the 1980s when he began using the first heart rate monitors. Many of the riders profiled did not have coaches, although fathers often played a significant role, and Julie Speight is the only woman in the book, reflecting how underdeveloped women’s cycling was at the time. One needs only recall that there was no Olympic road race for women until 1984, and track events only added in 1988.

Gordon Johnson, Brunswick Velodrome 1973

In addition to the individual interviews, which in some chapters are actually racers talking about other racers, there are sections focused on notable races, such as the Bendigo Madison, the Sun Tour, the Warrnambool, as well as experiences at the Worlds, racing overseas, and even the presence of bookies.

Garry Sutton, 7 times Australian national amateur pursuit champion in 1978

And could there be a book on Australian cycling without a chapter on nicknames? Dumps, Skippy, Lumpy…my favourite was “Iffy” for John Trevorrow, who always had a ready excuse when he did not win!

The interviewees are an entertaining lot, with some clearly enjoying the opportunity to relive past glories, while others more limited in their comments. Phil Anderson has plenty of good stories but perhaps my favourite riders are the Sansonetti twins, Remo and Sal. Born in Italy, they moved to Australia as children and were very successful on the national scene in the 1970s but also raced in Europe after being drafted by the Italian National Team but limited their time there to avoid being drafted.

Phil Anderson 1977

Several of the riders are holders of the Order of Australia for their accomplishments and cycling in Australia has become much more professional with the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sports, which began its cycling program in 1986 in Adelaide. Since Phil Anderson did it in 1981, six more Australians have worn the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France and the Green Jersey has been won five times, most recently by Michael Matthews in 2017. In 2022 nine cyclists from Australia are participating at the Tour.

John Nicholson 1975 World sprint champion

“Wheel Life 2” is a fascinating look at the sporting backgroun of a country that punches above its weight in cycling. Self-published by the author, it is a valuable and colourful resource of oral history, reflections (good and bad) by the people who were there. The book is profusely illustrated with period photographs by Ray Bowles, giving a real black-and-white feel for an era when so many racers were proud to describe themselves and their contemporaries as “tough.”

“Wheel Life 2” by Ben Schofield, photographs by Ray Bowles
288 pp., illustrated, softbound
published by Ben Schofield, 2020
To obtain a copy, contact the author via:
Suggested Price: AUD 40, US$ 29.95, C$ 37, plus postage

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