You hear some heart-wrenching stories about the Vietnam War and what it did to the minds and bodies of young Australian men. Many had their lives ruined by the atrocities inflicted upon them.
This is the story of a man who used cycling to channel his mental problems into physical pain and won the admiration of the Australian public, at an age when most sportsmen are considering retirement.
Barry Burns spent 13 months fighting in Vietnam and Malaysia and came home with his body intact and his mind shattered. He spent 11 years in and out of psychiatric wards, as he tried to cope with his experiences. He battled frustration, aggression and nearly the loss of his will to live.
Burns had been a keen cyclist in his younger days and, in desperation, a doctor suggested that he climb back on the bike, as a form of therapy. So, at 31, Burns began a punishing regime which would entail riding 1000km a week. It was torturous, but it built up his stamina to the extent that he was able to match it with the young riders.
Over the next ten years he became famous for his attacking style. Aware that he’d never master the art of sprinting, he would break away in races, often from the start, and always on his own. Inevitably, he would be swept up by the bunch with the finish not far away.
Burns won his first championship in 1987 – the NSW Road title. He decided to have a crack at the inaugural ‘King of the Mountains Classic’ and finished fifth. The trouble was that he didn’t fully recover for months and many believed that, in the following year’s race, he was a fatality in the making.
The race covered 183km, from Wangaratta to Mount Buffalo and took in nearly every hill and mountain along the way. It had rained, hailed and, finally snowed, but Burns was in his element.
As the last mountain loomed, 21km away from his destination, he broke away from the leading bunch with Olympian Michael Lynch. They rode side by side for a while, then Burns grabbed an advantage. Lynch fought back. As the summit came into view, Lynch looked to have it.
Mustering one last effort and with both riders exhausted, Burns got to the front and pulled away to win by 5 seconds. Of the 50 riders who started, 23 finished – the last of them two hours after Burns.
Later that year Burns contested the time-honoured ‘Melbourne to Warrnambool’, the second oldest road race in the world. It is a 264km ‘slogathon’ and victory in the race has eluded some of Australia’s finest road riders. The October crosswinds of the western district make it a test of character and it is often fought out in bitterly cold conditions. It is tough on the scratchmen, who have to yield huge distances to the frontmarkers.
There was an attack at Terang and Burns went with it. He went with three or four other attacks, then picked his moment and just went away from the field. “I felt like I was floating”, he said later.
His ride, from scratch, to win the race by three lengths, was monumental, considering that it was achieved at the grand old age of 41.
Burns had also shown his durability in the ‘Sun Tour’ of that year by winning two stages, the first of these in a lone 150km break.
He was awarded the ‘Oppy Oscar’ (named after the legendary Australian cyclist of the 30s) for the outstanding riding performance of 1988. Part of that prize was an overseas trip to compete in the 1989 World Road championships in Europe. Seriously injured when hit by a car in a training accident, he was unable to take his place in the field. But in 1990 he had another tilt at the titles, unfortunately crashing during the event.
Burns was one of six Wangaratta riders who contested the 1992 Sun Tour, but as his career wound down he turned his hand to coaching some emerging talent, including Rowan Croucher, Brendan McAuliffe and Rhys Lyster.
His prize pupil was Benalla boy Baden Cooke, who went on to a glittering career, as an Olympian and once wore the green jersey in the Tour de France.
Barry Burns, like all old bikies, has never lost the love of the sport, but he will be forever remembered for that period in 1988 when he was literally ‘flying’ and captured the imagination of the cycling public.
P.S: Wangaratta has an affinity with the “Warrnambool” Classic. Graeme Daws took it out in 1959. His Wangaratta club-mate Jack Somner (an Albury resident) was successful in 1960. After Barry Burns’ success in 1988, Dean Woods took it out in 1993 and Brendan McAuliffe was the victor in 1995. Woods’ sensational ride in 1990, to win the fastest-time honours, came in 5.12.26, still the race record.