THE TRIUMPHS & TRAGEDIES OF A CYCLING FAMILY

Things are humming at McDonald & O’Brien.

The warm weather is looming, as the air-conditioning experts gear up for their busy period, besides being in the middle of expanding their Muntz/Orr Street premises.

So when I enter the showroom, the bloke in the wheelchair pushes towards me. He thinks I want to talk business and is a bit surprised when I suggest having a yarn about his career as a cyclist.

After all, says Dean McDonald, it’s more than 20 years since he last rode as a pro…..

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It was Pat Toohey, a local veteran, who initially guided Dean in the direction of the bike game. He went for a ride with him, liked it and was hooked.

At about the same time he came under the influence of Alec Weston, an old sports enthusiast, and bike fan, who had re-located to Wangaratta after his retirement as a teacher.

Alec, who had once worked as a masseur with the legendary Russell Mockridge, took an avid interest in junior sport and clicked with the young McDonald. So began a close bond with his family that continued until his death last year.

Dean’s rise through junior ranks co-incided with a resurgence in local cycling that produced remarkable results in just under two decades – from the early 80’s to the late 90’s.

In that ‘Golden Era’ we boasted 3 Olympians, 5 Australian reps, a number of Olympic and Commonwealth medals of each variety, 2 winners of the famed ‘Warrnambool’ road classic and landed a heap of National titles. One year we provided 6 riders to the sport’s gruelling ‘Sun Tour’.

Such depth from one town is rare. I guess that the ‘arrival’ on the scene of the gifted Dean Woods would have proved an inspiration to lads like McDonald, who first attracted attention when he won the national Junior 40km title in 1983, aged 16.

Two years later he was the 100km National Junior champion and, in between, represented Australia at the Oceania Games in Tahiti.

All exciting stuff for a quiet lad, who continued to soak up the sage advice from his mate,’Old Alec’ and revel in the camaraderie that is a unique feature of cycling and keeps old bikies welded to the sport long after their retirement from competition.

Dean was chosen to wear the Green and Gold Australian colors in two of Japan’s major road races in 1986 and was part of the Victorian team which contested the national Team Time-Trial title.

Glenn Clarke and Shane Bannon,who were heading overseas, suggested he do the same. He spent 7 months in Paris, riding for the French racing team, Aubervilliers. It was an unforgettable experience. He also managed to fit in a few races across the Channel, in England.

His brother Damian, five years his junior, had been following him around the cycling circuit and was soon making his own impression. His ascension was swift and, in no time he was emulating the deeds that Dean had performed as a Junior.

Meanwhile Dean joined the pro ranks and rode in the Sun Tour, the ‘Warrnambool’ and all of the big events on the cycling calendar. He was also part of the Victorian team which won the National 4,000m Teams Pursuit title in 1989. His second placing in the 5,000m Individual Pursuit championship proved that he was among the upper echelon of the sport.

But he reached the pinnacle of his career when he took out the National 200km title on a windswept Launceston afternoon in 1990. In a desperate 3-man duel, McDonald, Sydney’s Eddie Salas and fellow Victorian Malcolm Van Unen had the race between them in the final kilometre, as they surged to the line.

It was McDonald who had the necessary stamina to sprint away and clinch the title.

By this stage he realised that he had a few decisions to make. He was half-way through his plumbing apprenticeship and needed to concentrate on that. He reasoned that, unless he was in the very top bracket of road riders, he would struggle to make ends meet. Plumbing took precedence.

So he scaled down his riding and sat back and watched brother Damian’s career gain momentum. It’s peak came when he broke away to lead the Olympic Road race at Atlanta, in 1996. He was eventually reeled in, but finished creditably. His Gold Medal in the Teams Road Event at the Commonwealth Games two years previous, was one of his many individual highlights.

Dean and a mate, Steve O’Brien, decided to take the plunge and go into business in 1998. Seven weeks later tragedy struck, as Dean fell off a roof and suffered severe spinal injuries which would render him wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.

But he didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself, as the business needed him. Eleven weeks after being confined to hospital, he was out again, working behind a desk and becoming used to his adjusted lifestyle.

Dean was always incredibly close to Damian, despite their contrasting personalities. They maintained regular contact. Dean is reserved, whilst Damian was always the ‘life of the show’, brash and confident.

And when Damian was one of three people killed in an accident in the Burnley Tunnel in 2007, it was a devestating loss, not only for the family .It reverberated right through the cycling fraternity.

Now another McDonald , young Thomas, is following in the footsteps of his father and famous uncle.

A member of the VIS , he is the reigning Australian champion in both the U.17 road Time Trial and the track Individual Pursuit. Good judges say that he has what it takes to reach the top.

Dean follows his progress closely and says he has a good attitude and is a ‘good kid’.

One thing’s for sure. If he has his old man’s determination he’ll go a long way.
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