“THE TEN CENTIMETRES THAT CHANGED BADEN COOKE’S LIFE…….”

Baden Cooke is holed up at a Malvern Hospital on this bitterly-cold, late June morning.

He’s half a world away from the celebrated Tour de France. …..184 of the finest road cyclists on the planet are about to undertake their 21-day 3,417 km journey through tranquil villages, picture-book hillside scenery and brutish European mountains – accompanied by the usual fanfare, razzmatazz and extensive caravan of hangers-on……..

He occasionally casts his mind back to his involvement in ‘Le Tour’, but for the last four days, Baden’s attention has been focused on the ‘drip’, which has almost cleansed his body of a strain of the dreaded Golden Staph.

He was in the Outback, recording a TV reality show when a small nick on his arm developed into an infection: “Thankfully, I’m on the improve”, he says ……..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Baden’s a Benalla boy, born and bred.

His passion for the bike game began around the age of 11: “I was a fairly good runner as a little fellah, but once I climbed on a bike I was hooked. Some kids want to be rock stars, champion footballers, or become the Prime Minister…….I just wanted to ride the Tour de France……..”

Baden came to the attention of Barry Burns when he was competing in a Criterium around the streets of Wangaratta.

“There was something about him that I liked,” Burns recalled, “even though he looked like a camel on the bike. He’d obviously never been shown the right way to ride.”

“I told his mum Brenda that if he needed any help I’d always be available. They were on their way back to Benalla when she told him. He wanted to turn around straight away, and come back to see me.”

Cooke, he says, was a “bit of a wild bugger in his younger days, but his biggest asset was his determination.”

When he moved to Wangaratta to complete Years 11 and 12 at Galen College, Baden ‘shakked up’ with Burns, and his family.

Barry Burns is famous in this neck of the woods for rejigging his life after returning, mentally ‘shot’, from the Vietnam War. He spent 11 years in and out of psychiatric wards trying to cope with his ‘demons’ .

A doctor urged him to return to his first love – cycling – as therapy, to help regain his equilibrium. Single-mindedly embarking on a punishing regime of riding 1000km a week, the veteran went on to win the time-honoured ‘Warrnambool’, a ‘King of the Mountain Classic’, and represent Australia at the 1990 World Road titles.

He maintained a strong connection with the sport upon retirement, by taking a few young riders under his wing.

“ Living with ‘Burnsy’ was a real turning-point for me…..” Baden recalls .”He was a hell of a tough coach, and really taught me how to train hard……..He completely changed my cycling direction…..”

His parents had subtly suggested he channel his schooling towards a more normal career: “But when they realised how fair dinkum I was about being a pro they fully supported me.”……..

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Baden went straight from Galen College to take up a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1997. His efforts in winning the Bendigo Tour and the National Junior Points Score title the previous year had placed a bullet beside his name.

Locals had become well acquainted from afar, with the surging Cooke career, but rarely got the opportunity to see him ‘in the skin’…….Until the 21 year-old captured their attention at the Wangaratta Carnival of 2000.

“I remember being in pretty good form when I went back. There was always a contingent of dominant track cyclists that headed to Wang in those days……..(Stephen) Pate was the hot-favourite in the Wheelrace Final that year, but he went out way too early, and I managed to get over the top of him.”

“It was a huge thrill.”

He also won a couple of Bendigo Madisons with Pate, then turned pro not long after, signing with American team, Mercury, and pitching headlong into the challenging European tour.

It proved tougher than expected for the Aussie ‘greenhorn’, but wins in the ‘Prix de Bles d’Or’, and the Points Classification in the (USA) Rapport Tour, were highlights of his debut season, besides picking up three stages on the Herald-Sun Tour.

It was his transfer to French team ‘Francaise de Jeux’ in 2002 that catapulted Baden to prominence in the sport’s toughest arena.

His first start in the Tour de France saw him placed fourth in the Points Classification for the ‘Maillot Vert’ (the Green Jersey). “ It gave me confidence that I could compete with the best.”

I ask if he’d had any exposure to the drug-taking that racked the sport in this era.

“There was a lot of it around at the time, of course,” he says. “I never saw it personally, but I knew it was going on. I was just lucky that all of the teams I was involved with were dead-set against it.”

“For instance, FDJ had been caught up in a fair scandal in 1999. By the time I got there they not only encouraged us to be anti-drugs; you were off the team If you took them……………”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Along with the other top Aussie riders, Cooke went straight from the 2002 Tour de France to Manchester, for the Commonwealth Games. He finished with a Bronze Medal, behind team-mates Stuart O’Grady and Cadel Evans, in the road race.

His ninth placing in the World Road championships gave some indication of his rapid improvement. But his breakout season also included wins in the Paris-Corrèze, the semi-classic Belgian event, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the one-day Tro bro Léon in Brittany, and a fifth placing in the historic Paris-Brussels one-day Classic.

He returned home to take out the Herald-Sun Tour ( as well as picking up two stage wins), to impress upon the Australian public that he was a genuine star .

“That year the Tour went up Mount Hotham and Baw Baw, so it was no walk in the park. I was fairly versatile, I suppose. I didn’t mind those tough races, and sprinting was my forte’.”

The moment Baden Cooke captured the world’s attention came in the Centenary staging of the 2003 Tour de France.

He’d spent time in the White Jersey ( worn by the outstanding young rider Under 26 ), and throughout the Tour had been engaged in a captivating battle with compatriot Robbie McEwan, for the coveted sprint crown.

He’d taken out Stage 2, by outpointing the Frenchman Jean-Patrick Nazon, but McEwan, who’d won the first of his three Points Classifications the previous year, held a slight lead over Cooke, as they rode into Paris, on the Champs-Élysées. The Aussies had held a stranglehold on the Green Jersey for all but one stage of the race.

“It was extremely stressful, that final day,” Baden recalled. “I was pretty exhausted, and felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

“On the first intermediate sprint I beat Robbie, to equalise the Points…….Then he won the second Intermediate, to take back the lead…….So it basically boiled down to who crossed the line first………..”

“There was nothing in it……..It didn’t register that I’d won…….It was only when Robbie came up, shook hands and said: ‘Congratulations, you’ve won it’ that it sunk in.”

He had clinched the Green Jersey by two points.

“Put it this way, the 10 centimetres I won by, changed my life forever. I felt blessed that I’d achieved my childhood dream……….”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Baden finished 12th in the Tour’s Points Classification in 2004, and headed to his first Olympics as a member of the powerful Road team, comprising Robbie McEwan, Stuart O’Grady, Michael Rodgers and Matt White.

“I didn’t really fire, but I was basically working for the team. I think Robbie McEwan finished 11th…..It was an amazing experience, though.”

After his fourth Tour de France, Baden switched from FDJ to Unibet in 2006, then rode the 2008 Tour in the Barloworld colours.

He moved to Vacansoleil in 2009, then Saxo Bank for two seasons, before joining Orica-GreenEDGE In 2012.

“It was a thrill to get into the Australian-owned team. It had been a dream of mine for that to occur…..I didn’t think it’d be in my lifetime……Then Gerry Ryan came along and it happened……I jumped straight on board…..”

He wore the GreenEDGE colours for two years, including the 2012 Tour de France, but announced his retirement the following year, when he didn’t score a contract with a WorldTour team.

After more than 50 professional race wins – many of them on the tough Continental cycling calandar- it was all over.

“I was 35, and had ridden in the peloton for just on 14 years. Sponsors were tightening their belts at that time. A few teams departed and a lot of top riders were forced out,” he says.

“It was a hard life being a pro cyclist. For 95 per cent of the time it’s not very glamorous……You’ve gotta live and breathe the sport, and you certainly can’t do it half-heartedly……If you don’t love it you just can’t do it……”

Along with many of the world’s top riders, Baden had been living in Monaco for most of the time he’d been a pro, . He decided to move into Sports Management when the curtain came down on his career.

He held a stake in Factor Bikes and Black Inc wheels ( which he’s now sold), but is still involved in Sports Management. Now based in Melbourne, he and his brother Marcus operate a computer networking and engineering company, Hamilton Cooke Network.

Baden gets back to the North-East fairly often. His parents still live there, and he loves the area, .

“I ride the High Country Challenge most years, and I’m good friends with a lot of the boys.”

“Actually, I haven’t ridden my bike for about three months, but I’m looking forward to going out this week-end……….”says one of Benalla’s finest sporting products.

“THE DAY ‘CHOPSY’ JOINED THE GREATS……..”

Barry Burns was half-way through a fencing job up Myrrhee-way, and had stopped for a cuppa when the news came through………

“Someone from Wangaratta has won ‘The Warrnambool’,” was the caller’s message..

“Oh, that’d be Glenn Clarke. Good on him,” I said.

“Nah, apparently it’s some young kid that you’ve had a bit to do with……….”

Cycling legend Burns had to sit down and let the news sink in. The ‘kid’ was 18 year-old Brendan McAuliffe, whom he’d had under his wing for a couple of years .

Brendan was a talented lad, but when he’d enquired about the prospect of tackling the 1995 ‘Warrnambool’, his mentor warned him of the pitfalls he’d face in the Southern Hemisphere’s longest one-dayer – the second oldest cycling event in the world.IMG_4141

“It’s a brutal race. There’ll be times when you’ll want to give it away. But remember, the other blokes’ll be feeling the same as you. Just hang in there…….” Barry told him.

“Deep down, though, I didn’t give him a chance…………..”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

‘Burnsy’ had a unique insight to the iconic event. Most will be familiar with the story of him returning from the Vietnam War with his body intact and his mind shattered……And after getting back on the bike as a form of therapy, how he’d reconstructed his life.

One of his targets along the way was the ‘Warrnambool’ of 1988. By this stage, even though he’d turned 41, he was ranked among the nation’s best-performed road cyclists, and was assigned to the scratch mark for the journey.

With characteristic determination, he held off fellow scratch-men, including Paul Miller, Tony Hughes and ‘Bulldog’ Besanko, and hurtled to the line to achieve the cherished distinction of First and Fastest………

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

When Brendan McAuliffe was growing up, Barry Burns was one of a number of riders who had thrust Wangaratta to the forefront of the cycling world.

“For instance, I was just a little tacker at Our Lady’s Primary School the day Dean Woods turned up to show us the Medals he’d won at the Olympics,” Brendan says. “That left a big impression on me.”

“And there were a few others who were at the pinnacle of their form too, like Olympians Glenn Clarke and Damien McDonald, and his brother Dean, who’d represented Australia.  John Kent, Chrissy Neate and Barry Bodsworth were others with whom I’d come into contact……”

,“But my cousin, Chris Long, from Shepparton, who once won a Melbourne to Yarrawonga Classic, and showed oodles of potential as a teen-ager, was probably the main reason I was drawn into the bike-game……”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

I’ve contacted ‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe at his shop – South-East Cycles – in the Gold Coast suburb of Beenleigh. He’s been running the business for just on nine years and admits that life can get pretty full-on. Some days he’ll put in a couple of hours fixing bikes, pop home for brekky, then head back to work for a full day, before he drags the bikes in from the front of the shop , just on dusk.

“Funny,” he says, “…I used to hang around Rob Sullivan’s Bike shop in my early teens, asking him if he needed a hand…..and here I am doing exactly the same thing nearly 30 years later.”

He’s been comfortably domiciled in idyllic Queensland since 2000. What clinched it, he says, was meeting his wife Olivia up there, finally settling down to a normal lifestyle – and raising their two daughters, Ella and Aslee.

We get yapping about his brief, but meteoric career – and the day he pulled off one of cycling’s biggest boilovers………….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Brendan was 15 – and chock-full of ambition – when he approached Barry Burns and asked if the veteran could supervise his training.IMG_4139

“I’d climb into his green Panel-Van and head off to races. He was a terrific coach; always eager to impart his knowledge. You know, he never charged us a cent. We were all really grateful to him for what he did for us,” he says.

There was already a ‘stable’ of about nine, which included prodigious talents Baden Cooke and Rowan Croucher. Cooke, of course, was to become a pro cycling great, competing in the Tour de France on seven occasions, and collecting the highly-prized Green Jersey in 2003.

Croucher, according to Brendan, was one of those riders who ‘could have been anything’. Recruited to the VIS, there were huge raps on him, but he possibly lacked the necessary hunger to really push himself.

Some would term it ‘The Mongrel Element’. It’s said that you can have all the talent in the world, but if you haven’t got that bit of ‘shit’ in you, you’ll probably fall short.

Brendan was reminded of this in a Club Combine they were contesting around the hills near Thoona.

“ Rowan had got right away from us this day, and won comfortably. ‘Cookey’ and I were chatting as we were riding up this hill, when he looks across, starts clicking down the gears, and takes off.”

“Anyway, he finishes 6th and I floated in to come in a distant 7th. Dad (Max) gave me a hell of a serve about not sprinting to the finish. I said: ‘ But it was only for 6th.’”

“He snorted back: ‘That’s why he’ll make it and you won’t. He’s a friggin’ ‘animal’.”

“And he was dead right. Cookey wanted it more. He had an abundance of ‘mongrel’……”

Brendan’s improvement was gradual, but the thing that kicked him along was being exposed to the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of European cycling.

Still not old enough to hold a driver’s licence, and envious of the stories his cousin had fed him of his experiences in Holland and Belgium, he decided to join him over there for a few months.

It gave him the opportunity to ride in events like the Junior Tour of Flanders, and several longer-distance races which, he found, suited him to a tee.

On his return home – and still in excellent nick – he began looking around for some more challenges, but discovered that there wasn’t much available for a junior rider like himself.

That’s when he began to entertain the notion of having a crack at the ‘Melbourne to Warrnambool’…..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

He’d read of the thousands of instances of Club riders, blessed with a handy mark and a head full of dreams, being unable to cope with the bitter October crosswinds which would batter them to such an extent that they were unable to complete the 264km trip of the iconic ‘Warrnambool’.

Yet he’d also been told of the percentage of out-markers who’d taken advantage of more favourable conditions, and prevailed.

Sometimes, they said, it all comes down to the wind. Dean Woods created history when he covered the distance in a remarkable 5 hours 12 minutes 26 seconds in 1990. Three years later, he rode 2 hours 23 minutes slower, yet finished First and Fastest – to complete one of his finest cycling performances.

The bottom-line was that, prior to this Centenary running of 1995, eight of the previous nine races had been taken out by a scratch-rider.

“I said to Phil Griffiths, who drove me down, that I was looking at it as simply trying to better myself……… just going for a bit of a training ride,” Brendan recalls.

As a junior, he wasn’t technically eligible to ride any distance over 120km. But he was given a dispensation by the Chief Commissaire…..”probably because they didn’t think I’d finish”.

And a favourable mark of 60 minutes helped. ”When I picked up my number the day before, the bloke behind the desk said: ‘Geez, you did alright there. You’ve just gotta finish it now.”

Feeling a touch toey, only minutes from the start, he felt the urge to go to the ‘loo’….and worse still, discovered he had a puncture.

“Out of nowhere, Graeme Daws rushed out of the crowd and said: ‘Settle down, son. You have your pee, I’ll fix this’ ……… “

“Once we got going, it was great. The wind was up our arse all the way. I felt really comfortable, but didn’t entertain the thought of winning.”

“When we got to the 180km mark I was in ‘LaLa Land’…….buggered. I remembered Burnsy saying, when you get like this, just put your head down and go harder. Then I became refreshed at 200-220 and started winning sprints. I think I took out the last 2 or 3. It definitely wasn’t hard. I almost felt guilty in some ways…………”

Three hundred metres from the finish, Brendan sprinted to the line, to the applause of the crowd gathered along Raglan Parade.IMG_4138

He’d entered the record books, as the winner of the Centenary ‘Warrnambool’ – and collected the handsome $5,000 prize-money.

“I had a couple of regrets. One, that I was too young to appreciate it. We had to come home that night, and I missed the opportunity to say to the Warrnambool people: ‘Wow, what a privilege it was to compete”……..

IMG_4135
‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe and his coach, Barry Burns

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Controversy reigned in the aftermath of the race. Classy German rider Marcel Wust, who recorded Fastest-Time honours, declared that: “I’ve just competed in my first, and last, ‘Warrnambool’ “. He couldn’t quite get his head around the handicapping system, that had left him, as the quickest rider, so far behind the winning bunch.IMG_4146

But, to the victor went the spoils.

Brendan used his prize-money to fund a return trip overseas, where he contested several big races on the European circuit, including the 320km ‘Hanover to Berlin’.

He learned a lot, but was stricken with Glandular Fever, an illness that cuts down many young sportsmen in their prime. It prompted his return to Australia, and forced him to hang up the bike, presumably, he thought, until he’d recovered full fitness.

That never came to pass…….the burgeoning pro career of ‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe was over, at the age of 20.

He maintains a fervent interest in cycling, and his most recent trip down south was to take part in the High Country Charity Ride earlier this year.

No doubt a few of his old Wangaratta mates would have been keen to re-visit the day he rode to fame 24 years ago…………….

P.S: Brendan McAuliffe was the last winner of the ‘Warrnambool’ in its status as a Handicap Event. For the last 23 years it has been conducted as a Scratch Race.

IMG_4129
Wangaratta’s four ‘Warrnambool’ winners: Graeme Daws 1959, Barry Burns 1988, Dean Woods 1993, Brendan McAuliffe 1995

Continue reading ““THE DAY ‘CHOPSY’ JOINED THE GREATS……..””