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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ATTACKING LIFE’S DEMONS

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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.

THE LUCK OF THE DRAW

Glenn Clarke will always be remembered as the unlucky member of Australia’s 1984 Teams Pursuit cycling team. He was the one who failed to make the final four who won Gold in a stirring finish at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Although he produced a world-class ride in the 50km Points-Score event, to finish 5th, that effort went virtually unnoticed by the general media, who were hungry for medal-winners.

After qualifying for the Points-Score final, the brilliant Clarke was two laps up on the field and a big chance for a medal. However, a break from the bunch was made and he was caught unawares and as sprinters surged further away so did Clarke’s chance of a medal.

Watching the race on video later, Glenn realised that, had he gone with that break-away group, he was in with a real winning chance. He had beaten the Belgian, who took out the Gold in the same event just weeks earlier in Europe.

“Glenn is a far better rider than the Belgian who won it,” coach Charlie Walsh said. “But the Points-Score is very much a race of opportunism and unfortunately, it wasn’t Glenn’s lucky day. The integrity of the boy, no, I mean man, is unbelievable. There are few people who could have been as happy for the Pursuit team’s success as Glenn, whilst still realising it could have been him riding on the team.”

It was later revealed that Clarke had caught a cold in Czechoslovakia and at that stage of their preparation there was no question of having time out to get rid of it. “You have to keep going. So it had no chance to clear up and come selection-decision time I was down a little. That’s the way it goes”, Clarke recalled. He approached coach Walsh and his selectors and told them that he was struggling to contend with his cold at training and suggested they should give Dean Woods the chance to ride.

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Clarke’s cycling carer began when he was 11 years-old, delivering papers around the outskirts of Wangaratta. His bike eventually broke down and with the ‘paper-money’ that he had saved be bought a second-hand racing-bike for $65.

His parents – Les (a former football star with Wangaratta Rovers) and Rita, offered the youngster every support and as his potential became obvious he moved to Geelong to live with his coach Pat Shaw – the father of Glenn’s cycling colleague, Dennis. Shaw built a flat for Glenn at his home and supervised his diet, exercises and training regime.

Within 12 months he had been awarded the 1980 Russell Mockridge Oscar, as Victoria’s best all-round  cyclist.

Clarke was one of a group of Wangaratta riders who rose to prominence in the early to mid-eighties. Dean and Paul Woods, the veteran Barry Burns, Dean and Damien McDonald and Brendan McAuliffe, were among those who helped put the city on the cycling map.

At 18, Glenn was described by one  prominent coach as the ‘ best under-19 rider in the world’. Suddenly, he was spoken of as a potential Olympian. Clarke was one of 22 promising Australian sportsmen to receive a grant, in recognition of their championship potential. It was greatly appreciated by the lad, who had to meet living and training expenses out of his own pocket.

During the following five years, Clarke was at the peak of his success in amateur cycling. Besides his trip to the ’84 Olympics, he shared Gold at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, with Brett Dutton, Wayne McCarney and Dean Woods, in the 4000m Teams  Pursuit. He won Gold at the 100km Madison at the 1985 Australia Games, was a dual 50km Points Score Australian champion and was a member of the Australian amateur cycling team from 1983 to ’86.

His decision to turn professional in 1987 was greeted with shock by cycling officials. “Naturally we are disappointed to lose one of our most gifted and versatile riders “, said national coach Charlie Walsh. “But if we want to hold people we have to offer them something and at the moment we can’t do that.”

Clarke rode for an English team in Europe until 1992, after which he returned to Australia and New Zealand. He was Australian criterium champion in 1988 and won two major cycling events in Britain in 1991.

One of his biggest thrills came when he returned to his home track to take out the Wangaratta  Wheelrace in 1990, in front of an adoring crowd.

For Glenn Clarke, it could hardly have been a more fitting way to crown his career.

Clarke took up football umpiring after he was finished with competitive cycling. He was ranked among the best in the area and had charge of several Ovens and Murray Grand Finals. A stroke, suffered ten years ago put paid to his pursuits as a ‘man in white’.

His son, Jackson, a tall, rangy type, is showing signs of developing into a top defender and is approaching his second season with the region’s elite Under-18 football squad, the Murray Bushrangers. Glenn Clarke is still heavily involved in cycling education and coaching. He rates highly among Wangaratta’s greatest-ever sporting achievers.