“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…………..”

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‘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………

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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……”

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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………….

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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’…..

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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”……..

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‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe and his coach, Barry Burns

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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.

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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……..””

THE DAY FAME TOUCHED GRAEME DAWS

To those in the bike game, it is colloquially termed ‘The Warrnambool’

It’s a gruelling, tortuous test of physical and mental strength, where upwards of 240 riders contend with the howling cross winds which sometimes batter Victoria’s western coast, on the 166 mile (266km) journey from Melbourne to Warrnambool.

Some of the sport’s legendary figures have been unable to conquer the challenges of Australia’s oldest ( and the world’s second oldest ) one-day race.

But if you take time to scroll through the 99 winners of the famous event, you’ll find a few romantic tales of the ‘battlers’ who have risen from obscurity to enjoy their moment in the sun.

This is one such story……….
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The ‘Warrnambool’ has been a scratch event since 1995 and now attracts the nation’s best road riders. But prior to that – going back to 1895, in fact – part of its charism was that it was a handicap race. A serviceable club rider with plenty of stamina and a tidy mark, could, with a bit of luck, stand a real chance of victory against the ‘guns’.

Thus it transpired, on a threatening late-September day in 1959, that a 19 year-old shy introvert, Graeme Daws, rode into the history books.

A Wangaratta contingent had headed off to Melbourne that morning. Daws’ new dark blue Volkswagen was loaded to the hilt. His three mates – Charlie Larkins, Peter Laverty and Jack Sommer – were on board, with plenty of gear and three bikes in a rack at the rear.

“Dawsy was concerned that he couldn’t get the car to go any faster than 50 miles per hour and it was really chugging up the hills. So he pulled into the ‘Volksy’ dealer on the way and asked him what was wrong,” Charlie Larkins recalled the other day.

“The bloke said : ‘Look, you’re chock-a-block and you’ve got four people on board, what do you expect. It’s a Volkswagen, mate. It would’nt pull the skin off a rice custard ! ”

“Well, we made it with time to spare. Graeme had followed his second-cousin Russell Hiskins, when he finished runner-up the year before, so he had a good idea of what it entailed. But, of course, that’s no substitute for experience. ”

Daws was a cycling fanatic and was used to chalking up long hours in the saddle. He took a month off work to prepare for the race and covered more than 5,000 miles in pursuit of his dream. Consequently, he dropped a stone in weight and, fitness-wise, was ‘cherry ripe’ when the big day arrived.

Even so, his form chart didn’t look all that good. He had failed to finish in his previous three races and, considering the quality of the opposition, was given no chance. He was such an outsider that his name was mis-spelt on the official program.

It was with a mixture of trepidation and nervous excitement that he set off from Flemington with his fellow out-markers. They set a good pace, although, at the half-way mark, near Colac, there was a strong group of riders just 11 minutes behind them and seemingly set to gobble them up.

Heading towards Terang the Wangaratta boy was suffering leg cramps. Then, as he reached into his jumper-pouch for his flask of brandy and orange it fell and was run over by a passing car.

Now in danger of the road-rider’s greatest bane – hunger flatness – he was saved by another rider, Bob Whitford, who lent him his own flask for a drink. Then the rains came, which also refreshed him somewhat.

For the last 70 miles of the race Daws and the other three cyclists in his group rode on their own, although the following bunch had whittled the margin down to two minutes, as the leaders headed into Warrnambool and sprinted down Raglan Parade, to the line.

Whitford looked like getting the honours, but couldn’t withstand the young legs of Daws. The lead changed a couple of times, much to the delight of the crowd of 2,500 who roared, as the lad drew away to take the coveted race by a bike-length.

“There’s always a fair bit of excitement in the aftermath of the event, as you can imagine. Graeme was the ‘King of Warrnambool’ and everybody wanted a piece of him, ” says Charlie Larkins, who rode in three ‘Warrnambools’ himself.

“But he didn’t hang around long. After the presentations we grabbed a dozen bottles of beer, squeezed into the Volksy and headed home.”

“Graeme was riding at Tocumwal the next day and I was the handicapper for the event. For most of the 700-mile round trip we never needed to say much because Peter Laverty, who could talk under water, kept us entertained, skiting about how good Dawsy’s ride was.”

Graeme Daws never again scaled the heights of that memorable ‘Warrnambool’ win, which earned him a purse of 256 pounds; although he did take out a 3-day Benalla Ensign Tour and the McMillan Memorial 30-miler the next year.

He loved fishing and shooting, but it was his incredible passion for cycling that was never extinguished. Right up to the time of his death, in 2008, at the age of 68, his daily ritual was a long ride on the back roads of his home town.
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#     Bespectacled Jack Sommer made it two in a row for Wangaratta when he triumphed in the 1960 ‘Warrnambool’. He had finished fifth to Daws the previous year and did much of his training for this race with his club-mate and good friend.FullSizeRender

Sommer, of Dutch origin, was only 23 and a relative novice at the time, but proof of his dramatic rise up the cycling ladder was that he was given a tough ‘mark’ of 15 minutes. He overcame fierce winds and two storms to win by half a wheel.

Sommer later rode with some success in European six-day races and was the 1962 Wangaratta Wheelrace winner. In more recent times, he ran a large floor-covering business in Albury.

#   One of sport’s most uplifting stories was that of Barry Burns, the Vietnam veteran who returned to Wangaratta a broken man. He decided to channel his mental demons into physical pain and reached tFullSizeRenderhe top with a series of outstanding cycling performances.

Paramount among these was his courageous ride from scratch in the 1987 ‘Warrnambool’. He was yielding considerable distances to the frontmarkers. There was an attack at Terang and Burns went with it.

He went with three 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.

#   Long-time ‘Warrnambool’ devotees still rave about the performance of Dean Woods in the event in 1990. Starting from scratch, and with a roaring tail wind at his back , he established a race record of 5 hours 12 minutes, whFullSizeRenderich will, in all likelihood, never be broken.

Woods, Wangaratta’s most decorated sportsman, was one of Australia’s greatest-ever track riders, but it was a Herculean effort to win the Blue Riband, for the fastest time in the toughest road race around.

In 1993 he spreadeagled the field to take out the event from scratch, in a time that that was 2 hours 24 minutes slower than the record he smashed three years earlier. But he earned the plaudits of bike fans for the grit and determination that he showed.

#     Brendan McAuliffe became the fifth Wangaratta winner of the classic when he took it out in 1995. He had just returnFullSizeRendered from a 9-week tour of the Dutch cycling circuit and obviously got under the handicapper’s guard, as he was given a generous ‘mark’ of 60 minutes.

The 18 year-old, possibly the youngest-ever winner of the race, exploited this to the fullest and raced brilliantly, sprinting 300 metres from the line to collect the $5,000 prize.

McAuliffe’s victory sounded the death knell for the ‘Warny’ as a handicap event and it has operated with a massed start from that point onwards.
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FOOTNOTE: Graeme Daws was the recipient of the Russell Mockridge Memorial Trophy, which was struck for the first time in 1959, to honour the legendary Australian cyclist. It was Graeme’s proudest possession.

Before his death he requested that it be given to his great friend Charlie Larkins. A priceless heirloom, it’s a constant reminder to Charlie, of a cycling trail-blazer.

And, as the riders line up on Saturday for the running of the 100th Warrnambool, he’ll be reminded of that day in 195FullSizeRender9……………