“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 ……..

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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.”……..

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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……………”

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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……….”

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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.

‘….A SPORTING FANATIC ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE…….’

When the lights are dimmed, the last race has been run, and the crowd has dispersed at the Norm Minns Oval on Saturday night, no-one will be more relieved than Graeme Taylor.

The esteemed, storied Wangaratta Carnival; the pride and joy of the town since it’s official birth in 1919, will have been nursed over the line for its long-awaited Centenary staging.

Just as a gnarled veteran stumbles on the last leg of a marathon distance run, the Carnival has survived seemingly mortal wounds which would have put paid to lesser rivals, has risen from the deck, shaken the dust from its ‘silks’, and battled on.

With the reminder of countless former glories coursing through its veins, and the tape within sight, it has, like a true ‘pro’, gathered its equilibrium and dashed to the finish line……..to the acclaim of all concerned……….

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Graeme Taylor’s a local, born and bred. He can re-count the deeds of ‘Patto’, Toleman, Oliver, De Coite, Pate, O’Toole, Dunbar, Waddell, Foster …….and the locals: Clarke, Woods, Grealy, O’Keeffe, Pasquali, Harding, Vincent, Boulton, Petts, Guerin, and countless others.

He can remember clambering to gain a vantage spot, and pushing his way through crowds, which sometimes numbered close to 10,000 on the Monday night of Australia Day week-end. As excitement peaked for the staging of the plum cycling and athletic Finals, he couldn’t help feeling, with a sense of pride, that few other events on the sporting calendar could generate this atmosphere.

As an all-round sporting fanatic he felt drawn to ensure that the Carnival should prosper; and that he might be able to play his part.

That’s how he came to be involved with the Athletic Club in 1973……..

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In his childhood dreams Graeme was Bob Rose, Les Gregory and Sid Patterson all rolled into one.

He visualised having the football on a string, threading bullet-like passes onto the chests of leading team-mates …….Dodging and weaving, and executing feats of brilliance with the dexterity of a ballet-dancer…….And imagining the roar of the crowd rising to a crescendo, as he stormed past a pack of riders in the race for the line…….

In reality, he was destined to be, like most of us, a battler, who was to make his substantial contribution to sport from the other side of the fence……..

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He was a wee tacker when he was caught up in the razzmatazz surrounding Bobby Rose’s arrival in Wangaratta.

He was one of the 20-plus mascots – all wearing the No.1 Brown and Gold guernsey – who used to lead the Rovers onto the ground. He’d sit inside the boundary fence at each game, enthralled, as the Hawks’ will o’ the wisp winger Les ‘Nipper’ Gregory ( his favourite player ), who could turn on a three-penny bit, weaved his magic.

When he was old enough for Junior League footy he stripped with Tigers, and was lucky enough to participate in their 1968 flag, thanks to the presence of a handful of future stars – Steve Norman, Geoff Schwind and Richie Allen.

He recalls playing alongside the Lipshut boys – Philip and Geoff. “They were the sons of the local doctor, Keith, and really talented players. ” I’m not sure how much footy they went on to play, but I know they made their mark in prominent careers as country solicitors,” Graeme says.

“The other memory I have of my Junior League days was our coach, Bob Rowlands. Our eyes were always fixed on ‘Bluey’ when he was delivering his address…….He was a hot-gospellor in the fashion of Barassi and Alan Killigrew……….

Graeme thought of heading out to the Ovens and King League: “But I wasn’t much chop as a player, so I took up umpiring for four years or so, and did a bit of coaching in the Midget League.”

“My full forward was tiny Darren Petersen – who was the Gary Ablett of Midget footy. He came to me one day and said: ‘I can’t play anymore…..I’ve lost my footy boots.’”

“That was disastrous news for the kids. They knew we wouldn’t win if he wasn’t in the side. I then performed my greatest coaching feat. I said: ‘Don’t worry, I guarantee I’ll round up a pair for you……….”

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Cycling has always entranced him.

“I can just sit and watch bike-racing for hours on end……..When we lived in Ryan Avenue I’d jump on the bike and tear down Perry Street…….with the old man following me with a stop-watch.”

“Again, when it came to competing, my enthusiasm far outweighed my ability……..”

“But I’ve been a regular at the Tour Down Under, the Bendigo Madisons, a few Sun Tours and several Austral Wheel Races.”

He was also imbued with a passion for horse-racing at a young age: “I felt no qualms about wagging School whenever the Wangaratta Cup Meeting came around,” he says.”I had to be there.”

He wrote a Racing column in the Chronicle for many years, and originally became involved in horse ownership roughly thirty years ago, with shares in a handy galloper called Arctic Crown. He was also involved in a couple with a good mate, Pat Heffernan.

The buzz of racing has taken Graeme to every State, and both islands of New Zealand; to 10 Darwin Cups, and to outlying places such as Kalgoorlie’s Boulder course.

“It’s a great social thing. For instance, I originally headed over to the Warrnambool Autumn Carnival with Barry and Jeff Clarke and the late Les Brown. There’s now a contingent of 20-odd Wang fellahs who enjoy the experience . It’ll be my 50th Warrnambool trip this year.”

“I think the biggest thrill I’ve had, personally, was when a horse that Barry Clarke and I owned, called King of Dudes, won the Grand National in 2015.”

A fascination for Jumps Racing led Graeme to get to make the acquaintance of Warrnambool trainer Aaron Purcell.

“We’ve had about 20 horses with Aaron, I suppose – mainly from England, France and Germany. It’s been a fantastic run; we must have had 30-odd winners, and 18 have been on Metropolitan tracks….. Our last winner was on Boxing Day…. Takumi, in the last race at Caulfield.”

“Some of those involved in the syndicates we’ve had include Shane Flynn, Bernie McBain, Andy Hamilton, Wendy and Pete Lester, and Rovers footballers Shane Gaston and Luke Peters. Our most recent purchase was an import called Fiji, which is yet to race in Australia .”

Graeme admits that Golf was probably the sport that he adapted to most easily. He took it up in his late teens and has been a regular at Corowa, Howlong, Yarrawonga and Wangaratta over the years, reducing his handicap to single figures. He still plays whenever the opportunity permits………”

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But recently, his principal focus has been on ensuring that the Centenary Carnival runs without a hitch.

47 years have elapsed since he joined the Athletic Club and discovered that his forte’ was Sports Administration.

“Ken Jasper once told me that, in the good old days, there was a waiting list of people seeking to be drafted onto the 20-person Carnival Committee . Ken was nominated by Keith Bradbury OBE, a fellow state National Party politician, who was President at the time. Distinguished local Accountant Frank Ballantine, his off-sider, had been Secretary for 14 years.”

Long-serving officials have been the hallmark of the Club. The inaugural President, Arthur Callander, held office for 26 years. For a good deal of that period ( 21 years ) his Secretary was Matt O’Donohue, a former League footballer who was enticed to the town and stayed.

So solidity has been the name of the game.

When Graeme became involved, he spent countless hours assisting the late, great Norm Minns.

“Norm really taught me all about Ground preparation,” he says. “We were always down there, changing the sprays at all hours of the night, and rolling the Gift track. He was my biggest influence – or inspiration – if you put it that way.”

Graeme was employed as a Draftsman with the old Shire of Oxley ( he was there for 22 years, until it was absorbed by the Wangaratta Rural City), and proved to be the right man for the job when the decision was made to seal the Bike Track.

He did all the design work, drafted the plans, specifications and Contracts with Wilkinson & Brock.

“The total cost of the project was $40,000. We had a interest-free loan from the City Council, but really, the Club was financially sound at that time, because were were attracting crowds of around 20,000 for the three days of the Carnival.”

“Wangaratta’s was the only major dirt track left in Australia. We could see that the only way for the future was to get it sealed. It stood the test of time.”

The pre-cursor to the sealing of the bike track provided one of Graeme’s most vivid memories. It came a year earlier, in the Wheelrace Final when five riders were involved in a spectacular crash. The referee blew the whistle and declared a ‘No-Race. He ordered a re-run without the fallen riders.

Three of them protested. A bitter dispute followed, before they were re-instated and the Wheelrace, was taken out by Lavington’s Greg Featonby almost an hour later …………

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Highlights such as this got Graeme thinking……. “There have been 1,001 incidents over the years, which have involved many of Australia’s sporting greats. Surely it’s worth documenting this rich tapestry of events before they get lost in the passages of time.”

Thus, they have provided the fodder for the excellent booklet, which he’s almost completed : ‘A History of the Wangaratta Sports Carnival – 1919 to 2021’.

It’s been a labour of love, he says, particularly when his research brought up memories such as 1974, when the lights went out in the final lap of the Aces scratch race.

“Bob Whetters, one of the fallen riders, recovered to win the Wheelrace on the Monday night, but not before nine of the 16 riders had been fined for collusive riding.”

“And even though it was before my time, the 1954 Gift Final was one of the most exciting . Chiltern’s Des Shelley dead-heated with Olympic Gold-Medallist, the Jamaican Herb McKenley. Herb was all for splitting the prize-money, but Des opted for a re-run, which he won. And, incidentally, he took out the Wodonga Gift the following week, just pipping McKenley on the line.

“It was always fantastic when a local boy got up in the Gift, or Wheelrace Final. The crowd loved it.”

“Of course, many of Australia’s greatest Wood-Choppers have been attracted to the Carnival, and proved great crowd-pleasers. The Tug-o-War events also provided plenty of highlights back in their heyday.”

It has been an exercise in nostalgia for Graeme, who has decided to bow out at the completion of this Carnival.

He still works part-time with the Murrindindee Shire ( he’s been there since he was with the North East Catchment Authority). And besides, there’s plenty to do in his role as Secretary of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club.

But at the moment he’s putting the finishing touches to the Carnival booklet, which is expected to be available in early- February.

It’s well worth the read……..

” ‘PUD’, ‘PATTO’, ‘PETTSY’ & PATE………”

Allan James Vincent lives the sedate life these days; nestled in the Swan Street abode that he and Betty have called home for 50 of their 52 years of marriage.

‘Pud’ survived a vigorous bout of prostate cancer five years ago, but thankfully there’ve been no further recurrences. He’s quietly confident – fingers crossed – that he’ll wear out a few more shirts before he heads off to his mortal coil.

He’s a bit of a local legend; likeable and always on for a natter. He’s tickled when I touch on our old Junior League footy days; I was an easily-impressionable 13 year-old and he was one of the South Wanderers’ senior players – fully 16 and a ‘man of the world’.

Us school-kids used to rush down to training at Avian Park, so we wouldn’t miss out on ‘Pud’ regaling us with the latest ribald tales he’d overheard during the morning and afternoon-tea breaks at the Abbattoirs, where he worked as a Slaughterman.

He became a more than handy left-foot winger when he headed out to North Wangaratta; reckons he must have played between 150-200 games during some lean times with the Hawks.

His sporting diet was footy in winter and track cycling in summer. He was fit and fanatical and it’s true to say that, after years of circling the dirt track at the Showgrounds, he knew it like the back of his hand.

It was there, on a magical January night in 1975, that he achieved his finest sporting moment………..

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But hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself here……It’s the Centenary of the Wangaratta Carnival later this month, and ‘Pud’s’ got a bag full of cycling memories. He can recall the myriad of riders who took out the Wheelrace over the decades .

It was the plum cycling event on a program which, for a late-January week-end every year, made Wang the State’s temporary sporting capital.

There was no-one more entertaining, he says, than Sid Patterson, who captivated local crowds for just on 15 years.

’Patto’ had been crowned a dual World champion as both Amateur and Professional, in the years leading up to his first appearance at Wang. His clashes with the brilliant all-rounder Russell Mockridge, whom he also partnered in Madisons, were the stuff of legend.

When ‘Patto’s’ career was winding down in the late sixties, he was asked to reflect on its highlights. He nominated the two ‘Austral’s’ he took out in 1962 and ‘64. But he retained a soft spot for what he rated one of his best rides ever – from scratch – in the Wangaratta Wheelrace of 1954, when he overtook Hec Sutherland in a dramatic finish.

He repeated the dose in 1965, aged 37, having earlier produced a tremendous effort to win the 2-miler. The huge crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief when he qualified for the Wheelrace Final despite blowing a front tyre in the ride to the line in the Semi.

In one of the most spectacular of all Finals, he narrowly defeated Tasmanian ‘wonder-boy’ Graeme Gilmour, then went on to win the Aces 5-Mile scratch race.

It was said that trying to pass the burly 5’11”, 90kg ‘Patto’ was “like coming out from behind a furniture truck into a head wind”.

The crowd idolised him. After the program had been completed of a Saturday night, and most people had wended their way home, he would hold court, beer in hand, under the peppercorn trees, purportedly until the wee hours of the morning.

‘Pud’ Vincent was 14 when he first came across Patterson. He was lining up in a Junior Wheelrace, which the Carnival committee had sanctioned, to promote local talent.

“We were nervously making our way onto the track after a big race had just been completed. Most of the riders were preoccupied with ‘warming’ down, but ‘Patto’ rode over and showed a genuine interest in us.”

“He asked how much air we had in our tyres. ‘About 90 pounds’, I replied. “Nah, that’s a bit dangerous on the sharp corners of this dirt track. I’d take a bit out if I was you……..”

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‘Pud’ recounts some of the other members of the ‘Who’s-Who’ of cycling who converged on the Wangaratta Carnival; like the former Austral winner, Tasmanian Ron Murray, who was just 21 when he outpointed a class field to win the Wheelrace from scratch in 1958.

And champs such as the ex- Sandgroper Barrie Waddell, another great all-rounder, who won five successive Herald-Sun Tours. Waddell had been travelling to Wangaratta since 1955, and finished runner-up to Ramon Russell in 1970, before finally greeting the judge in the ‘71 ‘Blue-Ribbon’ event.

Every Carnival produced its story; like that of Keith Oliver, who blitzed the field throughout the 1969 Carnival, then rode 3 minutes 37.4 , in an outstanding Wheelrace performance. It was believed to be a world-record on a dirt track.

‘Pud’ had a lot of time for local boy Glenn Clarke. “His mate Dean Woods had tremendous natural talent, but ‘Clarkey’ had to work hard for the success he achieved. It was terrific when he won the Wheelrace in front of his home crowd in 1990. He got up by half a wheel from Stephen Pate………..”

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Speaking of Pate, the rough-nut from Kyabram was another great crowd-pleaser, who was adopted by the public, possibly because of his larrikin reputation.

Rik Patterson, Sid’s son, who was once the firebrand’s manager, described one of the many eventful episodes of his career:

“……Stephen Pate had the last of many beers at 3.30 yesterday morning, in the central Japanese city of Maebashi….Later in the day he was the first rider across the line in the world Keiren championship.”

“Most who saw it agreed the Australian’s ride, a 500 metre lead-out against possibly the strongest field ever in a keiren final, was the ride of the championships. Some old-timers from the Australian camp went so far as to say it was the greatest ride they had ever seen.”

It is history now that Pate was the World Champion for only minutes…….First across the line, but disqualified for causing Patrick Da Rocha, the Frenchman, to fall……..”

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>“It is history now that Pate was the World Champion for only minutes…..First across the line, but disqualified for causing Patrick Da Rocha, the Frenchman, to fall……..”</em>“It is history now that Pate was the World Champion for only minutes…..First across the line, but disqualified for causing Patrick Da Rocha, the Frenchman, to fall……..”

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Pate had turned pro in 1986, and won his first world sprint title in 1988. Earlier that year he was one of the star attractions at Wangaratta. Riding from 5 metres behind scratch, he turned in a slashing performance to hold off Glenn Clarke in a Wheelrace Final that had everything. It was Clarke’s first Carnival since turning pro.

So began Pate’s love affair with Wangaratta – and its crowds. He finished as the ‘Bridesmaid’ in four Wheelraces…….To Clarke in 1990; to Rick Ploog in ‘91; to the brilliant Shane Kelly in 1998, when he was held out by centimetres in a dramatic finish; whilst Baden Cook staved off his whithering finishing burst to win the 2000 Wheelrace.

He won all four Carnival scratch races in 1993 and ‘96, and cleaned up five in 1998.

This ‘madman on a bike’, was once described as a ‘squat, little, short-legged, freckled guy with unruly ginger hair and quadriceps that were like bags of cement hanging over his knees’.

Surely no-one could match his record for consistency at Wangaratta over such a prolonged period……..

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Ten years before Pate’s Wheelrace success, a young, unheralded local upset some much-vaunted stars to win the 1978 event.

Ian Petts was 21, and had been a pro for just 8 months, following a five-year amateur career.

He came to cycling quite by accident:

“I’d left my old bike lying in the driveway of our Brash Avenue house, and it got mangled when it was run-over. A really keen rider, Terry Sumner, who lived over the road, offered to fix it for me…..Then I had the temerity to ask if he happened to have an old racing frame.”

“He said: ‘I have, and I’ll give it to you if you come down and have a ride with us.’ That got me going…….Terry mentioned that if I kept training, and got into the swing of things, I might make a fair rider.”

Petts enjoyed immediate success as a pro, and hit a good vein of form leading up to the Carnival. He performed solidly at the highly-rated Tasmanian events ( Latrobe and Burnie) over the 1977 Christmas/New Year period, and was confident of his chances at Wangaratta – even though most experts overlooked him.

It was one of the wettest Carnivals in memory and the program had to be delayed at times, to allow the track to dry out.

Despite being handicapped to a mid-to-back mark because of his strong rides in Tassie, Petts won his heat easily enough. He then lined up in a star-studded Final, which included Laurie Venn, Chris Salisbury and Malcolm Hill.

“Local lad Ian Petts stormed home in one of the most sensational wins in Wangaratta Wheelrace, history to defeat the fast-finishing Chris Salisbury……..”, reported the Wangaratta Chronicle.

‘Pettsy’ rode competitively for another nine years, chalking up an impressive list of wins, including the Wagga and Dubbo Wheelraces, a Victorian 1600m Handicap title, and several other country successes. He rates his second placing in Bendigo’s Golden Mile among his favourite memories…..

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‘Pettsy’ says he was inspired by the outstanding performance of ‘Pud’ Vincent three years earlier.

For any local rider, there was a touch of romanticism attached to taking out the Premier event at their home-town Carnival.

‘Pud’ should have been reasonably upbeat about his chances, as he was in the middle of a hot streak of form which lasted for six weeks or more.

He’d won the Echuca Wheelrace on Boxing Day 1974, then two days later saluted in the Hamilton Wheelrace……And with three other 1600m victories in minor events at the Carnival, some good judges were bold enough to suggest that he might cause a major upset.

But his confidence took a battering when he could only finish fifth in his Wheelrace heat. Despite his disappointment, that had enabled him to squeeze into the semi-finals.

“I went home for tea that night, and told Betty I didn’t think I’d bother going back for the evening program. She gave me an old-fashioned serve and told me I’d be letting the people of Wangaratta down; that I should head back and have a decent ‘go’.”

A win in the Semi restored his sagging morale, as did two other rides he had in the lead-up to the Final. “I didn’t have a chance to get nervous,” he says.

Riding from 70m, he positioned himself well, teamed up with the other middle-markers, and set sail for home.

“I heard the commentator, Eddie Bush, say that ex-world champ Gordon Johnson had tacked onto the main bunch, so I made my break with about three-quarters of a lap to go.”

He held on desperately, to go to the line ahead of John Holgate and Paul Swatton, with Johnson finishing in fifth place.

The celebrations at the Vincent home lasted until the wee hours of the morning. His great season was rounded out in the following weeks, with victories in the Burramine and Yarroweyah Wheelraces………….

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POST-SCRIPT:

Forty-five years on, ‘Pud’ occasionally climbs aboard the bike, but says it only for a jaunt around the streets of Wangaratta. His keenest sporting interest these days is in following his grand-daughter Hannah Grady, who has been a key member of the last two Wangaratta Netball Premierships, and has won five Club B & F’s.

Ian Petts, still looking lean and fit, says his day isn’t complete if he doesn’t head off on a solid 30km ride around the back roads. He has combined overseas holidays with following the Tours of France and Italy, and says the Tour of Spain is also on the agenda – if ever Covid-19 permits………..

‘DUAL GIFT-WINNER RE-LIVES THE DREAM……’

‘Oh how warm the summer night

As athletes gather beneath the light,

The arena is dimmed for the final race,

The runners are ready and take their place.

‘Does he remember the tension out on the line,

Leaving the blocks right on time,

Legs stretched out in motion,

Running like a machine,

Did he really win,

Or was it a dream………..’

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a greater advocate of the Wangaratta Athletic Carnival than Jason Boulton.

Back when he was a ‘whippersnapper’ he’d count off the days leading up to each Australia Day week-end. Give him a chance and he’ll re-count the deeds of those champion cycling locals Woodsy and Clarkey, and regale you with tales about big names like Steven Pate, who could gather up the field in the back straight and sweep to victory.

And, of course, not to forget those charismatic wood-choppers.

But he was completely captivated by the athletes: “When the floodlights would focus on the Gift track and the field was introduced, a hush would fall over the huge crowd – the atmosphere was electric,” he says.

He remembers one occasion, as an 11 year-old, that perhaps fired his ambitions to become a pro runner.

He’d been swimming down at the Ovens River, and popped in to catch a glimpse of the Showgrounds one Carnival-eve. “A big American negro by the name of Kipper Bell was practising his starts and got yapping to me…….Geez, could he run !…….I think he’d won a Powderhall Gift in Scotland a few months earlier……He certainly left an impression on me….”

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Jason had shown some talent in Little Athletics, drifted off to try cricket for a couple of years, played in a Junior League footy flag for Centrals, then had a season with Wangaratta Thirds.

But footy was off the agenda when he underwent three shoulder reconstructions. Besides, he’d started a Building Apprenticeship with L.H.Brown Constructions. Running seemed a much sounder sporting option for the young fellah.

But still, the shoulders continued to cause him grief. He was at Keilor, limbering up for a 100m race once, when it popped out. He was desperately trying to knock it back into place. Greg O’Keeffe, who was competing in the same heat, said: “You’d better pull out. The stewards will think you’re putting one over ‘em.”

“But I just stabilised the arm with my other hand and ran okay, actually. Finished just out of a place, I think.”

He fitted in like a glove to the pro circuit, training firstly with Jack Gannon and Scotty Hargreaves, then under Bernie Grealy………And began to chalk up a few wins.

Stawell, he says, never held the same appeal for him that it did for most in the running game. He remembers running third in a Bill Howard 100m Novice, and also finishing in third place in the Jack Donaldson 200, Handicap.

“Trouble was, being such a long season, I struggled to stay in one piece. When Stawell came around I was usually stuffed. I made five Gift semis, and got beaten on the line one year. That was the closest I came to a Stawell Final.”

“Anyway, Wangaratta was my Stawell.”

By 1996, at Wang, Jason was flying. He took out the 70m Warby Sprint, and won his way through to the Gift Final, alongside the local veteran – and crowd favourite – Greg O’Keeffe. The thought floated through his mind….Could this be the realisation of a boyhood dream ?

Alas, he finished second, pipped by the Scotchman, Kevin Hanlon, by six inches.

He headed to Sydney for a six-month break not long after, then found work as a Builder in Melbourne. It led to him hitching up with well-known trainer, Evan Armstrong, who also happened to be Hanlon’s coach.

“I got to know Kevin pretty well,” says Jason. “His is familiar story. He came out to Australia to run in the ‘95/‘96 season, grew to like the place, and stayed.”

“Training with him brought out the best in me. But Evan Armstrong was a hard task-master; very intense. I struggled to stay fit.”

His lead-up to the Wangaratta Carnival in 1997 didn’t provide much cause for excitement. He incurred a slight injury at the Burnie meet over Christmas, and performed well-below his best at Ringwood in early January.

The Armstrong stable had Hanlon pencilled in to win back-to-back Gifts. A sizeable portion of the crowd shared that opinion.

But Jason had that ‘feeling’….So did his dad, who had backed him to win.

He grew an extra leg on his home track, and won with plenty to spare.

“It was a great feeling. I think it was one of the last occasions that they ran it under the floodlights. I made a few Finals in my time, but Wang smashed them all for atmosphere,” he says.

That blue sash and the colours that he ran in became his proudest possessions. When his brother passed away in 2001, he buried them with the casket…………….

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Jason’s love-affair with running waxed and waned. He admits he didn’t get all that enthused about winter training: “Injuries and laziness were my bugbear. I used to retire in April, then get itchy feet in October.”

He was also having trouble with stress foot fractures around 2001, and retired for keeps, he thought. But the bug caught him again. Another Boulton come-back eventuated in 2004.

A year later, he was again firing, and within reach of another Wang Gift victory before fading in the closing stages of the Final to finish fifth.

The pro running diehards had written off the 33 year-old in 2006. But, for one of the few times in his career he’d gone into the season injury-free, and set himself to run well on his home track.

A rich vein of form in the lead-up saw him run third at Rye, second at Geelong, win the Wallan Gift early in the New Year, and take out the Ringwood Gift in mid-January.

And he made no mistake at Wangaratta, cruising to victory in 12.36 seconds, from 2004 winner Justin Lewis and Brendan Boyle.

Jason Boulton had entered the record-books as a dual Gift winner, emulating North Melbourne’s J.J.O’Sullivan ( 1927 and ‘29 ) and ex-VFL boundary-umpire Peter Saultry ( 1964 and ‘66 ).

*( Since then Albury’s Robert Ballard and Essendon’s Paul Tancredi have joined the trio. Ballard won in 2009, following his triumph in 1989. Tancredi won successive Gifts in 2015 and ‘16 ).

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Jason finally hung up the spikes in 2007: “I went back to the doctors about my feet. They started talking about having a series of cortisone injections. I said: ‘Nah, I won’t worry,’ and moved on.”

Still working in the Building industry, as an Estimator with Hadar Homes, he remains deeply involved in Athletics. He has coached Johnny Adams ( a fourth place-getter in the 2014 Stawell Gift) , and Isabelle Long from Mulwala ( a 2-time National 400m Hurdles winner ).

He also guides some local youngsters, as well as his own four kids . He and Renee have 8 year-old twins, Isabella and Will, Jack (15) and Gabriella ( 18 ).

The twins compete in Little Aths of a Friday night, whilst Gab has already made her mark at the Wang Carnival, finishing second in the Women’s Gift last year.

Jack, a 5-time National Age champion and current Australian U.16 400m record-holder, is an outstanding prospect, but Jason’s charting his progress carefully.

“He’s doing the pro circuit to learn how to run ; how to back up and learn to be strong. People may look down their noses at the pros, but they’re a lot stronger and tougher than they’re given credit for,” his dad says.

Jack finished seventh in the final of the Rye Gift a fortnight ago. He had seven runs for the day at Maryborough, on New Year’s Day. Jason says it took him about a week and a half to recover, but it was great experience for the lad.

“I just make sure the kids enjoy themselves; I don’t put too much pressure on ‘em. They know there’s always bigger and better people around the corner who’ll test them,” he says.

Jack and Gabriella will both be competing at the Carnival this week-end. They’re probably tired of their dad regaling them with tales of how big it used to be.

“I was talking to the great Ricky Dunbar at Rye recently. He’s now a VAL official. Rick arrived in Australia from Scotland in 1966 and finished third in the Gift that year. He hasn’t missed a Wang Carnival since.”

“He told me they were paying to get into the Richardson Stand in those days. The place was packed.”

“That’s how big Wang was………”

‘TWO OF YESTERYEAR’S HEROES……’

The banner headlines of the metropolitan newspapers told the tale: ‘IRENE PYLE’S AMAZING RIDE FROM SYDNEY….’

It’s early-November 1938, and endurance cycling, which had captivated the sporting public during this post-Depression era, is toasting a new champion. A diminutive Wangaratta girl tackles the gruelling journey from Sydney to Melbourne, and shatters a long-standing record.

Fans clamour for more information on this unlikely hero……………

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Irene Pyle’s inspiration for cycling came some years earlier, when she attended a ‘Welcome’ for ‘Billie’ Samuel, who was passing through Wangaratta on a successful Sydney- Melbourne record attempt.

It became her ambition to replicate the feat. In the meantime, though, she had to learn the rudiments of riding a bike.IMG_4259

Irene operated a frock shop, and reckoned that cycling would help her lose weight and enable her to keep fit.

So began an intensive training regime, which she would undertake without fail every day. Closing her shop each night, she would set off on an 80km ride.

On Friday evenings it would extend to 230km, as she’d begin a 10-hour trip to Melbourne.

The week-end would be spent roaming the city, purchasing dress material. She’d then jump on her fixed-wheel bike ( nicknamed ‘Ironside’), loaded with as much fabric as she could strap onto the frame, and return to Wangaratta on Sunday.

Her devotion to her new sport attracted the attention of Harry Arnall, a local bike dealer, who suggested she had the necessary talent and determination to fulfil her dream of one day becoming a successful endurance rider.

Firstly, Irene set an 80km record of 2 hours 44.3 minutes, despite incurring a rear tyre puncture on her Malvern Star.

Eighteen months after she commenced her rigorous training, Arnall decided that she was ready to make an assault on the Sydney-Melbourne record.

Standing a little more than 5 foot and weighing just 8st 3lb, she was an unlikely sporting figure; clad in shorts she’d sewn, and a Masters Sport cycling top.

The 1700 foot climb over the Razorback mountain was the first obstacle, and even a nasty fall in loose road metal near Goulburn failed to deter the ‘Mighty Midget’.

By the time she reached the official half-way mark – Tarcutta – Irene was seven minutes ahead of the men’s record time, set by the legendary Hubert Opperman.

However, at Albury, she lost more than 45 minutes, owing to complications with the Time-keeper’s car, which put her well behind ‘Oppy’s’ time.

But once she reached the familiar sights of Wangaratta she began to pick up speed, and was spurred on by a large crowd which applauded generously, as she passed through her home town.IMG_4251

As Irene rode into Melbourne, she was greeted by more than 40,000 people, who had gathered for the Globe Sporting Carnival. Her time broke the previous record, set by Joyce Barry, by 10 hours 23 minutes, and was just 41 minutes short of Opperman’s record.

She clocked 40 hours 23 minutes – which was achieved with just two hours sleep, and on a diet of honey sandwiches, raw eggs ( which she cracked on her handlebars ) and washed down with gallons of milk.

The record time remained intact until 1966, when Margaret McLaughlin sliced off a further four hours……

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A week after reaching the heights of Endurance Cycling, Irene gave her bike to her niece- and announced her retirement. She married Charles Plowman, went on to raise a family of six kids and opened a Bridal Shop in Melbourne.

When she passed away in 1999, her memory was perpetuated by the ‘Irene Plowman Award’, which honours Australian Cycling Club members who are able to complete five 200km rides in a season…………….

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Just as Irene Plowman faded from the sporting landscape after achieving the pinnacle of her career, so did Des Shelley, who flashed across the athletics scene like a kaleidoscope in the early fifties.

Shelley was born at Indigo, and did his early schooling at Cornishtown before moving on to Chiltern.

A smart footballer, the pacy Shelley played more than 100 games in the Red and White, but it was his ability as a sprinter that brought him under the wing of legendary Rutherglen trainer Jack King.

Shrewd old King, who had guided his brother Chris to the 1908 Stawell Gift  almost half a century earlier, had a quality stable. He and his sidekick, Lewis Jackson, had a reputation for turning out beautifully-prepared runners.

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Des Shelley with his trainer, the legendary Jack King.

They were also former footy team-mates in those near-unbeatable Redleg sides of the early 20th century and were both firm believers in the philosophy that ‘a shut-mouth catches no flies’.

Rarely did anyone in athletic circles get an inkling from the tight-lipped King, as to how any of his ‘boys’ would perform. But he did privately divulge that the 22 year-old Shelley was ‘ a bit of a chance’ to win the Wangaratta Gift of 1954.

And why not ? He had a good mark, was in peak form and would have the backing of the crowd, being ‘almost’ a local.

The weather had been miserable in the week leading up to the Carnival, and the rain continued to tumble down on the Saturday.

For the first time in history, the Gift heats were postponed from Saturday to Monday. With the track still damp and spongy, the out-markers held quite an advantage. It certainly lessened the prospects of the Athletic Club’s main draw-card, ‘The Jamaican Express’, Herb McKenley.

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The ‘Jamaican Express’, Herb McKenley.

A glance at McKenley’s record indicates why he was all the rage at Wangaratta. He was a Gold Medallist at the Helsinki Olympics, and a triple Olympic Silver Medallist, and was still in hot form, at the age of 31.

He had cut a swathe through the field in his heat and semi-final, but he was off scratch in the Final, and was conceding big margins to the limit-markers.

He ran brilliantly, but he and Shelley hit the tape together. The pair simply could not be separated by the judges.IMG_4263

Shelley, interviewed by the Sporting Globe representative said: “I just had the feeling that I broke the tape first.”

The accompanying ‘Globe’ photograph appeared to indicate this, but the judges declared it a ‘Dead-Heat’.

“It would have been murder had McKenley been Award the race,” said the ‘Globe’.

McKenley was all for splitting the prize-money, but Shelley opted for a re-run.

No-one had left the Showgrounds in the 40 minutes that elapsed before the re-run. This time Shelley was a clear winner; not by a big margin, mind you, but enough to send the crowd into raptures.

Shelley was dragged a yard for the Wodonga Gift the following week, and was worried by an injured thigh. But again, he was to take out the prize-money. The second place-getter ? Herb McKenley.

The Benalla Gift Meeting was held the next week, and Shelley broke down in his heat. He never fully recovered from the injury and his career drew to a close.

But he had a role to play back at Rutherglen, as the training partner for John Hayes, who was being ‘set’ for the Stawell Gift that year.

Hayes duly took out Stawell, making it a big couple of months for the King stable.

Des Shelley moved his family to Cobram in the seventies and kept busy in his post-athletics days milking 400 cows, with the help of his five sons.

But he never forgot that fabulous fortnight in 1954, when he had the ‘wood’ on the Jamaican Express’……..