David Wohlers was not quite 26 when he was first invited to ride in the time-honoured Herald-Sun Tour.
He undertook a punishing training regime, chalking up thousands of miles, in preparation for what was then the most gruelling and physically-taxing event on the Australian cycling calendar.
The Tour covered nine days, 18 stages and just on 1250 miles of rugged terrain, traversing steep Victorian mountain ranges and back roads ; sometimes encountering bitter weather conditions.
It was the biggest learning experience of his career. He witnessed first-hand, the nation’s top pro road cyclists in action, their tactics, and the lengths they were prepared to go to……
For someone who had been smitten by the sport at a tender age, it was a dream come true. The blonde-haired boy from Wangaratta performed well to finish 12th in the 24-man field……….
Early on in the Tour, he thought he was about to add another highlight to his CV. His team captain, Frank Atkins had stressed one morning, the significance of one of them clinching the stage-win at Euroa – the town sponsoring their team.
Dave opened up a handy gap on the field, heading into town. He looked to all intents and purposes the likely winner.
“I’ve done my job, Frank’ll be rapt,” was the thought going through his mind, when suddenly, Atkins and Frank McCaig swept past him just before the line………
In a later stage, he was heading over the particularly rigorous Mt.Skene, near Mansfield, a 23km climb with a pot-holed, dirt road. The veteran Jack McDonough called out: “Want a Mintie ?.” “I said: ‘No thanks’ ….and rode past him.”
“That night he tackled me.” “You young prick, don’t you understand. I was struggling and wanted a bit of support. You don’t just ride off on blokes like that.”
“I didn’t realise…….I was that enthusiastic. I wasn’t up with all the etiquette of road racing.”
“Nearing the end of the Tour I was buggered, and was savouring a nice warm shower one night, when I got a whiff of what I thought was methylated spirits. I pulled back the screen, and here was one of the riders poking a syringe into his backside. That was a real eye-opener – the first time I’d ever spotted anyone on the ‘juice’.”……………
Dave’s full of cycling stories. As you would be if you’d been on a bike for nigh on 60 years.
The day I caught up with him he’d been on a 50km ride with a group of eight fellahs. The oldest of them – Alan Lea – is eighty. Bernie Grealy is well in his seventies. They generally do 70km on a Monday and 50km on Fridays.
That’s the thing about the bike game – once you take it on, you seem to be in the grip of it for life.
Dave’s start in cycling came, he reckons, when he bought a bike from Pat Toohey.
Around that time, his brother Denis had come home with the news that he’d entered him in a race that was starting in Greta Road. “If you don’t go you’ll be fined,” he said. “I competed, and was hooked.”
“But Pat was the one who inspired me. He had such a terrific influence on all the young kids of my era who liked bikes. I travelled all around the place with him ; he taught me about the tactics and skills of cycling.”
“We rode as amateurs in those days. The only difference between the ‘lilywhites’ (which was us) and the pros was that we got a trophy if we won, whereas they got a cash prize, which was an absolute pittance.”
Eventually, Dave decided to turn professional. “I saddled up for my first race. It was at Geelong – I forget the name of it – and I was raring to go. I marched up the race organiser, Ron Edmondstone, who was at the starting point, and offered to shake his hand. He ignored it, walked past and muttered out of the corner of his mouth : ‘Have you got your entry money ?’.”
“I thought, gee, this is a friendly old set-up. But I soon settled into it. It was funny. Me and a couple of other front-markers were well out in front with not long to go.”
“They suggested we divvy up the prize-money that was inevitably coming our way. I didn’t realise that sort of thing went on, but I said : ‘Oh, okay.’ ”
“The next thing the scratch riders had caught up and I managed to sneak into fifth place. I was the only one of the bunch to be among the money and I had to share next-to-nothing with them! ”
Dave headed to Perth on a working holiday one year, and recorded one of his best career wins – W.A’s Classic, the 108-mile Beverley to Perth road race. He was first and fastest and just outlasted fellow Victorian Robert Matthews by a length.
Back home, he was chuffed to achieve the honour of State representation when he finished eighth in the Victorian championships.
“The first 10 qualified for the nationals at Devonport. We had to pay our own way, but it was a real thrill to wear the big V. Actually, I only got the jersey because a mate of mine, Mario Giramondo, owed me a favour and gave me one of his old ones.”
“It was one of those woollen things. I washed it in warm water and it shrunk so much that I only ever wore it once.”
Dave competed in 2 Sun Tours, 6 ‘Warrnambool’s’ and hundreds of other road races around the state.
Road-racing was his ‘go’ he says. “I was more of a stayer, and had more success there than on the track.”
But he reached the Final of the famous ‘Austral’ one year, and rode in a Wangaratta Wheelrace Final. It was 1975, the year that another local, ‘Puddy’Vincent was triumphant.
“Before the Final my father-in-law was spruiking that I was going to win it. I was ticked pink to be in it, but I was no chance.”
We yarn about some of the legends of the Carnival and the name of probably the best – Sid Patterson – comes up.
“Patto was a showman. I’ll tell you about one of the Wheelraces he won. A fair few of the riders were in on the ‘joke’ (i.e Patto had given them a ‘sling’ to help him). ”
“He said to one of the front-markers just before the start: ‘I want you to do one slow turn.’ The young bloke was only too happy to comply, and earn himself a quid. That slowed the field up and Patto came over the top to win in dramatic fashion, much to the delight of the crowd.”
Dave has been involved with the running of the Carnival for about 40 years – just another contribution that he’s made to Wangaratta sport.
Cycling has been a huge part of his life. A fitter and turner by trade, he took the punt when he was in his twenties and set up a bike shop, firstly in Ovens Street, then later, Templeton Street.
He had a bit of a break, working at Uncle Toby’s for a while, until he bought Wood’s Cycles.
Now retired, he still thinks there’s nothing better than throwing the leg over a bike and heading out the road.
He and Shirley (his wife) are regular attendees at The Friendly Games, a Masters Carnival which is held bi-annually at different venues around the nation. He’s picked up his share of Medals (including Gold) over the years, but assures me that his days of pursuing personal success are well past.
For David Wohlers, the important thing is to have enjoyed the company of like-minded people through sport…………