New Zealand Mountain Bike Web

30 September 2009

Trade Secrets - drugs and race fixing

By Jonathan Kennett 2009 [This article was published in Spoke Magazine]

“People say drugs is cheating. Of course it’s cheating, but cheating for what? Money? Fame? I was a keen green New Zealander; I didn’t know anything. I grabbed at the wrong things. Was it right? Was it wrong? Some people don’t like hearing it. Tough! It’s what happened.” Tino Tabak, dominator of New Zealand road cycling 1965-67

When the young road champion, Tino Tabak, crossed the globe and entered the lions’ den of European professional racing, it was to fulfil a dream that he’d pursued for half his life: to ride the Tour de France. What he discovered, and has finally revealed in his recent biography, was a ruthless, hierarchical maze, riddled with ‘trade secrets’. Drugs, race-fixing and sabotage were so common in the 1970s, that riders accepted them as part of their sport because, as historian Les Woodland puts it, “If the choice is between labouring in the fields or living your dream of bike racing, why hesitate if the only condition is that you take what everyone else is taking?”

For some the logic went, ‘If everyone cheats, then it’s not cheating’.  And so a covert ‘drugs race’ developed where self-taught soigneurs dispensed medication to riders like Tino. Sometimes they were only placebos. But the ‘good stuff’ was usually speed – amphetamine.

Amphetamine was marketed as a wonder drug in the 50s and 60s, for weight loss, depression, and asthma. But studies eventually showed that 15-20 percent of users become dependant, and developed ‘amphetamine psychosis’. Tino was one of them: “I got past a certain point, and I just needed to escape. … You sort of lose yourself. I lost Tino – he was gone.”

The trail of casualties was shocking. Mental health problems, and death from exhaustion, sudden heart attacks and suicide were common. But in the 70s there was a code of silence that kept the trade secrets from being revealed.

Race-fixing was another prevalent trade secret, and one that is much more complicated than most imagine. Tino talks of two categories: forming combines, and buying security. Combines are common around the world. In New Zealand professional racing they called it ‘the chop’. An informal, and secret group, would agree to ride for one man, and if he won, the booty would be ‘chopped up’ and shared. But of course everyone wanted to be in the chop with the fastest riders, and that’s where the deals became complicated (it’s also why individual pursuit riding is favoured by some).

Buying security is a different kettle of fish. It usually happens during a race, and is an agreement between the front riders. For example, two leading riders make a breakaway, and they both want the victory and the prize money (they are professionals after all).  Unless one of them is very confident, they will probably enter into an informal auction. Whoever bids the highest for the victory, pays the other rider to help him win. Sometimes it gets out of hand. Freddy ‘the Ogre’ Maertens claims that Eddy ‘the Cannibal’ Merckx offered him 100,000 francs to win the 1973 World Road Championship Title! In the final sprint, Felice ‘the Phoenix’ Gimondi snatched the title and left the Cannibal “crying like a choir boy” said Freddy.

Perhaps the cycling scene in New Zealand is so different because there isn’t the same magnitude of fame or fortune. That’s not to say we’re 100% squeaky clean and green. Amphetamines and their derivatives have been used occasionally in track and road cycling here. Possibly the first instance was in 1958 when a young rider had his drink spiked by his mechanic. But most of the broken rules have been funny in comparison.

Back in the 1960s, when car door handles were huge, a NZ Cycling magazine reported that latching onto cars was becoming a problem, and joked that one particularly dim-witted rider, held on to the race referees car before realising who it was.

And in mountain biking we seem to be prone to taking short-cuts, intentional or otherwise. In one early race, the leader took a shortcut, and most of the field followed. They were all disqualified, gifting the victory to a turtle who was so far back that they weren't led into the shortcut.

As a mountain biker, it’s nice to know we don’t have trade secrets, but I still wonder what fuels the motivation of those that go to such extreme lengths to win? And does a crooked victory stand the test of time? Let’s leave the last word to Tino, a man who was the road champion of New Zealand, then the Netherlands, and came 14th in the Tour de France.

“The simple pleasures in life make me happier now than my greatest victory.”

For more on Tabak’s colourful cycling career, check out Tino Tabak: Dreams and Demons of a New Zealand Cycling Legend

25 March 2009

On your left!

By Jonathan Kennett 2009 [This article was previously published in Spoke Magazine]

Riders and walkers may come from opposite sides of the playground, but both have plenty to gain from sharing their turf

Rewind ten years, four months and six days. Location: Makara Peak. Grid coordinates: 528-891. You find yourself thrashing around in thick gorse with five other people, scouting out a route for a track appropriately named Missing Link. It’s the start of a monumental effort by Wellington mountain bikers to build what has since become one of the Peak’s favourite trails.

Now fast forward to the summer just gone. More clear skies, not a breath of wind––a typical Wellington day. One of the five pioneers is back in the park, on foot again, only this time running along Missing Link’s flowing line. Behind her she can hear a mountain bike approaching so she steps aside (in plenty of time) and calls out a cheery ‘hallo’. The rider scowls. Ten minutes later, on the climb out of the valley, the runner catches up with the rider and says hello again. This time the scowl is followed by a stern telling off, in a thick European accent: “You are not allowed on these tracks.”

“Excuse me,” replies the runner, “but yes I am.”

“No! It’s dangerous. This is a mountain bike track,” exclaims the Euro. In the end he lost the argument, but was he right? Are runners and walkers taking an enormous leap of faith by venturing onto cycling tracks?

Cyclists are particularly familiar with leaps of faith. Every time we ride on the road we must have faith that the dominant road users will not swerve and hit us. Sometimes, the car drivers themselves try to persuade us that it’s too dangerous to cycle on the road. Nevertheless, for the growing number of cyclists the obvious benefits outweigh the slim risks.

Thirty percent of the users at Makara Peak are walkers, and I guess they feel the same way. Which brings me back to Missing Link. I’d argue that runners, who can quickly step aside, are safer on bike tracks than mountain bikers themselves. Some riders like to blaze, even when it’s not race day, and Missing Link is a two-way track. Last year two fast riders met on a blind corner––Smack! The combined speed of 50 km/hr broke one nose and bruised a shoulder. Luckily, the bikes were okay, but it was a painful reminder to slow down and be prepared to meet riders, walkers, track builders or fallen trees around any corner. It was by no means an argument for segregation!

Ever since we started riding, walking advocates have been arguing that it’s too dangerous to share tracks. It amazes me that some cyclists are now singing the same tune. If they win that argument then we’ll all be banned from riding walking tracks. Doh! Now this may not bother you too much if you live north of Taupo. In Whangarei, Auckland, Tuaranga and Rotorua, riders are banned from riding most walking tracks already. But south of Taupo it’s a different story. Land managers are more tolerant and potential track users are usually assessed according to their environmental and social impacts (an approach that’s finally creeping into National Parks). In Wellington, mountain bikers share over 30 traditional walking tracks, and walkers have access to all 28 mountain bike tracks on public land. In fact, over the last few years some walkers have been helping build mountain bike tracks (or should I say dual-use tracks).

In the South Island the split is less balanced. A flick through Classic NZ Mountain Bike Rides shows that 70% of the four-star rides existed long before cyclists started heading off-road. Mountain bikers have built the rest in the last ten years. Most are dual-use.

Land managers usually see dual-use tracks as an optimal use of resources, and most mountain bikers agree. We want to share the Heaphy and the 42 Traverse and the Whakamarina, etc. Although there are still some complaints from walkers about skidding on tracks, or almost getting hit by bikers, sharing tracks is generally working out fine.

I’ll concede that some tracks are just too busy and narrow to allow all users (the Huka Falls walking track springs to mind ––since we were banned BikeTaupo have built a great alternative, the Rotary Ride). But most tracks can be shared amicably, with a little bit of respect from mountain bikers and little bit of faith from our biped friends.