“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