PROOF THAT THE COMPETITIVE URGE IS NOT GENETIC
When I was six or seven years old, old enough to cross the main street of town on my own from my parents’ store to the hairdresser, I got a haircut that has scarred me for life. As the hairdresser trimmed my then Nordic blonde locks she was more preoccupied with discussing her previous night out. I don’t recall many details beyond bourbon, cigarettes and ‘that bastard Barry’ but what happened next is still razor sharp today. With a single, careless snip she sliced through my right ear, said something I know I wouldn’t get past our editor, and gave me a dirty cloth to staunch the blood flow. My name is Mike Wilson. I have a deep-seated fear of hairdressers. It has been six years since I last had a haircut, and twenty-three years since I let a hairdresser cut my hair.
About a decade after the ‘earcut’ I lined up for my first cycling stage race. I had been training diligently for weeks on my beautiful and much loved Healing Shogun. I had shiny lycra pants with real Chamois leather, hand-punched, split hide cleated Sidi shoes, crocheted leather fingerless gloves in World Champion colours and one of those new fangled helmet things. I was ready to dominate and nervous as hell. It took just three kilometres of the race for me to run out of steam. My dad had said things would start slowly, but I couldn’t keep up. Somewhere near Fitzherbert Park I was on my own, 50 metres behind the main bunch, trying to survive.
Suddenly the bunch morphed and twisted, became wider and flatter, with spikes of riders flying through the air. Almost the whole lot went down in front of me in a sickening, convulsing knot. I simply glided by, like a rubbernecking tourist passing a bus wreck. I remembered my dad’s wisdom “if there’s a big crash in the early part of the stage the group will wait for everyone to catch up” so I coasted along waiting for the regroup. I was soon surrounded by 20 tanned, hairless, bleeding and adrenaline fuelled pedalling machines. None of them were prepared to wait, in fact they were hell bent on gaining an advantage. All I could do was pedal hard to try to keep pace. I was in the breakaway on my first stage race. It all came to a head at the first hill. I didn’t know what I was doing and the pedalling machines had no time for idiots mucking up their pacelines. I knew they’d tagged me as an idiot because I heard my number in amongst the kind of language my grandfather, a former wharfy, used when he wasn’t happy with the world. I made it to the top of the first hill, but only just, well behind the breakaway. Soon after, the rest of the bunch overtook me. I stopped, dismounted, sat in the ditch, and let the tears run down my face.
My name is Mike Wilson. I don’t do bike racing. It has been about 30 years since my first race and 22 years since my second, and last, race. I do, mercifully, still love riding. Ken Wilson, my grandfather, started riding in the 1930s. I still have one of his first bikes—he made it himself because he couldn’t afford to buy a good racing bike. It is hand-painted black, made from lugged steel and is remarkably light. It is a two-speed fixed gear—flip the wheel around to select the other ratio. It is the bike of a champion racer.
I know he, along with his brother Jack, was a champion but I can’t tell you much more than that—it’s not something he ever bragged about. When I showed an interest in racing, he was full of advice though, with gems like “if you want to go faster up a hill, put it in a higher gear.” He would sit with me as a young child and show me his scrapbooks from the heyday of competitive cycling, explaining each character enshrined in yellowing newsprint, and what special racing strength they were known for. Ken and Miri, my grandmother, had a bike store in Levin. Southend Cycles is still there, albeit in a different building and with new owners. Ken had sold it by the time I came along. He had also stopped riding well before I was born. A Ford Cortina ignition key split his kneecap in two in a car crash and that was that. For as long as I knew him Ken was muscled and leathery-tanned with the hairless legs of a racer. He never shaved them—years of hard massage apparently killed off his hair.
Max Wilson was my father, and also a champion. Ken and Miri arranged for an apprenticeship for him in Wellington aged 14. When he wasn’t working he was racing, except when he was out dancing with my mum. That bike of Ken’s became dad’s at some point. The last time it was ridden was on a training ride on Hayward’s Hill. Somewhere near the summit Max snapped the steel bars in two at the stem. Unperturbed, he rode that fixed gear bike 40 kilometres home to Horner Street no hands. Max was a pedalling machine. I’ve no doubt he would have been shouting at me in that bunch, if he had been with me in my first race. I also know he would have taken me under his wing and bought me a beer if I had made it back to the clubrooms at the end of the day.
After a typical training ride Max and his mates would meet Ken, or Ken’s dad sitting on a crate of beer at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. They would run up the Allenby Terrace steps to The Terrace and back again until whomever was on crate sitting duty said they could stop and have a beer. Although I was never there, I have the image of these sweaty young racers gulping down sun warmed Double Brown from ABC bottles on the steps of a cathedral, indelibly inked into my brain.
It was the training rides that Max took me on from the age of 15, over the Pahiatua Track and back over Saddle Road, that helped instill in me a love of riding out of town, beyond my comfortable teenage world. Ken and Max did their best to hide their disappointment that I wasn’t to be a racer. But without their efforts, I would never have gained a love of cycling.
Cycling has pulled me, again and again, from the depths of despair. It has helped me find or get to know some of my most treasured friends and it has shown me parts of the world, in exquisite detail. It has made me earn it all, through blood and sweat and tears. I do, mercifully, still love riding.
After Mike wrote this he decided to man up and get his hair cut, by a hairdresser. He still has no interest in racing.
in response to family ties
A LETTER TO THE EDITOR
For a few weeks in 1957, one of the boys didn’t appear at Bible Class in Kelburn. Then, as we finished one Friday night he turned up on a sleek, light machine with skinny tyres and taut cables curving from the handlebars. He said his club was called Poneke and that if I was interested I should see Mr. Pennington at Frost and Guy.
It seemed an unlikely name for anything connected with bike racing, but ‘Frost and Guy’ became a mantra in my teenage mind until I summoned the courage to seek out this manufacturing jeweller’s place: up wooden stairs on a first floor in Manners Street, along from Perrett’s Corner and round the corner from the Roxy Theatre. Messrs. Frost and Guy had long departed and the owner was Alvyn Pennington, who said he’d get me a bike from a friend with a shop in Levin. That friend was Ken Wilson.
To raise the money I took a dirty, £15-a-week summer job at the Evans Bay Power station. In January 1958 I paid £46 to Mr Pennington for a red Humber ‘Streak’ with John Bull tyres, Bluemels plastic mudguards, cottered steel cranks, four gears (46 front, 15-17-19-21 rear) and a Cyclo Benelux derailleur to shift the 1/8 inch Reynolds chain. According to the Reserve Bank inflation calculator, £46 in 1958 equates to $2100 in 2013. Then, exotic derailleur setups were called ‘chain gears’ by bemused cyclists with the ubiquitous Sturmey-Archer hubs. I recall the mechanics at Wellington’s Cambridge Cycles puzzling how to remove a screw-on cluster (not mine), so unfamiliar was it.
My Humber was all-British, all-steel and in hindsight all-junk, but it got me started and I persisted with it for a couple of seasons. ‘Season’ meant racing on the road in winter and on the track in summer. The latter barely existed in trackless Wellington, apart from grass track racing at athletics meetings, including the annual Laykold Cup race at the Hutt Recreation Ground.
My first race was a novices’ 10-miler from Glenside to Tawa and back, at the opening of the road season in May ‘58. I’d been training regularly before school, out to Petone or around the bays. I removed my mudguards and an official tied my gear lever to meet the 70-inch gear restriction. A junior, Paul Brugh, was sent to ride beside the six competitors, who had no idea of pacing. After the halfway turn I rode away from the bunch to win easily and repeated this on two more Saturdays. I was then made a junior, with Paul Brugh, Gordon Tapp, Max Wilson and others among my opponents. We lined up outside the hall at Pauatahanui and took off around the 8.6 mile circuit for maybe five laps; and within a mile I was off the back. It was a rude awakening.
Paul and Max were apprenticed to Mr Pennington (in those respectful days we never called him Alvyn), and worked silver and gold with fine tools at benches, with canvas to catch the filings. The business must have succeeded, since Mr Pennington drove a maroon Jaguar. I was dimly aware that in the misty past he’d raced too; he was now about 45. At nights and weekends, Alvyn’s business was bike racing. It became Paul’s, Max’s and mine too. The Poneke Cycling Club headquartered itself at Frost and Guy, where sometimes we raced in pairs on rollers that made the floor shake, with pointers on a dial to show who was winning.
Mr Pennington had daughters but no sons; so Max, Paul and Alan Everiss (romantically attached to Janice Pennington), were his surrogates. Max belonged not to Poneke but to Port Nicholson Cycling Club, centred on Bill Pycroft’s Junction Cycles in Miramar. In those rugby-mad days bike racing was vanishingly small and every rider knew all the others. The Petone club was based at Ron Ulmer’s Blue Bird Cycles, and there was an Upper Hutt club whose Rob Sowry, lacking a sprint, was invariably second to Petone’s Gary Ulmer in the seniors. Blue Bird and Junction Cycles were the only places you could buy racing gear unless you went to Auckland, where Doug Hills, with his own import licence, nourished a shop like a tiny Aladdin’s cave at the top of Queen Street.
We biked to our events, took the train, or went by car if we knew someone with one. Afterwards there’d be afternoon tea, announcements of times and placings (complicated for handicaps), and presentations. As amateurs, we couldn’t receive cash, but trophies and prizes abounded: sugar bowls, hair dryers and household appliances of all kinds. It seemed that an important part of the officials’ duties was to amass these from donor businesses; the bigger the event the more and bigger the trophies required. I never saw the point of them, but I still have a teapot. Those officials worked hard, timekeeping and marshalling Saturday after Saturday, but we took them for granted as part of the natural order, like our parents. Bill Pycroft would turn up without fail in his brown Austin A40, with daughters in tight pants alert for potential boyfriends, to inspect our bikes before standing white-coated on some windy, rain-swept corner.
My Humber Streak was barely up to the task until Mr Pycroft upgraded it to five speeds with a 3/32” Wippermann chain and added wheels with Fiamme alloy rims, wing-nuts and Michelin tyres. This gave it a turn of speed and me a paragraph in the Sports Post for breaking the hour in a 25 mile time-trial on the Western Hutt Road, where I later helped to build a motorway.
At the start of the 1959 National Hope Gibbons team time trial in Levin, the Humber unshipped its chain. John Peoples, our captain, made a split-second decision to continue without me (the time was taken on the first four riders), so I rode in solo ignominy that a front changer and double chain-wheel would have prevented. Ritchie and Des Thompson were in that team; powerful riders and out of my league. Des is still winning in Australia, I hear.
More mortification came on a training ride when someone riding a gleaming Legnano with smoothly rotating cotterless chainset hurtfully, but correctly, disparaged my Humber as a ‘Raleigh Gent’s Racer’. This, and hero-worship of Continental riders, led me to buy—with many £1 British Postal Orders in those import-restricted days—a Simplex- and Stronglight-equipped Helyett and a fully Campag-equipped Gitane, relegating the Humber to training status. Equipment-wise I now matched the best riders, but for the most part lacked legs to match them.
Mike’s article has a photo of his grandfather, Ken Wilson, with a forest of cups and a sash for winning the Wellington 50 mile provincial championship. He is astride a West Special track bike, so perhaps it was a time trial championship. If so, my Helyett emulated the West Special in the Wellington Centre championship race from Glenside to Raumati and back in 1961. Somewhere, I have a medal from the Frost and Guy factory as proof.
Perhaps Max Wilson made it.