At one point in time, if you were a young Italian lad you had two choices for a sport: football (soccer) or cycling. I recently met a man who, at the age of 7, chose “the beautiful sport” of cycling. He’s been pedalling for the past 60 years. His name is Felix and he’s a masters cyclist.
The Waratah Masters Cycling Club is a Sydney based cycling club that caters for cyclists over the age of 30. The Waratahs are very well known in the Sydney cycling scene; the club’s members are quite visible in their orange/yellow jerseys and their year-round weekly races are always well attended by members of other clubs. It was at one of these races, early on a cold Sunday morning, that I found myself with a recording device looking for some Waratahs to talk to. BNA’s glorious leader, Christopher Jones, was racing in D grade and he had arranged for legendary cycling photographer Mark Gunter to come out to the Lansdowne Cycle Track in Sydney’s south west to take some shots of the action.
If you want to talk to cyclists, the best place to position yourself is near the source of coffee. The source at Lansdowne is Dave from Black or White Mobile Café. He has been dispensing coffee and cakes to the Waratahs for a few years now, ever since a weekday customer of his told him about the Waratahs and invited him to a race. That customer has since moved on, but Dave is still there early every Sunday morning. I could be cynical and say that it’s a good business situation and he has a captive audience, but after observing him this particular morning, I can see it’s something else. He knows many of the riders by both name and brew and he is an apt cycling pundit. He takes pre-orders for coffee and makes sure they’re ready with no waiting when the customer finishes his ride. He even takes coffee orders from riders in the peloton, shouted out from the back of the bunch between laboured breaths.
I’m not there long before I’m talking to John (aged 54) and Keith (aged 69) about the performance enhancing benefits of Dave’s brews. They’re intelligent and well-read gents and we discuss the physiological and psychological benefits of coffee for the competitive cyclist, how long it should be “taken” before riding and whether sugar is a good idea or not. This is the type of discussion you would have with any sports person about supplements, energy drinks or training methods, but the conversation with John and Keith deviates into how coffee affects your heart rate and blood pressure and what that means for the masters cyclist. I don’t think younger riders talk about heart stress tests in the same way, or with the sense of finality, that these guys do.
John started racing only about 3 years ago, and it grew out of social riding with friends. He was looking for some more groups to ride with during the week and stumbled across the Waratah’s group rides. He finds racing to be “a bit of fun, addictive, and a good excuse to buy some bling”.
“It’s a great leveller too. On my first ride when I went out with the Waratahs, I told my kids that I was going out with the grandfather’s group and I went home with my head hung in shame”, John Confesses. “I got absolutely thrashed up hill, down dale, on the flat, everywhere. You can live with a younger person beating you, that’s OK, but I went home the other day and bragged to my neighbour that I held off a 74 year old in a sprint”.
“That was the day he was crook, wasn’t it?” Keith asks cheekily, and the conversation halts temporarily as a sprint prim is contested. When the racers have passed I ask Keith, who started racing at 55, why these guys get out here on a Sunday morning to race.
“The Waratahs did a survey a few years ago”, he replies, “on why people join the club and came up with about 25 well supported reasons for doing it. It starts with staying healthy at our age; [cycling] is one of the few sports that you can do until you die. Sir Hubert Opperman died in his 90s while on his trainer at home!”
“Then there’s the camaraderie. The average age of the riders is about 56, with blokes ranging from 30 all the way up to about 80, all racing. It’s something to do on a Sunday morning: have a chat, tell lies, drink coffee. Then there’s the hubris of old age, that if I practice just a little bit more I’ll be as good as I was at 18; tomorrow I’ll be right, I’m not really deteriorating at all.”
“And”, he adds, “you get to wear all the sexy gear and buy new bikes – we can’t buy Lamborghinis or Ferraris, but we can buy top of the line bikes.”
Keith and John wandered off to watch the rest of the race in progress and I found another group of friendly Waratahs (a redundant statement; they’re all friendly) consisting of Greg (aged 55), Mike (aged 65) and Felix (aged 67). Greg was dropped from D grade today and puts his poor performance down to a lack of training. “There’s a technique here [in the Waratahs], you get to retirement and then you’re alright because you can ride four days a week. I’m still working, there’s not a hope.” Greg runs a ground maintenance business and claims that riding to work to increase his hours on the bike isn’t an option for him. I suspect he’s just not trying hard enough. Greg started racing in his 40s; he played division 2 soccer for 36 years but couldn’t do double headers on the weekend anymore. He had to find something a bit easier on his body and “bikes don’t break the body, except when you fall off”.
Mike, who is retired and can ride 4 days a week, rode in C grade which “started off like a bunch of school boys” and after half the field got dropped he managed to come at the rear of the front bunch. Felix had more luck in E grade, coming second in a break away. Why does he still do it? “It was either the nursing home or here, so I chose here”, says Felix, “Cycling is my medication”.
It’s not just the Waratahs who have positive things to say about the racing in this club. Gert (aged 41) from my club, LACC (Lidcombe-Auburn Cycling Club), grew up with cycle sports, being from Holland, and has ridden competitively since he was young (with a bit of a career break in the middle). Gert believes that the racing at Lansdowne, and with the Waratahs in general, is better than a lot of other club racing out there. “The older guys seem to sort themselves out a bit better when it comes to the last laps”, he says, “and that makes it safer for everyone – a bit more sanity and a bit more experience”.
The question I’ve been asking everyone this particular morning is “Why?” Gert suggests that “it’s the next logical step after they’ve done enough social riding. They meet people who race and then they give it a go and become hooked“. Interestingly, he doesn’t see cycle commuting as a way into sport cycling, but rather the other way around: “commuting is something that serious riders do”, at least in Australia. “Sunday social rides”, according to Gert, “are the way into racing. Social rides, then training rides, then racing and probably then commuting. Obviously, there are non-racing commuters out there, but the serious ones seem to demonstrate skills that you get only through racing”.
It wasn’t only experienced sports cyclists I spoke to that day, there were plenty of race virgins and neophytes braving the cold as well. I’ll speak to them in Part 2 of this article and get some advice on masters cycling from Australia’s leading expert on the subject.
Waratah Masters Photo Gallery
Photos © Mark Gunter Photography