“The day ‘Chopsy’ joined the greats……..”: by K B Hill

Barry Burns was half-way through a fencing job up Myrrhee-way, and had stopped for a cuppa when the news came through………

 

“Someone from Wangaratta has won ‘The Warrnambool’,” was the caller’s message..

 

“Oh, that’d be Glenn Clarke. Good on him,” I said.

 

“Nah, apparently it’s some young kid that you’ve had a bit to do with……….”

 

Cycling legend Burns had to sit down and let the news sink in. The ‘kid’ was 18 year-old Brendan McAuliffe, whom he’d had under his wing for a couple of years .

 

Brendan was a talented lad, but when he’d enquired about the prospect of tackling the 1995 ‘Warrnambool’, his mentor warned him of the pitfalls he’d face in the Southern Hemisphere’s longest one-dayer – the second oldest cycling event in the world.

 

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“It’s a brutal race. There’ll be times when you’ll want to give it away. But remember, the other blokes’ll be feeling the same as you. Just hang in there…….” Barry told him.

 

“Deep down, though, I didn’t give him a chance…………..”

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‘Burnsy’ had a unique insight to the iconic event. Most will be familiar with the story of him returning from the Vietnam War with his body intact and his mind shattered……And after getting back on the bike as a form of therapy, how he’d reconstructed his life.

One of his targets along the way was the ‘Warrnambool’ of 1988. By this stage, even though he’d turned 41, he was ranked among the nation’s best-performed road cyclists, and was assigned to the scratch mark for the journey.

 

With characteristic determination, he held off fellow scratch-men, including Paul Miller, Tony Hughes and ‘Bulldog’ Besanko, and hurtled to the line to achieve the cherished distinction of First and Fastest………

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When Brendan McAuliffe was growing up, Barry Burns was one of a number of riders who had thrust Wangaratta to the forefront of the cycling world.

 

“For instance, I was just a little tacker at Our Lady’s Primary School the day Dean Woods turned up to show us the Medals he’d won at the Olympics,” Brendan says. “That left a big impression on me.”

 

“And there were a few others who were at the pinnacle of their form too, like Olympians Glenn Clarke and Damien McDonald, and his brother Dean, who’d represented Australia.  John Kent, Chrissy Neate and Barry Bodsworth were others with whom I’d come into contact……”

 

“But my cousin, Chris Long, from Shepparton, who once won a Melbourne to Yarrawonga Classic, and showed oodles of potential as a teen-ager, was probably the main reason I was drawn into the bike-game……”

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I’ve contacted ‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe at his shop – South-East Cycles – in the Gold Coast suburb of Beenleigh. He’s been running the business for just on nine years and admits that life can get pretty full-on. Some days he’ll put in a couple of hours fixing bikes, pop home for brekky, then head back to work for a full day, before he drags the bikes in from the front of the shop , just on dusk.

 

“Funny,” he says, “…I used to hang around Rob Sullivan’s Bike shop in my early teens, asking him if he needed a hand…..and here I am doing exactly the same thing nearly 30 years later.”

 

He’s been comfortably domiciled in idyllic Queensland since 2000. What clinched it, he says, was meeting his wife Olivia up there, finally settling down to a normal lifestyle – and raising their two daughters, Ella and Aslee.

We get yapping about his brief, but meteoric career – and the day he pulled off one of cycling’s biggest boilovers………….

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Brendan was 15 – and chock-full of ambition – when he approached Barry Burns and asked if the veteran could supervise his training.

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“I’d climb into his green Panel-Van and head off to races. He was a terrific coach; always eager to impart his knowledge. You know, he never charged us a cent. We were all really grateful to him for what he did for us,” he says.

 

There was already a ‘stable’ of about nine, which included prodigious talents Baden Cooke and Rowan Croucher. Cooke, of course, was to become a pro cycling great, competing in the Tour de France on seven occasions, and collecting the highly-prized Green Jersey in 2003.

 

Croucher, according to Brendan, was one of those riders who ‘could have been anything’. Recruited to the VIS, there were huge raps on him, but he possibly lacked the necessary hunger to really push himself.

 

Some would term it ‘The Mongrel Element’. It’s said that you can have all the talent in the world, but if you haven’t got that bit of ‘shit’ in you, you’ll probably fall short.

 

Brendan was reminded of this in a Club Combine they were contesting around the hills near Thoona.

 

“ Rowan had got right away from us this day, and won comfortably. ‘Cookey’ and I were chatting as we were riding up this hill, when he looks across, starts clicking down the gears, and takes off.”

 

“Anyway, he finishes 6th and I floated in to come in a distant 7th. Dad (Max) gave me a hell of a serve about not sprinting to the finish. I said: ‘ But it was only for 6th.’”

 

“He snorted back: ‘That’s why he’ll make it and you won’t. He’s a friggin’ ‘animal’.”

 

“And he was dead right. Cookey wanted it more. He had an abundance of ‘mongrel’……”

 

Brendan’s improvement was gradual, but the thing that kicked him along was being exposed to the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of European cycling.

 

Still not old enough to hold a driver’s licence, and envious of the stories his cousin had fed him of his experiences in Holland and Belgium, he decided to join him over there for a few months.

 

It gave him the opportunity to ride in events like the Junior Tour of Flanders, and several longer-distance races which, he found, suited him to a tee.

 

On his return home – and still in excellent nick – he began looking around for some more challenges, but discovered that there wasn’t much available for a junior rider like himself.

 

That’s when he began to entertain the notion of having a crack at the ‘Melbourne to Warrnambool’…..

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He’d read of the thousands of instances of Club riders, blessed with a handy mark and a head full of dreams, being unable to cope with the bitter October crosswinds which would batter them to such an extent that they were unable to complete the 264km trip of the iconic ‘Warrnambool’.

 

Yet he’d also been told of the percentage of out-markers who’d taken advantage of more favourable conditions, and prevailed.

 

Sometimes, they said, it all comes down to the wind. Dean Woods created history when he covered the distance in a remarkable 5 hours 12 minutes 26 seconds in 1990. Three years later, he rode 2 hours 23 minutes slower, yet finished First and Fastest – to complete one of his finest cycling performances.

 

The bottom-line was that, prior to this Centenary running of 1995, eight of the previous nine races had been taken out by a scratch-rider.

 

“I said to Phil Griffiths, who drove me down, that I was looking at it as simply trying to better myself……… just going for a bit of a training ride,” Brendan recalls.

 

As a junior, he wasn’t technically eligible to ride any distance over 120km. But he was given a dispensation by the Chief Commissaire…..”probably because they didn’t think I’d finish”.

 

And a favourable mark of 60 minutes helped. ”When I picked up my number the day before, the bloke behind the desk said: ‘Geez, you did alright there. You’ve just gotta finish it now.”

 

Feeling a touch toey, only minutes from the start, he felt the urge to go to the ‘loo’….and worse still, discovered he had a puncture.

 

“Out of nowhere, Graeme Daws rushed out of the crowd and said: ‘Settle down, son. You have your pee, I’ll fix this’ ……… “

 

“Once we got going, it was great. The wind was up our arse all the way. I felt really comfortable, but didn’t entertain the thought of winning.”

 

“When we got to the 180km mark I was in ‘LaLa Land’…….buggered. I remembered Burnsy saying, when you get like this, just put your head down and go harder. Then I became refreshed at 200-220 and started winning sprints. I think I took out the last 2 or 3. It definitely wasn’t hard. I almost felt guilty in some ways…………”

 

Three hundred metres from the finish, Brendan sprinted to the line, to the applause of the crowd gathered along Raglan Parade.

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He’d entered the record books, as the winner of the Centenary ‘Warrnambool’ – and collected the handsome $5,000 prize-money.

 

“I had a couple of regrets. One, that I was too young to appreciate it. We had to come home that night, and I missed the opportunity to say to the Warrnambool people: ‘Wow, what a privilege it was to compete”……..

 

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‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe and his coach, Barry Burns

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Controversy reigned in the aftermath of the race. Classy German rider Marcel Wust, who recorded Fastest-Time honours, declared that: “I’ve just competed in my first, and last, ‘Warrnambool’ “. He couldn’t quite get his head around the handicapping system, that had left him, as the quickest rider, so far behind the winning bunch.

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But, to the victor went the spoils.

 

Brendan used his prize-money to fund a return trip overseas, where he contested several big races on the European circuit, including the 320km ‘Hanover to Berlin’.

 

He learned a lot, but was stricken with Glandular Fever, an illness that cuts down many young sportsmen in their prime. It prompted his return to Australia, and forced him to hang up the bike, presumably, he thought, until he’d recovered full fitness.

 

That never came to pass…….the burgeoning pro career of ‘Chopsy’ McAuliffe was over, at the age of 20.

 

He maintains a fervent interest in cycling, and his most recent trip down south was to take part in the High Country Charity Ride earlier this year.

 

No doubt a few of his old Wangaratta mates would have been keen to re-visit the day he rode to fame 24 years ago…………….

 

P.S: Brendan McAuliffe was the last winner of the ‘Warrnambool’ in its status as a Handicap Event. For the last 23 years it has been conducted as a Scratch Race.

 

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Wangaratta’s four ‘Warrnambool’ winners: Graeme Daws 1959, Barry Burns 1988, Dean Woods 1993, Brendan McAuliffe 1995

This piece was originally published at KB Hill’s On Reflection blog.

 

For more KB Hill at the Almanac, CLICK HERE:

 

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