October 18, 2015

Fond Memories of Track Racing in Tasmania in the 70's and 80's

Recently an article I penned about the success of cycling in Tokyo despite the lack of cycling infrastructure was published in Treadlie Magazine, Issue 17 to be exact.

As part of the submission process I was asked to write a short piece of my earliest cycling memories which I did:


When finished I realised that I had written a short but touching tribute to my father, the man who taught me to ride a bicycle, the man who would buy me a number of bicycles during my youth (many times giving the credit to Santa Claus) and the man who would often take his young family to the summer cycling carnivals to watch the local heroes battle it out on the track.

As a child I spent many summers camping at Hawley Beach a (then) small seaside town consisting of a lone General Store and a number of holiday homes. Practically deserted in winter months, the population of the town of Hawley would explode in summer as people fled the stifling heat of the city.  Our stay would inevitably coincide with one of the annual summer athletics and cycling carnivals which we would visit as a family even when I was at a very young age.

It sounds like a disaster, taking children around 7 or 8 years old to the track, but the summer carnivals on Tasmania's North West coast in towns like Latrobe, Devonport and Burnie were experiences most unlike visiting today's velodromes. For starters these were outdoor velodromes. With no roof events were often cancelled or postponed due to inclement weather (I remember my father checking the forecast regularly in the days leading up to an event) and lack of modern lighting was compensated for by long summer evenings where the daylight held on to as late as 9pm.

Instead of relying on airconditoning to cool down families would take a cooler (Esky to Australians) full of ice cold cold beverages yes alcoholic beverages, in glass bottles, I kid you not! There were no rules in the 70's and early 80's forcing spectators to buy alcohol at the venue, nobody counting the number of drinks they bought in, and the concept that adults could not be trusted with glass containers had not entered any ones mind.

While a grandstand may have existed the majority of spectators chose to lay a picnic blanket out on the grassy banks surrounding the ground to soak up the sun without a second thought for hats, sunglasses or other sun protection (we still had ozone in the upper atmosphere back then).

From the early afternoon we'd take up position on the grass and enjoy a picnic lunch prepared lovingly by my mother while watching the proceedings take place in the centre portion of the track which would almost always begin with wood chopping. Yes, wood chopping. Don't scoff until you've witnessed one, because these guys can go through a log of wood faster than a bad curry through a tourist, not to mention the multitude of ways a log of wood can be chopped. My favourite involved competitors cutting notches in a tall log into which they'd slot planks climbing ever higher until they reached the top and cut through the entire width of the log. Fastest man (yes, man, 70's remember?) wins and the fastest man at the time was David Foster, World Champion Axeman. Even now as a 40 something adult I remember that name and looking him up on the internet he appears just as I remember him even today.

David Foster World Champion Axeman, just as I remember him from my childhood.


With wood chopping out of the way the athletics program would begin. Athletics wasn't my thing, so as the velodrome was outdoors and not chock full of seats I'd use that time to run about, make some new friends and organise a game of frisbee or cricket. Just try that in an indoor velodrome and see how far you get. This was another great attraction of the outdoor velodrome, freedom to move, to walk about rather than being stuck in a seat for hours on end which as a 7 year old boy I was physically incapable of. Anyway, as I said athletics was never by thing, but I remember there always seemed to be a disproportionate number of people with the surname "Skeggs" amongst the top runners.


As a child I was at the velodrome for the cycling because cycling involved crashes and when you're 7 crashes are awesome, more-so when its someone else crashing, even better when its a whole pack going down at once. Aside from the crashes the main event at any cycling meet in Tasmania at that time was the appearance of Danny Clarke, World Champion and winner of a silver medal at the Munich Olympic Games. Danny hailed from my home town of Launceston and to nerdy child who, in the age before the internet, collected stamps from all over the world he represented the pinnacle of achievement. He had travelled the world in an age when even travelling interstate wasn't an option for many, he had defeated the worlds best cyclists but above all we loved him because despite his superstar status in the cycling world at the time he was not too proud to compete at the summer carnivals that set the stage for his cycling career when he was a youth.

Danny Clark wins the Latrobe Wheel in 1981.

It is these fond childhood memories that make visits to Japan's velodromes to watch Keirin races so depressing. Sure the majority of Japanese velodromes are outdoor facilities, but they're surrounded by deserted concrete stands as Japanese Keirin fans are predominantly men in their 50's who love drinking, smoking and gambling at the track more than watching the actual races. They spend afternoons in the tracks concrete bunkers and could go an entire race meet without seeing a single cyclist as all they're interested in are the results as they flash up on the screen. No families, no picnics, no festivities, no cycling heroes or personalities, just an army of depressing old men reeking of tobacco and alcohol glued to monitors filled with numbers.

As time passes the number of quaint outdoor velodromes with grassy banks either disappear or are replaced by modern indoor facilities that host more concerts and caravan shows than cycling events I feel nostalgic for simpler times when going to the track was a family event, a social event, not always about the sport but enjoying a great time outdoors and being entertained by champions like David Foster, Danny Clark and a disproportionate number of people with the surname "Skeggs".

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