Where are they now? Jay Sweet
by Jamie Jowett
In the original Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa never wins his fight. All we remember is the epic battle, where the hero gets battered to a pulp, round after round, still swinging but surviving on guts alone.
Jay Sweet didn’t win his epic battle at the Tour de France either. Not many remember that, but many remember how he first fought to win a stage, then to ground out stage after stage, surviving until he was left with nothing.
Growing up in Adelaide, Jay gained an AIS scholarship largely for a finishing sprint that was best described as ‘white hot’. Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady were mates he regularly beat in sprint battles, and in 1998 he won the Commonwealth Games road race gold medal.
After riding in the ZVVZ AIS Giant team alongside Jens Voigt and Matt White, Sweet joined the French second tier team ‘Big Mat-Aubervilliers 93’ and in 1999 was living with Stuart O’Grady and Henk Vogels when he was selected to start the Tour. With two stage wins in the Tour of Britain and three weeks hard racing just prior, the cocky 24 year old had no idea of what to expect.
Early on in the Tour, it’s a twitchy and jostling peloton. On wet roads, Jay kept out of trouble but still muscled in to grab a couple of strong placings in the bunch sprints.
Stage 3 included the infamous Passage du Gois, a slippery tidal road connecting the island of Moirmoutier to the mainland, only passable four hours per day.
Earlier, the bunch was brought down by a spectator stepping out to take a photo. Jay was rear-ended and crashed badly. Fearing he had broken his ankle as he was in too much pain to even stand, the Tour doctor declared it unbroken. Bigger teams used the crash to push the pace, ruining the hopes of several major GC riders. Jay pressed on with an exhausting and almost desperate chase for 30km’s, and reached the back of the bunch as it began to cross the treacherous Passage du Gois.
Seeing the road narrow ahead, the front riders sped up to avoid being caught wide where the water foamed at the edges. With riders travelling 50km’s/hr+ on the wet and narrow pathway, and squeezed only 3 or 4 wide, the inevitable occurred.
Crashing again, Jay pulled himself out of the sludge beside the road. Alongside in the tangle of bikes and bodies was Michelel Coppolino of Mercatore Uno, screaming in pain after having taken a piece of flesh out of his leg with his handlebars.
Later on, seeing Coppolino soldiering on with a bandaged leg, Jay pushed him up a few hills. Jay limped in 175th, 19 minutes behind the stage winner.
After barely surviving the following day, the peloton averaged 50km/hr. Despite this Jay came good and contested the bunch sprint, taking 10th. Over the next few stages, however, his badly sprained ankle deteriorated and he leant on his mates Stuey O’Grady, Robbie McEwen, Henk Vogels and Magnus Backstedt to help him through.
Stage 9 was a 215km haul in cold, driving rain and a head wind. The first main climb was up the Col du Telegraphe (12km’s, 7%), where he lost touch with the Gruppetto. Catching back on down the descent, Jay lost touch again 3km’s after the start of the Col du Galibier climb (18km’s, 7%) after going hunger flat.
Having lost touch with the Gruppetto, Sweet’s position in the race was in trouble. His Directeur told him that he needs to go as fast as he could. Jay heaved his battered body up another Col and sprinted the last km. Things were really getting desperate. You could almost hear Balboa screaming, “Cut me Mickey! Cut me!”
He missed the time cut by 3 minutes.
The race officials, however, in a moment of kindness, and possibly respect for his courage, reinstated Jay. His torment would only continue on the next stage – a 220km Col monster from Sestriere to Alpe D’Huez. Potential knockout punches included the Col du la Croix de Fer (28km’s, 5%), and Alpe D’Huez (14km’s, 8%).
Instead of “being lifted by the crowd so that you don’t notice the climb” as he was told, Jay found the crowd “if anything, annoying!” Continuing to suffer all the way, he said later, “imagine climbing a steep hill after 200km’s, it’s about 30 degrees and there are thousands of people screaming, ringing cow bells, and blowing horns. For the first ten minutes it’s exhilarating, but it gets louder this goes on for an hour until your ears are ringing”.
On the flatter part of Alpe D’Huez into the wind, Jay was really struggling. He’d let a gap open and thought he was gone for sure.
He felt a hand on his back and turned to see a Mercatore Uno rider, pushing him to close the gap as repayment for what he’d done earlier in the Tour for the teammate Coppolino.
With the Grupetto finishing more than half an hour behind the stage winner, Jay took the ‘Lanterne Rouge’ for the first time. The podium ceremony was postponed 34 minutes waiting for the Green Jersey winner Stuart O’Grady, who was riding alongside his mate in the Grupetto.
Stage 12 consisted of another 200km’s and 7 climbs. Over the Col de la Croix de l’Homme Mort (16km’s, 4.5%) Jay rode alone for 40km’s after again dropping off the Gruppetto. Catching a Spanish rider who was obviously giving up, Jay rode past pointing to his back wheel. For the remainder of the stage with him on his wheel, Jay made the cut by 10 minutes. The grateful Spaniard breathed, “Thank you” in English as they crossed the line.
By now, Jay’s status as the ‘Lanterne Rouge’ was gaining huge attention. A cult symbol, the last placed rider in the Tour commands tens of thousands of Euros in appearance fees at the post-Tour Crit races. Every day he did press interviews, bemused.
The longest stage of the Tour came crashing over Jay like a huge wave. Over 236km’s and 7 categorised climbs (and 30 non-categorised ones), he held onto the bunch for a while before going under. Dropping off the back time and again, on the fifth he lost count.
On his own, with the relentless intensity causing pain and confusion, that voice inside his head was telling him, “Do you really want to be here? Go on, put up your hand. Give up now and you can go home”. He fought it though, and finally crawled over the line inside the time cut.
After a welcome rest day he faced the 15th stage, the last one in the Alps. Although determined not to be stuck on his own again, Jay hung on but then slipped 3 minutes back. Trying to catch Damien Nazon at the top of the third Col, he desperately upped the tempo. He quickly realised his big mistake, blowing up as his legs turned to wood. As he crawled up the 4th Col he began to worry.
With the time cut at 38 mins that day, Jay desperately clung to Nazon. On the last Col, his heart sank as Nazon left him and rode away. For the entire last 5 km’s he sprinted, but it seemed to take forever.
Four minutes outside the time limit, Jay Sweet was eliminated.
His Tour was over.
Tired and broken, the media rushed him at the line hounding him with questions. As quoted from his diary on cyclingnews, “My first reaction was disappointment but then I thought about what I had achieved, and how far I had gone”, he said. “I had gained a lot of respect from a lot of people, directors, the media, the public and the riders. I realised that this is not just a cycling event, it’s one of the biggest if not the biggest sporting events in the world and I was a part of it”.
Today, Jay Sweet is as far away from the pain of those mountain stages as he could be. He is now living in New Zealand working as a carpenter. He is working on getting his licence to be able to skipper commercial fishing vessels and is half way complete.
He has a 7 year old son named Max with former kiwi pro cyclist Jacinta Coleman (who is now his ex-wife). He used to keep himself busy with the sport of boxing but his compulsive personality started to take control. He said that his obsession with training got as bad, if not worse than cycling. “There are no latte breaks when you get tired in boxing.”
Jay hasn’t touched a bike since the day he quit cycling and jumped on a plane to New Zealand. There was no retirement race, there was no farewell to his mates. Since the age of six he had been training and racing and he simply wanted to live a normal life like everyone else.
Jay humbly states that he was not born to race bikes. It was something that was placed in front of him at an early age that he was naturally good at. He had a deep hunger to win which was often out of spite. His old AIS coach Heiko Salzwedel would tell him that he wasn’t good enough to beat the big pros and he’d go out there and show him that he could. After a while he lost that hunger. Coming in second to guys like Cippolini just didn’t matter anymore. It was the same as coming in last.
Jay doesn’t even own a bike anymore. He still has a set of jersey and knicks from every team he’s been on and his lucky set of cycling shoes – a white/rainbow colored set of Sidis he always used to wear when he wanted to win a race. That’s enough to bring back the good memories.
In my view, Jay Sweet is a very lucky man. He matched it with the best sprinters and was never intimidated. Bumping and bashing at 65km’s/hr with giants like Cippolini, Zabel, Steels and Kirsipuu. Plus he’s also seen the ultimate limits of his physical and mental endurance, and faced down the horror, something most of us never do. He knows who he is and will never die wondering “what if?”.
Jay Sweet. Tour legend.