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“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch, if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, if all men count with you, but none too much; if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything in it..”
After interviewing Micheal Wilson, this quote seemed to attach itself to my impressions of him. Speaking without ego and still with a great enthusiasm for his sporting achievements, I already knew he was amongst our best ever road cyclists but he was not about to tell me.
His illustrious international career wasn’t without some hiccups along the way though. At the start of the 1980 Moscow Olympics TTT race Micheal Wilson rolled around near the start line on the team issue Malvern Star steel frame bike. His tyres were used, cast-offs from Charlie Walsh’s track team. Lightly raced, with a stage race in Romania the only race of note, this team of four Aussies were up against it.
Coming in the opposite direction was an Eastern Bloc team, hulking steroidal monsters, like giant, muscled up Bocconcini cheese in their skinsuits, on the best aero bikes available. Before they hit the Moscow-Minsk Highway, the Aussies were already psyched out. It all got to the youngest team member and he sat in for nearly 90km’s, but then inexplicably attacked and tried to ride his three teammates off his wheel for the last tortuous 10km’s. They plucked a credible 11th place from the fire, but importantly the experience didn’t faze Wilson, who would build on each subsequent race and opportunity until he had a Palmares amongst Australia’s best.
Through his Aussie team mate John Leslie, who was already established in Italy, Wilson made the big leap to Europe and raced as an amateur in Umbria. Winning several races in Italy meant the strong Italian team Alfa Lum soon came knocking. But it was a strange choice back then, as the Pro peloton had only a handful of English speakers. Those riders would become big names within the sport though, names like Greg Lemond, Andy Hampsten and Phil Anderson.
Wilson was quickly dropped in the deep end with a start in the 1982 Giro d’italia. Although riding for his team leader and Grand Tour heavyweight Marino Lejarreta, Micheal had an opportunity early and went for it. On the second stage, he worked his way to the front on a long flat stage. At about the 230 km mark and with less than 4km’s to go, he went off the front forming a breakaway of three.
Looking across at fellow Neo Pro Laurent Fignon, Wilson was unfazed. He knew the stage ended with a long climb into the Tuscan town of Cortona, and he knew his own time trialling strength on the stretch would suit him. He attacked his cohorts before the bunch came, taking the win a couple of lengths ahead of Fignon and became Australia’s
first ever Grand Tour stage winner (correction: Don Allan was the first by winning a stage of the Vuelta). He took 43rd in his first ever Grand Tour, amongst giants like Hinault, Moser and Van Impe.
In 1983 Micheal raced La Vuelta and early on ran head-on into trouble in the form of patron of the peloton and multiple Grand Tour winner Bernard Hinault. Hinault’s La Vie Claire teammate had escaped up the road and a chase was beginning to form at the front of the peloton. Hinault tried to muscle in at the front and help block the road, thinking his four TDF victories and two Giro’s at that time would afford him some respect. Some manhandling of the Badger by Wilson ensued (“I just scuffed him back a bit”), a pulled jersey, and Hinault disappeared out the back.
That night in the team hotel, Micheal was embarrassed to see Hinault sitting nearby. Wishing the ground would swallow him up, Micheal looked over at Hinault. The man described as “independent, outspoken and quick to take offence” was concentrating on his meal, but noticed Wilson out of the corner of his eye. Hinault looked up, winked at him and smiled, giving an immense of respect to the young Aussie and not a small amount of relief for his personal safety.
Later in that year’s La Vuelta, Micheal found himself in the company of Greg Lemond in the Gruppetto on a particularly hot and gruelling race. Late in the Vuelta, Lemond’s morale was down somewhere near his bottom bracket, and a rider at the front attacked the peloton. The result was carnage, with screams and shouts and a sudden ramping up of speed. Lemond stepped off his bike and jumped straight into his team car.
Guts-ing it out, Micheal stayed on and led the final stage, with several laps in Madrid. Reports from the time were that the crowd numbers were close to one million. With around 15 km’s to go, Micheal snuck quietly away with a small group. Then, with still a couple of km’s to go, he dropped the bunch and hit out for the line. About 50m behind him, and the same ahead of the peloton, Laurent Fignon was out after him, but could not get any closer than the 50m or so. Micheal Wilson had chalked up his second Grand Tour stage win.
Two years later, Micheal Wilson confirmed his absolute quality with a top 10 finish in the GC at the Giro d’Italia. At his lightest ever racing weight, and on the back of a new team base and new training partners, Wilson rode for his team leader Lejaretta and helped him to 4th overall. Wilson meanwhile rode consistently well himself to secure 8th place.
After an ill-feted stint with 7-11 in 1987 where management refused to honor his signed contract, forcing him to return home, Micheal took 50th in the Tour de France in 1988 with his new Swiss team Ariostea. The next year there, he came 3rd in Stage 8 and, also in 1989, Micheal won the third stage at the Tour De Suisse, as well as one in Tirreno Adriatico.
Later, in that year’s Tour de France came a very tough stage as the riders faced lots of 3rd category climbs. Again, Micheal formed a breakaway, but this time miscalculated the speed of the chasing peloton behind. With a long 4-5pm climb at the end, Micheal was feeling very strong. “I had them on toast” he said of his breakaway riders. He hesitated, and didn’t hit them on the climb when all his instincts told him to go. Seemingly his one life regret.
A good indication of the esteem in which Micheal Wilson is held is the fact that he has a Wikipedia page in Italian, not English. He still retains his links to Italy especially, often helping with contacts, advice and introductions for more young Aussie hopefuls. Some years ago, his son Josh headed over and raced the elite amateurs, taking with him none other than fellow Tasmanian Richie Porte.
These days back in his native Tasmania, Micheal and his wife Mary run the well reknowned Velo Wines , a great winery turning out quality whites and some very nice Pinot on the pristine Tamar River.
In his nine years in Europe as a Pro, Micheal Wilson quietly but determinedly set several Australian firsts, not the least of which include being our first ever Grand Tour stage winner and first top 10 Giro GC placer. He did so against some of the greatest ever, names like Hinault, Fignon, Lemond, and Kelly. Undaunted, he raced and won many times against them.
In my mind though, it’s the simple nod and a wink from Hinault that confirm his standing in the sport.
1985 Giro d’italia featuring Micheal Wilson, alongside Hinault, Lemond, Fignon, etc. The Italian commentator does a good job saying “Weelsen”.