These days as he works his deer farm at South Purumbeete in the Western Districts near Melbourne, Clyde looks like he’s never even licked his own plate clean. Lean and long limbed, if anything he’s lighter than his race shape from forty years ago. He’s still got his Silver medal from forty years ago too, when he became Australia’s only medallist in an Olympic men’s road race.
Even at his first race aged 13 with the Camperdown Club in Victoria, Clyde Sefton was a precocious talent. At aged 16 he won the Dandenong to Morwell race and the Melbourne to Colac race, off scratch. Mixing his cycling with weights and boxing to develop as a sprinter, he once headed the bill at the boxing in Colac. After winning the fight, his Mum drove him home after midnight and then woke him up a few hours later to drive him down to Melbourne for the start of the Melbourne to Colac. He won that too.
He soon impressed the National selectors, and under the guidance of Ken Trowell he’d performed so well he gained selection for the Australian team at the Olympics at only 21 years of age. Prior to the Olympics in early 1972, the Australian team went up to North Eastern country Victoria to train. The team made up their own training schedule each day, which usually consisted of long hours on dead roads, and Sefton on his own adding some motor-pacing afterwards. Racing on their own bikes and having to pay their own way over to the Olympics, the Aussie riders were literally fed each night through the generosity of the nearby Lions Club and local farmers.
Once over in Munich forty years ago, their preparation didn’t get any better as they joined the world watching in horror as eleven Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the Olympic village. Kept largely in the dark with little information but with vastly increased confusion and security, the team waited while their race was delayed two days.
Finally race day dawned on the picturesque course in Grünwald, a 190km undulating parcours with smooth roads, a kilometre long hill out the back of the course, and a steeper one about two km’s from the finish. Alongside the 21 year old Sefton, Australia’s small but very determined team included Don Allan, Graeme Jose and John Trevorrow. The Aussies were sent last to the start grid too, further entrenching their feeling of being rank outsiders.
The pace was on immediately the flag dropped as the Aussies fought to stay in contact and move up through the large peloton. At the start, a protest by some Irish Republicans escalated when their colleagues joined the race and started physically targeting the Irish riders, one of whom included Pat McQuaid’s older brother Keiran. Several unsuspecting riders crashed heavily in the melee and were out of the race.
With the race settling down after a couple of laps, a breakaway of about 20 riders got away. Without race radios or team cars, there was plenty of shouting but not much they could do. The break stuck. The strongest rider there was Hennie Kuiper, the Dutch team leader and a man whose career would soon include an amateur and professional World Championship, 5 TdF stage wins, 2 Vuelta stages, and 4 Monuments including Paris-Roubaix and Milan San Remo. In a decisive moment, Kuiper went off the front while his two Dutch team mates blocked for him.
Soon the race began to look like a giant Boa constrictor eating a cow, crushing the life out of this big bunch of riders. Out the back the tail was becoming bigger and bigger, while at the head Kuiper’s Dutch team mates in the breakaway refused to yield, their jaws squeezing and grinding the other riders down. But Sefton was hardening his resolve and widening his elbows, while many of the best riders in the world were being dropped to the back, unable to handle the relentless pressure and speed.
Finally a group of five managed to get away, and began to chase Kuiper down. As the 23km laps ticked over, his 3 minute lead was steadily brought down but the finish line was coming soon. After 4 hours and 14 minutes and 40 km’s on his own, Kuipert won by 23 seconds, taking his helmet off for the cameras and waving it in the air. Clyde Sefton sprinted to take a clear second on the front of the fast finishing bunch, and his place in Australian cycling history with Silver. Tailing in behind him were the likes of Freddy Maertens, Cees Priem, Francesco Moser and Regis Ovion.
The drama was not over for the day though, as the Spaniard Jaime Huelamo stood wearing the Bronze medal on the dias, hiding the fact that he was a cheat. Days later his test came back positive and he was stripped of the medal. In a cruel twist, the fourth placed finisher Kiwi Bruce Biddle was not tested after the race and the IOC ruled that he would therefore not be awarded the Bronze medal.
Straight after the 1972 Olympics, Clyde raced for a Dutch amateur team earning success in Europe and the next year won GC at Scotland’s Milk Race. He signed with Ron Webb, an Australian team manager based in the UK who had compiled the first Australian team of riders and raced them across Europe. By getting the next race promoter to pay their tickets and food bills, they raced the Tour de Suisse, Tour of Sweden and Giro D’Italia, amongst other smaller races. Clyde kept up his end of the bargain with some good wins.
In 1974, Sefton won gold in the road race at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games and two years later won the Australian road race national title. Still an amateur, he was again selected for the Olympics team for Montreal. After winning the last stage in the Quebec to Montreal Tour just prior, the lanky Aussie was quietly confident of a good showing in the road race. On a cold wet miserable day though, his good form just withered and he finished with the bunch, disappointed with his 28th place.
After turning professional, Clyde signed with the Italian team Fiorella-Mocassini team and raced for two years with them alongside champion Italian Mauro Simonetti. Sefton raced the Giro d’Italia in 1977 and Giro Lombardia later that year. Still in good form from Europe, Clyde came back to Australia to take 2nd in the Sun Tour in 1978, a race that he would eventually win in 1981.
Racing on the track, Sefton paired up with Peter Delongville to win the Melbourne 6 Day, and also at the iconic Dortmund track.
Clyde raced with Italian teams Zonca-Santini in 1979 doing the Giro D’Italia and San Giacomo-Benotto in 1980, but with a cataract requiring a serious operation, Clyde lost much of his race season and was relegated down the team food chain to ‘gregario’ (Domestique). The way it worked then was for the team capitano to totally rule over his team, requiring the gregario to push them up hills, even leaning on them for long periods of time to save themselves. As virtual slaves, the gregarious were unable to even finish most races. Despite this, Clyde raced for several Italian teams before coming back to Australia after 1981.
In 1983 Clyde placed second at the national road race. And took three stage win in the Sun Tour, He also had a hard fought win in the Melbourne to Warrnambool, Australia’s true hard man’s Classic.
Part of the prize in the Sun Tour that year was a ticket to Italy and a spot with team Alfa Lum, so Clyde headed back. This time however, the gregarios in Italy had finally had enough and rebelled, telling team managers and race organisers that they wouldn’t put up with the harsh feudal environment. Soon, races were being animated like never before and huge increases in fields being able to finish a race.
After racing with Italian team Malvor-Botecchia in 1983, Clyde headed home to win the iconic race the Melbourne to Warnambol, by which time he was ready to retire.
Back living in the same area he grew up in, Clyde Sefton’s life now has a nice symmetry to it. As we head to the Olympic Road race this week, he shares a dream that one young Aussie will join him at his immortal standing of an Aussie cycling medallist. It took him a while to appreciate, but the Olympic silver medal is a fitting accomplishment for Clyde, and one that he’d love to discuss with the next winner.
Thanks to Clyde Sefton and Gary Trowell his help in the writing of this article.
Olympic Games Munich 1972: Cycling Individual Road Race – See @3m50s when Clyde Sefton comes across the line in 3rd place (eventually getting silver). Notice the crash as a result of an IRA protest at 2:12.
See more on Clyde Sefton here:
cyclingnews – Olympic Moments: 1972 – Sefton’s silver for Australia in Munich
TopBike TV – video interview with Clyde Sefton
The Age – Beginner mind can lift team from behind