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With the 117-year old Melbourne to Warrnambool being raced tomorrow I thought it would be appropriate to pay tribute to one of the races greatest champions, Peter “Bulldog” Besanko who won the Warny three times off scratch. Good luck to all 229 competitors racing tomorrow in one of Australia’s greatest Spring Classics!
Where Are They Now? Peter “Bulldog Besanko” – The Warrnambool Warrior
When I first spoke with Peter Besanko, it was lunchtime on a baking hot 35 degree day. Peter was up working on a roof in his job as a plumber, and needless to say he didn’t have much time for my questions, even less for talking up his own cycling career.
Born in 1955 in Pascoe Vale, and racing for the Footscray Cycling Club in Melbourne during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, the race scene was tough and unforgiving. That didn’t matter to Peter Besanko, who was almost from another time anyway. A time where everything was hard-won, bugger-all prize money was awarded, and finish line celebrations were for show-offs. But then again, no one ever had an easy win racing against Peter Besanko anyway.
As a 21 year old, Besanko announced himself in 1976 with a win in the National championship, the GC win at the Sun Tour and third placing in the Melbourne to Warrnambool, a race that would later become synonymous with the hard man.
In 1977 Peter raced with the Australian feeder team to the French Gitane team, but the leap to racing in Europe was still a difficult one, where English speakers had to be ten times better than the local riders to get a place on a team. Later that year, Besanko finished fourth in the Sun Tour. Coming in tenth place behind him was another tough little bloke, a Frenchman by the name of Bernard Hinault.
In 1979, he signed with the senior Gitane team but didn’t get the chance to head to Europe for another few years. Still, in Australia he placed third in the Sun Tour behind John Trevorrow and Terry Hammond and took third in the Warrny as well, as he had done the year before. The next year he came second in the Nationals, and was third in 1982. He also placed second behind Clyde Sefton in the Sun Tour in 1981, and second as well in 1984 to Gary Sutton. A season racing in Belgium between those years yielded some good results but no offers to make that next move up.
After winning the Sir Hubert Opperman trophy for Australian cyclist of the year in 1979 and 1981, Peter won it again in 1984. Only Cadel Evans has won it more times. That year he finally broke through with a win in the Warrny, breaking the race record of the world’s second oldest bike race, and being signed to the iconic French Peugot-Shell-Michelin team. After several wins and podiums racing in Belgium in 1983, the next year Besanko signed with the iconic Peugot-Shell-Michelin team in France, and raced with them in Belgium in 1985. The distance from home to Europe was as far as ever then, despite Phil Anderson raising some interest back home after his successes in Europe.
Racing in the 1985 World Championships in Treviso, Italy, Peter crossed the line in 30th place, a minute behind the winner Joop Zoetemelk, and Greg Lemond and Moreno Argentin. Behind him in his bunch were giants like Stephen Roche, Phil Anderson, Charley Mottet and Francesco Moser.
Besanko won the Melbourne to Warrnambool twice more, in 1989 and 1992, each time off scratch and breaking the race record.
It’s not surprising that he rates the Warrny as his favourite race by far, in part for the many battles he had in the race with fierce rival, best mate, and first cousin David Allen (brother of Don). David Allen won the Warrny three times, with Peter Besanko standing behind him on the podium for every one of them. Clearly, they both had a natural affinity for this race.
Like Peter himself, there is a natural toughness about the Warrny, with its perennial cross winds and crashes, and 250kms+ of leg crushing dead road. In that race, the winner is often the one who defeats the elements first, ahead of his opponents.
His second win in the Melbourne-Warrnambool in 1989 was arguably Peter’s most difficult but also his best. After returning from racing in Belgium in 1985, a serious car crash and several months in hospital wasted much of his 1986, and he spent plenty of time with doubts lingering that he would ever race again.
In mid 1989 his mate David Allen was tragically killed in a car accident, and months later Besanko saddled up for another tilt at the Melbourne-Warrnambool. Besanko rode with David’s photo on his handlebars, at a time when those things actually meant something.
About his win, Peter said, “I thought I had the form to win and felt good on the day, but it was the memory of David, his comradeship, courage and ability which inspired me on to victory”.
Besanko finished just outside the top ten in the 1990 Sun Tour, ahead of Tour heavyweights like Tony Rominger and Jelle Nijdam, and coming only a handful of places behind Pedro Delgado, who had won the Tour de France and La Vuelta in the previous couple of years.
Outside of his treasured Melbourne-Warrnambool wins, probably the best example of his racing tenacity and strength was a race in November 1990, the Mt. Buller Cup. According to race reports and my spy in the bunch, for most of the race Peter Besanko was in his usual position up the front, working hard, pulling turns that progressively shelled riders out the back.
Sometimes his mere presence was enough to make other riders suffer, but that day the weather was doing all of that. For most of the race it had rained, like freezing nails into the eyes. The dead, leg sapping roads made the race all the more torment to those who hung on.
One-by-one, the front bunch each stole a look across at their main threat as they reached the gates at the bottom of Mt. Buller. The temperature seemed to drop even further just looking at Peter Besanko.
With a boxer’s nose and a bantam weight’s tough wiry body, he was compact and brutally effective on the bike. Round after round, attack after attack. He probably could have been a fighter slugging it out in the ring, and on a day like this, my spy tells me he was.
The Mt. Buller Cup that day was battered by winds the entire way from Mansfield to the base of the mountain, with stronger local teams with European riders using Echelons to decimate the field. Hard men from East Germany and Belgium were chewing their bars just to hang on. From the tollbooth gates at the start of the 16km climb, there is a sharp rise in gradient for three km’s or so, and this was where the screws were turned.
With about 2km’s to go at the notorious Hells Corner, just as the gradient rose to 13%, the rain became sleet. By the last hairpin, about a km from the top, the snow was falling and Besanko crossed the line first at the village gates, his Gavia moment barely seen due by a handful of hardy spectators in the freezing conditions. That day he had simply ‘out-toughed’ the other riders.
Besanko took second place in the nationals in 1991, and won the Warrny for the third time the next year at age 37. He stood on the podium in third place at the Nationals that year as well.
In the 1996 Herald Sun Tour, the 41 year old Besanko led a team which included young guns Robbie McEwen and Henk Vogels, up against the likes of a young Scott McGrory and Stephen Hodge. A tall skinny 21 year old from Rosanna by the name of Matthew Keenan rounded out the field, but by now the ability of Besanko to put them all in the pain locker was fading.
After 17 years of professional racing, he took up a role as Team Manager of Motorola-Festina on the Tour of Tasmania in 1998. Other Team Managers at the Tour that year included Phil Anderson (Volvo-Cannondale), Danny Clark (WIS) and Dave Saunders (Jayco VIS). On the road was a local gold mine of talent, including winners of Grand Tour stages, National champions and previous Tour of Tasmania winners. Riders like Neil Stephens, Matt White, Dave McKenzie, Nick Gates, Duncan Smith, Jamie Drew, Tristan Priem, Brett Aitken, Tom Leaper, Matt Wilson and Al Iocuone. Commentator Phil Liggett was almost frothing at the mouth getting through all the names in the bunch, but he must have been apoplectic when a young Mountain Biker named Cadel Evans won the stage up Mt. Wellington by 2 minutes to take the GC by 5.
By virtue of necessity, but also sheer ability, Peter Besanko ended his racing career as both a quality One day Classics racer and a Stage racer. I once read a definition of the two types of races that went something like, “Classics are the racing equivalent of slamming your hand in a car door, but stage racing is when you take your hand out of the door, then put it back in and slam it again, over and over. The GC winner is the one who slams their hand fastest…”While others with far less Palmares have gleaned a good living out of the sport, Peter Besanko realised his time had finally come and he walked away. Living up in the hills of Melbourne these days, he spends his spare time training a few harness horses and catching up with Don Allen.
Peter Besanko still holds a place in the minds of many as a tough, hard bloke, who won a hell of a lot of races through his sheer tenacity. A fearsome competitor in his day, and just as hard to get an interview out of…
References: Shane Goss – “Climbing towards the greatest race on earth”, Bicycling Australia Magazine 2010.
”The Warrnambool Warrior” was a term coined by Jeff Wells in The Australian Magazine