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November 26, 2013
Years before we used Bitcoins to pay our iTunes account, cycling fans in Australia rarely saw the world’s best cyclists. Race results drifted back from Europe in three-month-old magazines or were hidden deep in the newspapers, all part of the secret code of being a cycling fan.
In this 1980s micro-climate of Sydney cycling, Matt Bazzano was a local kid with a cool Euro name and a cycling pedigree to match. In this edition of Where Are They Now, Jamie Jowett traces the career of Matt Bazzano and looks at what the Bank Race winner does with his time now.
The name Bazzano was a handy door-opener, with his uncle Charlie racing for Australia at the 1948 Olympics, and with his grandfather Leo, running a local manufacturer, Velox Engineering Works. VEW was a maker of fine steel hubs, stems and handlebars, and also the sole distributor for a then little-known Japanese brand called Shimano.
With a compact, easy style, and all-round ability, Bazzano had a smooth trajectory through junior cycling ranks in NSW. Overshadowing him at the St. George Cycling Club were Martin Vinnicombe and Brett Dutton, who would go on to win multiple Commonwealth Gold medals, a world title and silver Olympic medal. A couple of years behind them, Matt placed at junior state titles and was always thereabouts at nationals.
After leaving university in 1986, Matt’s uncle, Ron Webb and Gary Sutton combined to send Matt and club-mate Clayton Stevenson (on the right in feature photo) to Holland with an amateur team. Living with a local family and racing in Europe, Matt found the whole experience thrilling and was desperate to return as soon as possible.
Back in Australia, Matt raced wherever and whenever he could. He didn’t know his race schedule day-to-day then, and certainly can’t remember it now. Punctuated by big races like the Goulburn to Sydney and the Grafton to Inverell, Matt’s dad drove him back and forth across NSW. Most races were all-age handicaps, raced in winter against ex-pros and crusty vets where even a placing was hard-earned.
In 1988 Matt made the Australian squad for the Barcelona Olympics, but left for France when he wasn’t selected. On a basic retainer from a local French club, he raced five days a week, mostly in Kermesses, where the antics of the pros was eye-opening stuff for a naive Aussie amateur. Matt would return though, and swapped French summers for Australian ones for another seven years.
Once home, the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic beckoned. After its first edition in 1982, ‘The Bank Race’ had been building in prestige with quality international riders, all due to the hard work and occasionally audacious promises of its organiser Phil Bates. The race defined the period when amateur and professional racing were coming together. Previously, riders had to choose between aiming for either Olympic glory or professional races, never both.
The Bank Race provided a high-level race for many amateurs who otherwise only had national events or club racing. An entire generation of Aussie champions had their first taste of stage racing in The Bank Race — names like Matt White, Robbie McEwen, Jono Hall, Stephen Hodge, Patrick Jonker, Jay Sweet, Scott Sunderland, Dave McKenzie, Steven Wooldridge, Mick Rogers and Henk Vogels. The few Aussie winners included Nick Gates, Andrew Logan and Gary Trowell.
Internationals who rode The Bank Race included Brits Chris Lilywhite and Jez Hunt, Americans George Hincapie and Scott Moninger, and Euros Raimondas Rumsas, Jan Koerts, Eros Poli and Marcel Wüst. Also, there were the much-feared East German riders, the likes of Olaf Ludwig, Jens Voigt, Erik Zabel, and ‘93 race winner Jan Ullrich. In all, nearly 500 Olympians and 76 world champions and Olympic gold medallists competed in The Bank Race.
These internationals taught young Aussies many valuable lessons in stage racing, preparation, and the effort needed to make it at the top level.
The Bank Race was a rare opportunity for fans to see pros in the flesh, although sometimes it was a bit like seeing Heston Blumenthal washing dishes in a dirty kitchen. A knackered overseas pro spat out the back of a bunch still looks pretty much like any other knackered racer spat out the back of a bunch.
Even until the mid ‘90s, Australian cycling was still very much a battlers’ sport. Unlike the ‘new golf’ of today, it was more akin to boxing for its toughness and meagre existences for competitors. Without the AIS or NRS as a pathway, riders were forced to battle their way through a decidedly unglamorous existence at home before leaping alone into the unknown overseas.
Matt Bazzano climbs the Bulahdelah mountains circa 1990.
The Bank Race was post-season training for many young up-and-coming European and American amateurs, and a continuation of a long grinding season for many Eastern Bloc professionals. Either way, it provided a rare challenge for the young Australians competing.
The Bank Race was a unique format in the same way water-boarding is a unique method of torture. Each day included duel stages — a long road stage in the morning and an afternoon criterium. Double stages meant the organisers could make money from towns hosting a start and finish, but for the riders all it meant was they had around an hour’s break in between. A painful and dangerous crit in front of a few thousand bemused spectators is the last thing most riders wanted, especially when racing for a few seconds.
Over a thousand kilometres of rugged country roads and tight street crit circuits, riders in The Bank Race would crash, bump and all but kill for sprint primes of as little as $50. Conditions would have sent Bear Grylls packing long ago. In an era before race radios and pre-race preparation local knowledge was vital, and local cross winds would devastate the peloton as teams quickly took advantage.
Pre-race strategies could be blown apart and riders constantly dropped back to the team car for tactical re-evaluation or just to find out what the hell was going on. Director sportifs were hardened and race-savvy types, not posing for the camera or Backstage Passes.
A unique facet of The Bank Race was how, after the last stage, the riders would return to their team tents to sell their team kit. While the exhausted riders looked grumpier than Harrison Ford at a Star Wars convention, for the lowly paid domestiques and neo-pros, selling team kit was a necessary part of their meagre salary package. From an exhausted neo-pro slumped in his deckchair, I once bought a pair of PDM knicks with his name on a label still sewn inside. I rode with six degrees separated from greatness, as I watched him race in the Tour years later.
In 1988, the race was a truly epic Tour. Starting on the Gold Coast, the race dumped its exhausted riders over 1,824km away in St.Kilda. At the next year’s edition, things were slightly easier with only 960km to race.
At the start line, the young Hampshire Homes team was led by its GC hope Matt Bazzano. The team was run and funded by Sydney psychiatrist and property developer Dr. Robert Hampshire, a man with seemingly no limits to his personal ambition, or solarium use. The ‘80s may have been a travesty of fashion, but they were good times.
Matt talks fondly about his time on the team and of Bob himself: “Hampshire really created a great team, we were the envy of everyone”. Matt and the other riders enjoyed the pop and crackle of a team owner who arranged photos of his team with his Porsche 944, and said things like “I hope to have them use my home in the hills behind Monte Carlo as a base for pre-season training”.
“We were well paid and able to train while most other guys had to go get a job”, says Matt. Undoubtedly Bob was in it for the love of the sport, because sponsoring a cycling team in Australia in the ‘80s was a sure-fire way to lose friends and not influence people.
The start line at the 1989 Bank Race was like the movie American Flyers, dominated by stereotypically dour Russian riders from the Smirnoff Vodka team and hulking East Germans from Team Bosch. With sprinters built like beer kegs, the only time these Eastern Bloc riders performed badly was in a skinfold test. Matched against them were Americans from teams Du Pont or AT&T, and squeezed between them an assortment of hardened and very capable Polish riders.
As the 1989 Bank Race started with an ITT in Tweed Heads, none of the 75 riders spared a thought for the small young rider from Blakehurst, in Sydney’s South. Matt Bazzano stood looking down the start ramp, a burning determination within after having been dropped from the NSW Junior Development Squad just weeks before. Matt rode with controlled aggression and he delivered, placing sixth in the prologue. The Hampshire Homes team were quietly confident, their resolve as hard as a cat’s head.
Matt Bazzano (right) with stage-one winner at the 1991 Bank Race Pat Jonker (centre) and Brett Dutton (left). Team manager Dr Robert Hampshire is in the background.
The opening road stage to Grafton was 200km of pure brutality. Less than an hour into the first stage, one of the world’s best sprinters was out. East German Olaf Ludwig hit the ground hard in a sickening crash, as the chasing motorbike hit speeds of more than 100 km/h on the descent.
Following team instructions to the letter, the Hampshire Homes team riders Andrew Logan, Clayton Stevenson, Brett Dutton and Barney St. George all worked beautifully to put a rider in every dangerous break and work hard to keep Matt in contention.
Grinding hills and high-tempo riding meant the GC contenders stayed close together, sending their team scurrying up the road to bring back breakaways. Meanwhile, most of the peloton were already counting down the kays.
The next stage from Coffs Harbour to Port Macquarie was won by the battered and bruised Hampshire Homes rider Barney St George. Only two weeks prior he had been in hospital with a dislocated shoulder after a race crash, and his was a popular win amongst the peloton. The major teams had all been diligent in patrolling the race, but St George was allowed to slip into a small group seeing that he was no threat on GC. After working with his breakaway companions for nearly 100km St George waited for the final few hundred metres then outsprinted them across the line in Port Macquarie.
That day, American Jim Copeland had moved into genuine contention for the overall when he crossed the line as part of the small group with St George. Without race radios, racing was always unpredictable and riders had to stay sharp or they would lose badly. The breakaway succeeded as the peloton was caught unawares, and Copeland maximised his opportunity.
Sydney rider Craig Chapman won the next stage, 183km from Foster, but it was Matt Bazzano who took the overall lead in Newcastle that night. Inexplicably, Copeland’s American team mates Nate Reiss and Gary Mulder left their team leader behind on the second last stage.
As Copeland climbed the hills without his teammates, his efforts in the breakaway the day before turned his legs to wood. As he rolled and rocked up the hills, he watched his chances disappear along with any semblance of team unity. One can only wonder about the discussions amongst the team that night.
In the yellow jersey, Matt and his team stood firm as they defended the rest of the way home. The German Bosch team piled on the pressure with relentless attacks, and attempted to bury Matt on every climb. A steely resolve from within had passed on to this team though, and from taking the lead in Newcastle Matt made sure they circled the wagons all the way through to the finish line in the penultimate stage, a crit in Manly.
Matt held his form and nerve in the TT stage from Hornsby that morning, then faced an hour of threshold racing and crash-avoidance in front of a huge crowd in Manly. Crossing the line for the final stage, Matt was swamped by team mates, media, and then the magnitude of his achievement.
In 1990, Matt was awarded one of the inaugural scholarships in the Australian road cycling program at the Australian Institute of Sport, alongside riders Rob Crowe, Pat Jonker, Rob McLauchlin, Jason Phillips, Grant Rice and Jamie Kelly. Run by a young East German coach Heiko Salzwedel, Matt felt privileged to be part of this “pioneer period”.
Salzwedel would become one of the most influential people in Australian cycling for decades, setting up the AIS road programme and launching the careers of many great Australian road cyclists. Matt recalls, “He was very intense, but jeez we all loved him. He was more than a coach, he influenced everything about you, a real mentor. And look at the riders he produced …”
Matt Bazzano on the far right with teammates (l-r) Andrew Logan, Clayton Stevenson, Barney St George and Brett Dutton.
Later that year at Rolystone in West Australia, Bazzano and David Perry broke away half way through a race and held out, with Matt jumping Perry before the line to become the Australian men’s amateur road race champion.
After a few years of bringing virtual Australian teams to the Tour of Britain (The Milk Race), Shayne Bannan invited Matt in 1990 and 1991, where he took third in a stage behind Paul Kimmage’s brother, Kevin.
At the 1990 Commonwealth Games, Matt raced alongside mate Clayton Stevenson, placing eighth in the men’s road race while his future wife Kathleen Shannon won bronze in the women’s. A fantastic rider, Kathleen would go on to be twice national champion and a dual Olympian, placing seventh in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Later in 1990, Matt raced the World Championship amateur road race in Japan where he placed 54th, just behind Alex Zulle and alongside Roman Kreuziger, but well behind Richard Virenque in eighth and Lance Armstrong 11th.
The EPO era was beginning and doping would soon dictate the sport. Matt was not the only one to face a tough decision at that time, but decided to quit racing and spent several years working in a bike store then headed back to the family business. The then-named Bicycles Incorporated was a major distributor of Miyata and Shimano at that time.
In 2007 Matt was able to leverage his skills and networks to become Managing Director of Shimano Australia Cycling, the subsidiary of the global cycling icon. Turning over nearly $300b of cycling products worldwide, Matt has led the Australian arm through the constant challenges of product innovation, internet sales and distribution channels.
Talking of the very early genesis of its Di2 electric gears, Matt says, “I remember being at a small test track near the Shimano office in Tokyo, riding the first bike with Di2. This thing had a 10kg battery with cable ties and wires everywhere, it was a real bike Frankenstein…”
After making Di2 one of the biggest advances in cycling technology for decades, Shimano is leading the push for disc brakes on road bikes, amongst other innovations. “I’d like to see more integration of (our) products into frames and aerodynamics too”, says Matt, “and yes, I’d love to have a power meter, and be able to provide them for the average rider…”
Outside his commercial aspects, Matt puts plenty back into the sport, being a member of the Cycling Australia Road Commission, and still races for St. George Cycling Club. Still compact, but happy to admit to less ease in his style, Matt Bazzano maintains his smooth trajectory through cycling.