Riding through history: the 1956 Olympic road race
In the early hours of Saturday December 7 2013, 12 riders set out from the Melbourne Cricket Ground to re-trace the original Broadmeadows course of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics road race. Organised by Brad Priest and Paul Munro of the Road Race Project, the ride marked the 57th anniversary of the Olympic race. Craig Fry and CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef joined the ride and prepared this piece on the history of the 1956 race and the Road Race Project.
The Road Race Project began after a chance conversation Paul Munro had while at work a couple months back.
“I was working up at Meadow Heights Primary School … and I’m in the staffroom and there’s a lovely old lady and she’s like ‘Do you cycle mate?’. I was in my lycra so it was pretty obvious. And she said ‘My dad was the marshall at the Olympics road race.’
That conversation piqued Paul’s interest so he got online and did a bit of research, finding the course map from the original race in the process.
“I put the map up on Instagram and said ‘Who’s up for riding the Olympic road race circuit?’ and it was like wildfire.”
Paul spoke with Brad Priest and the latter pointed out that the anniversary of the race was coming up and together they trawled the archives for photos and videos from the race, publishing the content they found via social media.
The more they published, the more riders signed up for the ride and before they knew it had grown well beyond their expectations.
With rider numbers approaching 100 and no plans in place for ride insurance, permits or other approvals (any ride over 30 riders requires official approval), Paul and Brad had no choice but to cancel the ride’s open invitation. It was a decision they didn’t take lightly but in the end they had little choice.
“We didn’t have the experience to run [a ride of that size]. I come from an advertising and marketing background so I was like ‘let’s just do it’, but Brad’s much more sensible”, Paul said after the ride. “I realised today that having 100 riders on that course would have been a nightmare. With some of those trucks out there, I don’t think some of them had ever seen a cyclist before.”
But Paul and Brad still had every intention of running a group ride on the course on the anniversary of the race and so the event became invite only in its first running. And so it was, 57 years from the day of the 1956 Olympics Road Race, that a group of 12 of us headed out to Broadmeadows to retrace history.
The modern day circuit
The first thing you notice about the Broadmeadows circuit used for the 1956 Olympic road race is how challenging it is — a heady mix of flat, downhill and five hill sections. From the original start line on Pascoe Vale Road, the course heads north rising gently before the left into Somerton Road, which has three testing inclines over the 4km east-to-west leg. It also has a very narrow shoulder covered in gravel and broken glass, making it far less pleasant to ride on than other roads in the area … particularly when trucks pass closely by.
The course then turns left into Mickleham Road, and a quick 5km downhill run south with great views of the city skyline. It ends with a short 500m pull (peaking at 11-12%) up to Broadmeadows Road before turning left again. Broadmeadows Road is another fast downhill followed by a short flat section, and then a testing 1km climb (up to 12%) back up to Pascoe Vale Road.
Riding the 17km circuit gives you a good feel for the physical toll that the 1956 Olympic race would have taken on the riders. As one member of the Australian 1956 team, Jim Nevin, said in a 2006 interview: “There were two really, steep hills and it was open. It copped all the winds.”
Eleven laps of this course at race pace in the Melbourne summer would certainly bring those five inclines into play.
And that is exactly what happened in the race on Friday December 7 1956. History shows that the field of 88 that gathered on the Pascoe Vale Road start line would eventually be decimated by the course and the way the race was ridden by the internationals. Only 44 riders would finish the 117-mile (187km) race that was won by the Italian, Ercole Baldini, in 5:21:17 – an average speed of around 36km/h.
The 1956 Melbourne Olympics Road Race attracted considerable attention even before the Games had started. The course location was chosen some two to three years prior, having been recommended by the Olympic Games Organising Committee, and subject to the approval of the UCI and the Amateur Cyclists’ Association of Australia.
Reports of the day confirmed that the Victorian Amateurs had already been using the course extensively for some years. Half of it was gravel, dirt or screenings, but the entire circuit would eventually be sealed to make it safer.
The choice of the Broadmeadows circuit was received with enthusiasm by some. Mick Gray, who was the Olympic cycling observer at the 1952 Games and manager at the 1948 Games, said: “The Broadmeadows course is better than London or Helsinki and it compares more than favourably with any other course used for Olympic Road Cycling.” (Stan Mullany, The Australian Cyclist, Nov 1954, p5).
Not everyone agreed. One journalist at The Australian Cyclist magazine, Stan Mullany, predicted “The mixture of steep gradients and flat going will not suit all riders, and a smaller proportion of riders will finish the course than in other Olympics” (The Australian Cyclist, Nov 1954, p5).
Closer to the Olympics, the UCI complained that the course wasn’t up to the required standard – they were reported as saying the circuit was a disgrace to Australia. The road surface was apparently too soft to race on, having only just been sealed a matter of weeks prior to the event.
After inspecting the course in February 1956, the Amateur Cyclists’ Association of Australia officials were so concerned that they decided to save the riders by holding only two test races (key events for final selection of the Australian Olympic team) before the Games – the National Road Title on September 22, and another race on September 28.
Understandably, the Amateur Association officials wanted to maximise the Australian team preparation, and any ‘home-ground’ advantage. So they put in place other changes in the Games lead up including:
- increasing the number of riders selected to contest the test races from four to nine from each State (the selectors would now have 54 riders to choose from rather than the usual 24)
- allowing Victorian amateur riders to join the Olympic training squad (the Victorian Amateur Cycling Union conducted a 64-mile massed start graded scratch race in August around the Games course for 100 riders over four grades)
- Calling for a full rehearsal race to test the infrastructure and support services around the Broadmeadows circuit.
History shows that none of this made a difference to the outcome.
The actual day of the race was reportedly hot and humid. The start was scheduled for 10am, but was delayed when three unregistered riders from Ireland tried to sneak into the competition – the race got underway after officials removed them. In any case, the five and a half hours the race was expected to take would mean the field was competing into the early-mid afternoon – the hottest part of the day.
The early laps were relatively predictable with the usual breakaway attempts and certain teams testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The Swedish rider Roland Strohm was leading after lap 1, before Soviet rider Viktor Kapitonov took the lead on laps 2-4.
The Australian riders had an extraordinary run of bad luck. It began at the start says John O’Sullivan.
“We were all lined up alphabetically, so Australia was up near the front”, he said. “Trickey and Nevin fell over at the start because they got tangled up when all the riders pushed past them after the starting gun”.
Things didn’t improve from there for the Australians. On lap 5, John Trickey crashed at the feed station after his bag got caught in his front wheel. Other riders ran into him (Columbian, Luque Ballen and Ethiopian, Negousse Mengistou), and he was forced to withdraw due to his injuries. Trickey’s frustration was evident in an interview he gave in July 2012:
That was the problem, why I bit the dust – a feedbag. I missed out on the one lap and on the second lap this bloke that was handing it to me held it right in front of my face and it went around the handles and into the front wheel. I was the leading Australian at the time. So that was all the 12 months or more of work, laying out on the road in a heap of dust.
The Italian Arnaldo Pambianco hit the lead on Lap 5, only to have it taken back again on lap 6 by Kapitonov who was riding a very strong race. The race report mentioned the hot and humid conditions as a telling factor during the race – “at many points around the circuit representatives and managers were throwing water over their charges” (p417). Pictures from the day show buckets of water being used to cool the riders off.
Next, the Australian team captain, Jim Nestor, lost his chain as the pace quickened on the Broadmeadows Road hill (on lap 6, roughly 95km into the race), and he was unable to recover after losing time to repair it. Teammate Jim Nevin stopped to help Nestor in a bid to pace each other back into the race but they couldn’t bridge the gap. The bunch was well up the road, and their race was over.
From there, at some point during lap 8 (with about 48km remaining), the Italian Ercole Baldini decided to go and the pace rose violently. Again, the race report paints the picture:
Four groups formed with Baldini (Italy) dominating the race and looking a winner even with more than 30 miles (48km) to travel. It appeared that the only thing that would rob Baldini of victory would be an accident or machine trouble. He must have realized this fact by constantly accelerating until he was alone in front of the field. — (p417)
The final blow to Australia’s chances came when John O’Sullivan punctured on the Broadmeadows Road hill with just over one lap to go. He lost too much time getting a spare wheel. “On race day they had pits on the course with spare wheels. My puncture happened halfway up the last hill, so I had to roll back down the hill to get a spare wheel,” he explained.
In the end, only O’Sullivan and Nevin from the Australian team finished the race, in 41st and 44th place respectively (of 44 riders) – O’Sullivan 15 minutes in arrears, and Nevin some 25 minutes behind winner Ercole Baldini.
As you would expect, there had been high expectations placed upon the Australian team of four in the Melbourne Olympic road race. Bill Long, a well known promoter and publisher of that time had this to say of the team:
We have an excellent chance particularly with the brains trust, Jim Nestor at the head of affairs. Nestor represented Australia in the London Games in 1948, and Empire Games in 1954. Jim Nevin represented us in the Helsinki Games in 1952, whilst John O’Sullivan also went to the Empire Games at Vancouver in 1954. The other member, John Trickey, the National Champion, is the overnight star, so in all, the team has solidity (The Australian Cyclist, Nov 1956)
Another writer was even more effusive in his praise:
Names won’t worry our lads or reputations, for in our line-up we have the best available Australians. Both Nestor and Nevin are solid, cagey roadmen, who are sprinter-stayers.
O’Sullivan is undoubtedly the toughest, but should a sprint finish present itself, with John Trickey amongst the lucky ones, then he’ll kill ‘em with sheer speed (The Australian Cyclist, Dec 1956).
It wasn’t all positive however. It was suggested by some in the cycling media that the team was not ready to take on the ‘Continental aces’. But many assumed there would be a home course advantage – after all, Trickey had won his National Amateur Road Championship on the same course, and the team surely knew “how to ride the circuit to the best advantage” (Ron Carter, The Argus, 7/12/1956, p14)
John O’Sullivan sets the record straight:
We started training back in January in the middle of summer for the Victorian titles test races, and then the Australian title test races. That was unusual for us because the road season usually started in May and went to September, and the track season would be October to April. By the time the Olympic Games came around we were all tired from the lead up races.
Tired, and some of the team were probably less than 100% fit. Only a week or so following Olympic selection and about eight weeks from the Games road race itself, two Australian team members crashed heavily in an intermediate sprint in Camperdown on the first stage of the Repco Olympic Tour of Victoria.
Jim Nestor received head and arm injuries, and Jack Trickey injured his knee and legs. Trickey was subsequently ordered out of the seven-day Tour by a first-aid official. He confirmed to us the impact, “It was a big interruption to my training program before the Olympics” he said.
Experience and support
Interestingly, some of the Australian riders reject the suggestion that the Olympic race would have ended differently for them without the bad luck they encountered. After the race, Jim Nestor said: “This race has proved Australians do not train properly – we are not aggressive enough” (Ron Carter, The Argus, 8/12/1956, p13). Both Trickey and O’Sullivan agree. Speaking from his home in Melbourne today, some 57 years later, O’Sullivan added this:
That was pretty true because usually in the Australian road races everyone would sit there and wait for the sprint at the end. The Europeans certainly didn’t wait. They went straight out of the blocks from the start, and kept on going.
O’Sullivan remembers the day Jim Nestor and he rode out to watch the Italians training at the Broadmeadows circuit some weeks before the Olympic race.
They had motorbikes pacing them, and soigners giving rub-downs, and everything. They were at least two standards above us. So, Nestor turned to me and said, ‘I think we’re going to get our asses kicked here Buster’. I just said, ‘Oh yeah, Jim’. I was young and thought I was bulletproof.
By comparison to the Italians we had nothing. We were left on our own to do our own training. No one told us what to do. There was an Olympic cycling team manager and officials, but they were focused on the track team.
There were of course a number of Australian professional riders who had raced in Europe who could have provided that knowledge, advice and support. And some of the journalists of the day had suggested that some of these past Australian cycling stars should be enlisted for coaching and advice. But as O’Sullivan points out, there was a vast difference back then between the amateurs and the pros: “We pretty much each kept to our own”.
Talking with O’Sullivan, you get the sense he has come to terms with his Olympic experience. Its not sour grapes though: “That Olympic road race made me realise that we were years behind every other team. We were isolated out here. We never saw a European rider until those Olympics. We just didn’t realise how big the gap was.”
To put this into perspective, Australia’s first Olympic experience began in 1920 at the Antwerp Games with track riders Gerald Halpin and Jack Kin. Our first Olympic road cyclist was Sydney Ramsden who went to Paris in 1924. In the early days, Australia was always more competitive on the track than on the road. Edgar ‘Dunc’ Gray was our first cycling medalist, gaining bronze at the 1000m time trial in the 1928 Amsterdam Games, and then gold in the same event in Los Angeles in 1932.
Since then our track riders right up to the gold medalists of today have continued that fine tradition. While thus far our only Olympic road medals were in the 1972 Munich Games when Kevin ‘Clyde’ Sefton won silver, and the first and only Australian gold medal on the road by Kathy Watt in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
So, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, our road cyclists were arguably still learning about racing at the highest level. And it seems they were doing it with little official support.
The race reports from various sources all confirm that Ercole Baldini won the Melbourne Olympic road classic quite easily, and was regarded as clearly the strongest rider in the field:
Baldini cleared out 30 miles (48km) to go to coast home the easiest of winners…He was never farther back than sixth, chased by the early breakaways and once he made up his mind to go then this triple world record holder gave a crowd of approximately 10,000 an example of continental pedaling.
He passed over the line smiling broadly and waving to the crowd, one mile ahead of the second rider, the Frenchman A. Geyre with A. W. Jackson of Great Britain an excellent third” (Bill Long, The Australian Cyclist, Jan 1957, p13).
Baldini was indeed a formidable rider, and had been widely acclaimed as another Fausto Coppi. In the lead up to the Melbourne Games alone the 23 year old had won the Isle of Man Road Race, the world amateur individual 4000m pursuit, and broke the one-hour record. At the time he was also the world record holder over 10km and 20km.
Ironically perhaps, some in the media considered the Australian road team as having the best chance to win cycling medals at the 1956 Olympics. Instead, the cycling medals came from the track, with Ian Browne and Tony Marchant winning gold in the 2000m tandem and Dick Ploog getting bronze in the 1000m sprint.
The cycling media, general public and, of course, the riders themselves were disappointed at the result on the road. The following quotes from the Australian team after the race give some idea of how they were feeling at the time:
Nestor: “I had it at 40 miles; couldn’t raise a gallop, never stopped struggling.”
O’Sullivan: “I sure was pleased to puncture. I couldn’t go a yard faster when Baldini flogged me off the back on my pet Broady Hill.”
Trickey: “They sure tear into it, don’t they? What a hammering I took, it was a hard road to fall on but it may have saved a terrific thrashing.”
Nevin: “I couldn’t find a place to rest in the big field so off the back I went. They didn’t seem to ease at all.”
(Bill Long, The Australian Cyclist, Jan 1957, p14)
O’Sullivan today is still disarmingly honest about that day.
At the time I was disappointed at how I went. I felt dumb, like I didn’t know what was going on. We were lambs to the slaughter really. After the race I said to Jim Nestor, ‘We’ve got a lot to learn here Jim’. It wasn’t really bad luck as much as it was inexperience. There was no real home ground advantage. We just didn’t know what would happen in the race.
The future of the Road Race project
Fifty-seven years on from the 1956 Olympic road race, Paul Munro and Brad Priest are looking toward the future.
“I think we will run it again next year”, Brad says. “But we’ll have to look at insurance and permits.”
And it’s not just the Broadmeadows road race circuit they’ve got their sights set on.
“The Road Race Project is something that’s going to grow into following these ‘dead races’ — the old races, the old stages, even the 2010 World Championships [in Geelong],” Brad said. “You can see, with the interest we got, that there’s a lot of roadies … who are really keen on finding out about Australia’s cycling past.”
We wish Paul and Brad all the best with the Road Race Project and look forward to following their journey in the years to come.
Race oddities and other facts
As is usually the case with cycling race histories, when you dig around the archives long enough you’ll turn up a surprising array of little known oddities and facts. The 1956 Olympic Road Race is no exception, so here is a list of some of the more interesting ones:
- It was estimated that a crowd of only 10,000 watched the race, when the makeshift stands that were expected to hold 50,000. Critics said the race should have been on a Saturday in the city to attract larger crowds.
- Only 738 reserved seating tickets were sold (at a cost 1 pound 6 schillings)
- The three-man Ireland team who disrupted the race start did not comply with Olympic conditions (being registered with the the UCI). It was thought their stunt was an IRA-inspired protest, as they had pamphlets in their pockets, and had made a similar attempt at the previous World Championships. Reports had also emerged of similar disruption at the 1972 Olympics. For further information see this fascinating article.
- At the medal presentation the Italian gathering had to sing their National anthem as no record or band was available
- 17,110 cycling programmes were sold and 12,000 were complimentary to dignitaries and officials
- Last minute orders for extra rider numbers were needed because officials underestimated entry numbers.
- A protest was registered against Baldini after the race claiming assistance from the photographer’s car, but it was dismissed by the commissaires.
- The Australian rider numbers were: Nestor (#1), Nevin (#2), Trickey (#3), and O’Sullivan (#4).
About the authors
Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. You can follow him on Instagram at Pushbikewriter and on Strava. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matt de Neef is the editor of CyclingTips and also blogs at The Climbing Cyclist.