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by Aaron S. Lee
October 31, 2016
Photography by Adrian Hoe/Tour of Hainan & Cor Vos
After 16 years in the professional peloton, Australia’s Graeme Brown has called time on his career. It’s been a long and illustrious career, with Olympic gold medals on the track, many a sprint victory on the road, and plenty of great memories to boot. Brown sat down with reporter Aaron S. Lee to reflect on his career, discuss his lone regret, and look to his final race: Graeme’s Last Lap.
XINGLONG, China (CT) — It’s been five months of speculation since Drapac’s Graeme Brown first sat down with CyclingTips at the Tour de Korea and insinuated that 2016 would most likely be his final season as a pro. At the Tour of Hainan, on China’s southern island province of the same name, ‘Brownie’ made his retirement official.
“I’m due a break,” Brown told CyclingTips. “You could basically say I’ve raced a bike every weekend for 34 years and that’s a lot of race days. I’m done.”
When Brown crossed the line on the ninth and final stage in Xinglong yesterday, it was expected that he would naturally be a bit nostalgic and a little sad. But when asked via text if he had any second thoughts, the 16-year road veteran instantly and emphatically replied with a resounding “NO”, typed in all capitals.
It has been a long career for the Darwin-born Australian, who moved to Launceston at age 3, and then Hobart, before spending what he called his “high school years” in the Sydney suburb of Menai from age 13 onward. But it was in the Northern Territory that Brown was first introduced to the sport of BMX – meaning the 37-year-old self-proclaimed Sydneysider has been competitively racing bicycles for more than three decades.
While BMX was a cycling discipline Brown truly enjoyed, his desire to be an Olympian, even as a pre-teen, proved to be too great to ignore and so he soon made the switch to track.
“The whole reason I started cycling was to be an Olympic champion,” admitted Brown, who would go on to win two Olympic gold medals in 2004. “I moved on from BMX because it wasn’t an Olympic sport. Cycling was the next logical step.”
When asked to rank his greatest achievements in cycling, it is no surprise that Brown’s Olympic gold medals from the team pursuit and the madison rank at the very top of the list. And as for his favourite non-Olympic moment on the bike, that too is easy to pinpoint.
“Winning the gold medal in the team pursuit at the 2003 world track championships in Copenhagen was really important for me,” he recalled. “It was important because in 2002, the Australian (4,000m) team pursuit won gold as well, but I pulled myself out of the race because I just didn’t have it for the final.
“I remember telling the coach Ian Mackenzie, ‘I’m not good to start’ and he asked what position I wanted because I was the starter in the four-man lineup,” Brown explained further. “I had to tell him that I wasn’t good enough to race at all, and that haunted me for a year.”
Brown (far left) with his Drapac teammates after signing on for his last professional race: the Tour of Hainan.
A few months earlier Brown was winning gold and smashing world records in the team pursuit at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, with fellow Aussies Peter Dawson, Luke Roberts, Mark Renshaw and alternate Stephen Wooldridge, as well as personally claiming gold in the men’s 20km scratch race.
“In hindsight, I probably could have ridden the finals in 2002, because I’m a racer not a trainer so who knows what I was truly capable of,” he said. “I just know I didn’t feel it on the day, but the decision not to race was quite hard on me mentally and it made me really hungry in 2003.”
The following year, Brown left no stone unturned in terms of preparation.
“I trained the house down,” he said. “I was so ready. Riding 3 minutes 57 seconds at the Worlds, two and a half seconds off the previous world record was actually easy – natural even.
“That was probably the best shape I was ever in, including my gold medal performances in Athens, and it felt so good to get the weight of the withdrawal from the previous year off my shoulders.”
Brown was clearly not at his best in Athens, which speaks volumes of his accomplishments at the XXVIII Olympiad. He was suffering from a torn Achilles and had not ridden his bike in the two months leading up to the Games.
Brown was relegated to training in the pool, doing five, five-minute swim efforts several times a day to maintain some semblance of fitness heading into the biggest event of his career.
“I was training my heart not my legs, so my heart was ready to do it but my legs were another story,” claimed Brown, who was wearing a half-cast when not in the water. “I do remember being a hopeless swimmer and I probably kept the heart rate up just trying to keep from drowning.”
Leading into Australia’s Olympic training camp in Germany, Brown did anything he could to be good enough to make the team. It was a constant cycle of training, taping, adjusting, eating, sleeping and repeating.
“I did my part,” said Brown. “It’s not that I was given a spot by any means – I earned it.”
Brown, along with Roberts, Brad McGee and Brett Lancaster would go on to smash both the Olympic and world record (3:56:610) en route to claiming the gold medal over Great Britain with Bradley Wiggins, who won the men’s individual pursuit gold medal that same week.
“I remember we were all getting changed after the ceremony and everyone was celebrating and ready to go out on the town and Stuey was just giving me this look,” said Brown of his madison teammate Stuart O’Grady. “After all, he’s just seen me walk in with a gold medal and he’s thinking I’m satisfied and don’t need to do any more.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry, mate … I’m greedy’ and that’s all he needed to hear.”
Brown left it all out on the boards in the madison. After years of training and two months of mending, the tank was empty – bone dry.
“After the madison, I just lied [sic.] on the ground,” he said. “I called my wife, Hayley, who wasn’t my wife then, and quietly uttered I won in a totally emotionless tone.
“I was fucked and didn’t have another lap in me.”
Image: ABC News
Brown’s most successful years on the track happen to coincide with his debut on the road for the Italian trade team Panaria-Fiordo in 2002.
While he’d already taken stage wins at both the Tour Down Under (TDU) and Le Tour de Langkawi (LTDL), it was with his second-place performance on stage 1 of the 2002 Giro d’Italia that his career began to shift.
“It was quite interesting that Giro,” explained Brown, who had started that season with two stage wins in Langkawi. “The two weeks leading up to the week before the race, I pretty much hadn’t ridden my bike because I was not well.
“Then all of the sudden I get the call that I’m riding the Giro,” he continued. “So, I went to the start in Groningen and I was overweight – 80kg plus. I hadn’t been training at all because I had no intention of doing the race.”
Brown credits his track form and bike skills picked up in the velodrome for his competitiveness on the opening road stage of his Grand Tour debut.
“I guess the thing that got me through was my track form as I was still doing a lot of track at the time. That was probably the only thing that got me through it, because it was a tight circuit, with corners, cobbles, etc.
“I can vividly remember boxing on with [Alessandro] Petacchi, [Robbie] McEwen, [Massamo] Strazzer and all these big name guys, none of whom I knew … I mean, I knew their names, but didn’t know them in their kit.”
With a powerful kick in the closing metres of the opening stage, Brown finished a close second to the Giro’s all-time leading stage winner Mario Cipollini, and he still cherishes the finish line pic taken by photographer Tim De Waele on the day.
“I have the photo as my screensaver on my computer at home,” shared Brown. “Cipollini always threw up a big salute when he won a race, and in the photo you can see him look over his left shoulder and I know he’s thinking ‘who’s this fat bastard there in the orange clothes.’
“The funny thing actually about that stage, is because I was about 7kg overweight, my [directeur sportif] only gave me one Powerbar and one bread roll,” he continued. “He said that’s all I needed because I was too heavy.
“I thought he couldn’t be serious, after all this was the bloody Giro d’Italia not the Giro de Reggio Emelia where the team was from.”
With the cupboard bare, Brown found an ally in compatriot and future Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, a second-year pro riding for Mapei-Quickstep.
“Cadel was in that tour and he had a musette that was overflowing with food, so I asked if I could have some, which he kindly obliged,” said Brown. “After the stage, my DS said ‘See what happens when you don’t eat so much’ to which I replied ‘I might have won if I had more energy.’
“Needless to say, he was speechless.”
In 16 years on the road, including 10 racing with Rabobank-turned-Blanco-turned-Belkin (2006-14), Brown has accumulated quite the palmarés. He has raced the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo (twice), the Vuelta a España and the Giro (9x). He’s also won 18 pro races, including three stage wins at the TDU, four at the Vuelta a Murcia, nine in Langkawi, and one each at the Tour of California and Tour of Poland.
In the past two seasons with Drapac, Brown has successfully transitioned into a service role as leadout and mentor to current team sprinter Brenton Jones and his predecessor Wouter Wippert, who now rides for Cannondale.
Brown’s expertise and influence is not lost on either protégé.
“I’ve learned so much from Brownie,” said Jones. “One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is his professionalism. A lot of guys have come back from where he’s been and don’t put in the effort. But he gives 110% every day.
“He talks to me during each stage and gives me little pointers here and there and it’s definitely helped me in my victories so far,” he added. “He has also taught me composure and position at the finish, because he is amazing with his positioning – he has absolutely no fear.”
Brenton Jones at the end of the Drapac lead-out train at the Tour of Hainan with Peter Koning, Graeme Brown and Travis Meyer ahead of him. (Image: Adrian Hoe/Tour of Hainan)
Like Jones, Wippert is also impressed with Brown’s approach to cycling after such a lengthy career in the saddle.
“Working with Brownie was more than a pleasure,” Wippert told CyclingTips. “The positive energy he brings in to the team is incredible. For me personally, I was always impressed how much fun he had in bike riding after all those years in the peloton.”
While Brown is highly respected by his peers, he’s far from a household name in Australia. He often tells a story about a local bike shop owner that tried to invite him on a beginner’s bunch ride just weeks after he won dual Olympic gold. But fame has never been a huge motivator for Brown, who is just as happy to ride off into the sunset to pursue his coaching career in Western Australia.
“I don’t feel that I’ve been slighted in terms of acknowledgements from the media or from the folks back home,” explained Brown. “It is what it is. I don’t get caught up in all that.
“I came through a different era. If you went back not too long ago and look at a guy like [2004 TDU winner] Pat Jonker, his results were awesome and I’d bet few people in Australia know anything about him.
“Now news is instant and global. Can you imagine if Eddy Merckx would have been achieving those same results today? He would be a billionaire and things would be completely different.
“It’s just the evolution of cycling.”
When looking at Brown’s resumé, it is easy to see that it is a career not left wanting for much. But there is still one accomplishment that will now forever elude him.
“I would have liked to have ridden the Tour de France,” admitted Brown. “Because it’s the biggest race in the world, but also because when anyone asks what you do, and you tell them you are a bike racer, the first thing they ask is if you have ever raced the Tour.
“I always have to say, ‘No, I’ve raced every other race but not that one’ and they still look at you with a blank stare.”
Another race that has always intrigued Brown is Paris-Roubaix, although he also admits that it is not the type of racing he prefers, after failing to finish in his lone crack at Flanders in 2006.
“I would have loved to have done Roubaix to say I’ve done it,” he said. “But I hate cobbles. I never miss watching Roubaix on TV, whether it be midnight in Australia or not, but the idea doesn’t appeal to me at all.
“This year’s race was amazing watching Matty Hayman win,” Brown continued. “He’s the reason I went to Rabo after he put in a good word for me, and now he’s still racing and I’m not.
“But he will still be going for years and years because he never has a bad day, and I know because I trained with him for nine years in Belgium. He’s a machine.”
Brown and Mat Hayman in 2007.
With his UCI career now behind him, what’s left for Brown? School drop-offs and pick-ups are certainly on the docket. With his wife — retired Australian cycling champion Hayley Rutherford — busy with her own career, Brown looks forward to being a stay-at-home dad to Andy (8), Max (5), and Hugo (3) for a while, and focusing on some DIY projects around the new home they moved into back in June.
However, Brown claims he still has one race left in the legs.
On Saturday, November 19, Brown will be joined by former hour-record holder Rohan Dennis (BMC) and a host of other pro cyclists and elite club riders in a criterium celebrating Brownie’s career. The event will feature five races, including under-13s, C-grade, masters (40+), open women and open men.
Stuart O’Grady will be on hand as a commentator and will join Brown on the Friday night before for a special showing of their gold-medal ride from Athens — something Brown has never seen before on video replay.
“Initially I wanted to race my last race at the Tour Down Under,” explained Brown. “I’ve raced the TDU a record 14 times in its 18-year history. I even asked Drapac if there was a possibility for us to finish at the TDU in January, but unfortunately [there] wasn’t.
Brownie raced the Tour Down Under a record 14 times, claiming three stage wins along the way.
“The reason why we are hosting [the farewell criterium] at the Claremont Showgrounds is that I’m undefeated on that course with five criterium wins and one cyclocross victory in the past two years.
“My son, Andy, has also won on the course and will be racing in the under-13 division on the day.”
When asked if the race was going to be fixed in his favour, Brown was quick to point out the contrary.
“I don’t want it to be a goodbye race,” he quipped. “I want it to be a race, and I’ve been training extremely hard over the past two months in the lead-up to Hainan and Graeme’s Last Lap, because I was extremely disappointed with my lack of performance at my last UCI European race (Tour du Limousin) in August and I didn’t want to go out like that.
“I do feel a bit pressure to win, and the last few nights I’ve been going through all the scenarios in my head.
“If I’ve got to sprint for the win, then I’m going out of this sport the same way I came in and that’s swinging!”
Aaron S. Lee is a pro cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to CyclingTips. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.