When Noel Sens first started riding, he strapped a walking stick to the top tube of his bike so he could walk when he got off. Since then he has captained the Australian paralympic cycling team and won a gold medal at the European open championships. Noel always liked to go fast.
He used to race motor bikes until a bad accident in 1983 ended his racing career. But five months in hospital and numerous operations didn’t destroy Noel’s competitive spirit.
He was swimming as part of his rehabilitation. “But swimming was a bit boring because you just went up and down, up and down.” Team triathlons provided the first competitive challenge and his team won many.
“I used to do the swim. But I always wanted to be a good bike rider because both my brothers raced push bikes. So I bought a bike and started.”
His bike racing career started slowly – literally. He got badly dehydrated in his first race, but pushed on even after everyone had passed him. “When I got back, they’d all gone home. There was no flag man, no officials – they just left.”
Undeterred, Noel set himself a challenge. “My first goal in cycling was to be home before the officials had all gone,” he remembers.
With persistence, he got faster. The biggest change came when he had to shorten his left crank to be able to try out as a disabled athlete.
“I thought – that’ll be terrible, I’ll go even slower. But I went quicker. And the more I disabled my left leg, the better I went. The shorter the crank got, the faster I went.”
You fancy Lance Armstrong (“He’s a legend!”) approves as he gazes down from the fridge in Noel’s kitchen. His mate, Larry, has pedalled over for a chat and chips in anecdotes. Clare, whom Noel coaches, is in her bike gear reviewing a training ride. The talk is all cycling.
Yet for all Noel’s competitiveness, finally winning a gold medal was not as exciting as he had expected. “I was happy coming fifth the time before I won the medal, so it wasn’t that big a deal. It was a nice medal, though.”
Some of his proudest moments have been much closer to home. He’d always dreamed of riding with his brother, Paul, because he was a better rider. One Sunday race, Paul’s bunch caught Noel who’d been sent off earlier. “He was really tired, and he kept calling me in to do turns. And I was really proud that I could do turns because my brother was tired.”
Another year he came in sixteenth in a field of 160 riders in the Rob Vernon Open, a 137km road race. He was the first Bendigo rider home. “I was pretty proud of that – first Bendigo bike rider home in sixteenth.”
The surest way to encourage Noel is to tell him he can’t do something. Perhaps with what they thought were his best interests in mind, many people have told him he should give up racing. He’s just gone on to do better.
“It’s an excellent sport, cycling. It’s low impact,” he says. “Except if you hit things,” he adds with a grin.
Noel concedes he takes risks because he pushes himself hard. His most recent crash was probably the worst he’s had – but it’s only a minor set back he claims.
After all, he spent seven years graduating from crutches to walking sticks and finally walking unaided. “I always knew I would walk well and be sporty,” he says. “I never gave up. You give up, you never get anywhere.”