Bendigo’s Austral success

Merv Andrea with memorabilia of his 1968 Austral Wheel Race win

Fond memories: Merv Andrea with memorabilia of his 1968 Austral Wheel Race win.

Back in 1887 the Melbourne Bicycle Club (then the oldest cycling club in Australia) organised the first ever Austral wheel race. The inaugural race ridden on penny farthings was held on the grass of the MCG over a distance of 3 miles (4800m),  and even today there is some conjecture as to what the winner’s prize was to be: a grand piano or a walnut cabinet containing 152 pieces of silver and cutlery, valued at 200 Pounds (Sterling). Since the late 70’s the race has been held at various times on the Brunswick, Coburg and Northcote Velodromes and Vodafone Arena, Melbourne Park now Hisense, Arena. The 113 running of the oldest wheel race will be at DISC Darebin International Velodrome on February 26th 2011.

Over the history of this long running race the list of riders that have attended the race heats and final with a wish and a prayer that they would be fortunate enough to etch their names into the history books has been endless but be assured they has been many champions that never reached the podium on the night of the race. Bendigo has been very fortunate over the years to have had our share of champions that has done just that when least expected.

The race has and hope will always be an open race to any licensed rider to try their legs out to beat the bunch and odds of the night. Where were you on the night of 1968 and did the name Merv Andrea mean much to you in cycling circles? An up and coming raw talented Andrea hailing from Eaglehawk did more than etch his name in the record book he was the youngest rider to ever win the race in its 81 year history at that time (36 years later 2004 that this record was to be equalled as the youngest by another Bendigo Cyclist 16 year old Zak Dempster).

On the day of the race it rained heavily and it seemed the race might not be held, Merv had missed the heats and had to come through the repa-charge heats to win his place in the final. Merv riding off 230 metres was approached by Terry and Laurie Wallace about what preparations he was making to give himself a good change to win.  Merv had nothing more but what he stood in and held in his hand a FIORELLI bike with no spare gears or special wheels.  Merv recollected Laurie and Terry gathering bits and pieces and rebuilding the bike prior to the wheel race final. Having only ridden on the board less than a handful of times experience was something that might have eluded Merv but for the desire to win and a greater heart than the rest of the field.

Merv can remember as clear as on the night doing what seemed more than his fair share turns on the front coming into the home straight being passed heading for the line but saying to himself sorry not tonight and took the lead back just on the final pedal strokes of the race. Merv’s cycling career ended only months later being kicked in the leg at a local foot ball match breaking his leg never to ride competitively again. Two years later the second Bendigonian Billy Stevens won off 35 metres.

In 1983 Munich Olympic cyclist Phil Sawyer riding off scratch won who’s name still echo’s very strongly in local cycling circles feared and revered as one of the most talented cyclist in Bendigo and beyond. The following year 1984 a determined Terry Schintler made the podium and a visit to the then popular channel seven world of sport and an invitation to ride the rollers of which Terry declined. Some nine years later in 1994 local cycling shop fame Hardings son of Ross and Jill – Ashleigh won with a grin that he still holds when recollecting this precious moment in his career. The following year a gentleman of the sport and extremely talented Tony Hughes made cycling history on what Tony recollects as a cold miserable night at the Northcote Velodrome after nearly missing his heat pulling his foot out of the pedal. Tony knew at the last 200 metres he was the fastest on the track that night and sailed to victory. As previously mentioned Zak Dempster was the winner of the 2004 race.

2011 maybe the seven year itch will make another Bendigo Cyclist win their place in cycling history.

Looking forward to seeing you on the road soon God willing

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