Eddy Merckx once put his arm around his good friend Don Allan and exclaimed “this man hurt me!”
It’s a scenario any serious rider would dream about, but Don – surely one of the godfathers of Australian cycling – quietly took it in his stride. Indeed, as we sit in his beautiful home surrounded by five-acres of spectacular Dandenong gardens, it is Don’s mate Geoff Salter who offers up the Merckx story.
Before Cadel Evans, before Phil Anderson, there was Don Allan.
Don and his brother Dave grew up in Box Hill and would spend time watching riders at a nearby velodrome. Back then, track riding was peaking in popularity in Australia, no doubt partly due to the European immigrants, who left their birthplace but packed their passion for riding with them.
Don was fascinated with the sport, and it wasn’t long before both brothers took it up (Don was 16 at the time), immediately showing early signs of great talent. Don started to ride to and from work (he was an apprentice camera operator), and any spare time he had was also spent on the bike.
By 1970, a cycling fire was well and truly lit and Don was clocking some 600km per week. He’d ride from the city to Mordialloc and back on his easy days, followed by a hard 120km session the following day. Similar sessions would continue throughout the week until Saturday, when he’d get a lift to the Yarra Ranges and meet other cyclists out the front of Dame Nelly Melba’s estate, where races would be held. Following the racing he’d cycle home.
The internet was of course still decades away, so riders fueled their passion largely on rumours from overseas and some print articles in the newspapers. Training strategies and regimes were pulled together from snippets of who was heard to be doing what, and how fast. Cyclists’ Chinese whispers were the Strava of the day. It was a time when accessories on the ground were scarce. If you were lucky enough to get some quality kit or product, it was invariably because someone you knew brought it back with them from a trip overseas. Bum cream was liquid gold. It’s here Don and Geoff start talking about going out with bunches and being surrounded by wafts of fish smells – a sure sign that someone had their hands on the quality stuff! Bike knicks were the bees’ knees – rare as hen’s teeth and impressive to boot. Carbon was non-existent; the lads instead rode bikes made from high tensile steel with Columbus or Reynolds tubing. Don was lucky enough to be one of the first Melbourne riders to get his hands on Campagnolo breaks.
1970 brought some of the highest highs and lowest lows for Don. It was a year in which he had success in about 60% of all the races he entered. Racing for the local Blackburn cycling club, he seemed unstoppable. Until the car accident. Don was travelling in a minivan with mates. The vehicle rolled, the doors slid open, and out Don was thrown – falling with great force into a seating position, thus fracturing his sacrum, pelvis and suffering significant internal injuries and permanent nerve damage. Don was paralysed. Doctors told him he’d have difficulty walking, and would probably never ride again. Don refused to accept the diagnosis and began the bloody tough fight back. In those days, rehab probably wasn’t even a term coined for alcoholism, let alone injured athletes. Recovery was a long process, and it was a mental battle as much as it was a physical one. In Don’s mind, it was worse than building a base from nothing. He knew what he was capable of. He knew what he had achieved before the accident. He knew he was better than this. But his body refused to keep pace with his mind, and so he was forced to settle in for a long hard slog. The accident occurred in November 1970 and it wasn’t until April 1971 that he got close to a bike. Until then, time was spent repairing at a gym in the Melbourne City Baths, and getting remedial massage from Keith Reynolds. By the time Don could get himself on a bike, it was literally only for one lap of the block, which he only just managed.
But he made sure the lap was timed.
Selection for the Munich Olympics was approaching, and Don knew he didn’t have time to muck about. Melbourne was then considered the mecca for cycling in Australia, and selection for the Victorian team was in fact often more challenging than selection for the national team. He made the cut. It was in the lead up to and during the Munich Olympics that Don befriended fellow Aussie Danny Clark, and the two started a professional partnership that was to see them become the greatest cycling duo in Australian history. The pair took out 15 sixer wins (Don took out a total of 17) and a European Madison Championship during their career– a dazzling record by anyone’s standards. Don remembers racing in the velodromes back then, especially in Belgium where the locals tended to prefer cigars over cigarettes. Sometimes the smoke was so thick it wasn’t possible to see the other side of the track.
Following the Olympics, Don signed a contract with Team Frisol in 1973. He arrived in Holland with a bike, a bag and two Pounds in his pocket. Immigration asked him what he was coming into the country for.
“To become a bike rider,” said Don. “Where’s your return ticket?” asked the burly officer. “I cashed it in. I don’t have one,” replied Don. “How much money have you got?” “Two pounds. I want to be a bike rider and earn money that way,” said Don. “Not with our money, you’re not. You’re on the next boat back to England,” replied the officer.
Thankfully a frantic call to Don’s host family in Holland, who promised to vouch for him, turned the tables and he was granted permission into the country. And so began in earnest his cycling career, as well as a passion for the Dutch culture. Don thinks he paid for about seven Dutch grammar lessons, then taught himself the rest by cutting out clippings from the newspaper and translating them under his own steam. That said, he’d get the odd hand from his Dutch cycling mates. Don remembers learning important key phrases such as, “you’ve got nice legs. I’d like to take you out dancing.”
In 1974 Don made history as the first Australian to finish a Tour since Russell Mockridge who rode in 1955, almost 20 years prior. He came 104th that year and 85th the following, which was the year he also rode his first Vuelta a Espana, again creating history as the first Aussie to win a major Tour stage (Bilbao). He remembers that Vuelta as the time he beat Italy’s unbeatable - Marino Basso. The finishing line was on a cinder track, and by then Don had pieced together a reputation for his cinder skills, even though he questioned whether or not they really existed. The team’s director approached him that race eve and told him he was the man the following day. He was the pea. Don’s plan was to get his Frisol team member Hennie Kuiper to help him be first into the arena, where he would launch an attack right at the very end. But before they got there, they were dropped on an ascent. Slowly they inched back the difference, Basso’s team grinning and laughing at their ignorant bravado. Why bother? Basso was the man. But Kuiper did exactly what Don asked of him, and the velodrome attack was launched. Don gave it everything he had, and literally just pipped Basso at the line. A metre longer, and Don reckons the glory would have been all Basso’s. Even today Kuiper talks about that ride as one of the proudest moments of his career. Don raced Vuelta again in 1976 (but that year rode into a ravine, breaking his wrist), the same year in which he placed 9th in the World Roads in Italy.
But it was 75 that delivered to Don the greatest ride of his life. The race was the Worlds in Yvoir, Belgium. The 270km course was designed for race favourite Eddy Merckx and included a 3.2km climb that was repeated 20 times. It was summer and conditions were hot. Team Frisol’s Hennie Kuiper won that day (Roger De Vlaeminck came second), but not without one hell of a fight. Kuiper told Don he was going to attack on a descent, and asked if Don could help him out. Don did what he could, but he began to get dropped. It was in the final ascent, as the thought of giving up started to flirt with him, that Don became aware of a car slowing creeping up to him. It glided along until pulling even with him. As his eyes began rolling into the back of his head, Don heard a voice very quietly and calmly speak to him.
“Great ride, Don” said the voice with a Dutch accent.
It was cycling legend Jan Janssen, the 1964 World Champion, 1967 Vuelta winner and 1968 Tour de France winner (in Don’s words, a ‘handy bike rider’). “Don’t worry,” he continued quietly, “we will get them back”. Jan stayed with Don for the rest of the climb, so close their elbows were almost touching as if they were ascending together. All other vehicles patiently waited behind, knowing full well what was going on. Don realised what was happening, too; the Master was speaking to him in a way that only a fellow cyclist who knows this level of pain, this depth of mental challenge, could do. Slowly, Don began to pull back into the bunch ahead, and ended up crossing the line right on the back wheel of Freddy Maertens. Kuiper later came up to Don to congratulate him. “Jan told me you had a great ride,” said Kuiper. It was indicative of the level of camaraderie and support Don received from racing in Europe – a stark contrast to back home.
Indeed, Don left Australia in 1973 with a bunch of amateur cyclists, not because it was a career option (that first year racing pro he received 350 Dutch Guldens a month and paid 10 Guldens a day board in Amsterdam), but because the European cyclists were his heroes and wanted to see how he’d fare against the rest of the world. Ron Webb had organised for them to ride in all the amateur tours through Europe. The amateurs paid cash prize money and even start money sometimes. They didn't seem to worry about the Olympic amateur oath. They knew the amateurs had to eat and live. In Don’s words, that was great because each Tour paid their way from the last Tour to theirs. When they weren't doing that they had to fend for themselves in Belgium and Holland. Together, this group from Down Under achieved sporting greatness never before seen by any Australian cyclist. In both his Tour de France riders, Don was one of only two English speaking cyclists.
Yet the response back home was not only lukewarm, it was non-existent. Don remembers once meeting a member of the Nicholas family (owners of Aspro). Exasperated by the Australian media’s lack of exposure for Don and his fellow countrymen, the influential fan asked his people to make enquiries. As they discovered, all the news was faithfully being sent down the wires and back home – it’s just that home wasn’t interested in picking up any of it. Don admits the attitude was across the board, and the only support he ever received was through the great generosity of individuals such as Keith Reynolds and Barry Waddell. He remembers someone giving him advice before he left to race in Europe.
“As you’re heading over, leave your bike in Sydney. Then pick it up on your way back. Nobody will know the difference.”
The lack of recognition and support made Don’s retirement from cycling and acclimitisation back into Australia very challenging. He remembers it as a terrible time in his life. Not only was professional cycling finished, but he couldn’t find work and went through a divorce. Like most serious Aussie riders back then, Don eventually fell into professional window cleaning and carved out a career in that industry, before purchasing the five-acre block in the Dandenongs with his partner, and running a small guest house.
Asked what it takes to be a champion and Don replies, a bit of everything. Aside from talent, dedication and determination are key, and Don admits it was always easier to race someone with natural ability, versus someone who had that dogged, hardened quality. Natural talent alone eventually gives way to a weakness, and Don was always keen to expose the Achilles Heel in his fellow competitors. Don thinks elite athleticism these days is very focused on science, and he’s not sure he likes that. Listening to someone of his athletic pedigree, with his remarkable palmares, and knowing that he’s hurt Eddy Merckx, it’s hard to disagree.