An interview with Brad McGee, November 17, 2008
Some of Australia's top professional cyclists were among the friends, family and supporters who recently took part in a charity ride to mark the retirement of Bradley McGee, a leading rider of a generation that put the country firmly on the map in world cycling. Gerard Knapp reports.
"I'd like someone to turn up if I retired," joked Matt Wilson, good friend and former team-mate of Brad McGee, "so I'm just here for purely selfish reasons." Wilson had just completed a jocular 30km trundle through the rolling green hills of the Southern Highlands of NSW - the area that McGee calls home. That's when he's in Australia, and not in Monaco... and he was looking for a cold beer. The casual ride - with several hundred participants, including some of Australia's leading professionals - was to commemorate the seemingly premature retirement of McGee. It also raised funds for a local bicycle safety awareness foundation, named after a very promising 15-year-old cyclist, Ben Mikic, who was tragically killed while out training on those same (normally peaceful) roads.
But Wilson's dry humour belied the respect and fondness held for McGee, the Australian rider who mastered both the velodrome and the road, who broke world records, won Commonwealth and Olympic gold medals, and wore the leader's jerseys in all three Grand Tours. A stellar career from one of Australia's best, yet the cyclist himself wanted to quietly move on to the next phase of his career. His decision to retire at 32 has made many of his friends reflect on their own careers, and how life really was moving on. "We all go back to track racing days, as juniors," Wilson said, "so what are talking about here, 16 years...?" His voiced trailed off as he did the calculations.
Wilson was a team-mate of McGee's in what would be their salad days, ruling the roads of Europe as the stars of the leading French team, Francaise de Jeux (or FDJeux.com as it was then known), along with the other Aussie larrikin and good mate, Baden Cooke. "They were the best times, those days," Wilson said of being at FDJ. In the Centenary Tour de France in 2003, McGee won the prologue and wore the yellow jersey, while Cooke battled with fellow Aussies Robbie McEwen and Stuart O'Grady to win the green sprinter's jersey.
Cooke was also among the several hundred cyclists who took part in the 30km jaunt, held on October 25. They rolled out from from McGee's own bike store in the idyllic country town of Bowral to a bush holiday resort in Fitzroy Falls, situated among huge gum trees and magpies. It is, coincidentally, also owned by McGee, and managed by his older brother, Craig. (One gets the impression McGee invested his earnings reasonably wisely.)
However, McGee had just wanted to quietly slip out of the country without fanfare, and return to his wife and kids in Monaco. He misses his young family, and the children are in school, so he tries to keep interruptions to a minimum. But the thought of him just finishing up his racing career at the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour in Victoria, where a stomach virus robbed him of the strength that may have seen one final burst of speed that regularly punctuated his career, was not good enough for his wife, Sharni. "It was her idea to do it," said Ben Kersten, McGee's friend and one of Australia's best track cyclists, who did much of the organising for the ride. "Brad wasn't going to do anything."
Kersten is another New South Welshman who now resides in the area, training on country roads in a bid to shed some track kilos so he can pursue a road-oriented career. Kersten gave the ride a purpose - not just for McGee's retirement - but to raise funds for the Ben Mikic Foundation. The ride raised several thousand dollars that will assist the foundation in its efforts to help raise road safety awareness in the Southern Highlands, especially helpful considering the increasing number of young cyclists that are being drawn into the sport.
Meet the new boss
"I guess I've known him now for 16, maybe 17 years. I saw him evolve, coming through as a junior and although I didn't race directly against him as a junior, you could always see the talent was there," said Stuart O'Grady, the 35 year-old Australian whon has "signed on for another two years" with Bjarne Riis' Saxo Bank squad. O'Grady, the virtually indestructible Australian cyclist, shows no signs of slowing down. The previous weekend he'd just won the Sun Tour with McGee as a team-mate for CSC Saxo Bank.
But next year, things will be different. In his new life, McGee will divide his time between Monaco and the Southern Highlands of NSW, that is, when he's not traveling throughout Europe behind the wheel of a Saxo Bank support vehicle, in his new role as a director sportif. O'Grady could only smile when Cyclingnews was yet another party to point out how the younger McGee could end up being his new director next year, depending on what races McGee is asked to direct. "No, it doesn't bother me. If his brother (Rod) is anything to go by, then I think he'll be pretty good."
Rod McGee was behind the wheel of CSC - Saxo Bank's team car in the 2008 Sun Tour, a race the team completely dominated. In fact, Brad McGee acted as DS for Baden Cooke when the gutsy sprinter dug deep to win the Herald-Sun Tour in 2002., and the 'FDJ Old Boys' strong showing at the race continued in last year's edition, which was won by Matt Wilson while he rode with Unibet and had Cooke as a team-mate.
The 'Parra' dynasties
Brad McGee is the youngest of four brothers - all capable, well-credentialed cyclists - who started out with the Parramatta Cycling Club, situated in the working-class western suburbs of Sydney. The club was founded by the grandfather of Natalie and Katherine Bates, another set of powerhouse Australian cycling siblings. Also in this Sydney club is Trent Wilson (aka Cyclingnews diarist 'Willo'), and all were present for the McGee charity ride. "We grew up together," Wilson said. "I've known him (McGee) for 15 years, at least. To see him retire, it's like, geez, we're getting on a bit.
"I'm 30 next month and I rode with all four McGee brothers. We did our training miles out there (Sydney's western suburbs) ... and we may have had a few beers at the Castle Tavern over the years, too.
"I remember it was pretty funny when we were riding along together in the 2004 Giro; Brad was in the maglia rosa and I was with Selle Italia. I remember thinking it was pretty funny, and it wasn't like this back in the club," he said. After holding the leader's jersey, McGee went on to finish eighth on GC in the 2004 Giro, his best-ever result in a Grand Tour. At the time, it seemed the Giro result was just part of the brilliant cyclist's evolution. McGee's name first came to prominence when he set a world record in the 3km individual pursuit for junior men, a record that stood for 16 years. A few years later and out of the junior ranks, McGee and his brother Rod were part of the world championship-winning team pursuit squad from Australia, and their efforts inspired many in Australia, none more so than two sisters who were in the same club.
"It was pretty cool," recalled Natalie Bates, "with the brothers being world champions and we being sisters in the same club."
Bates had difficulty distilling her memories of a rider she grew up with. "I remember him always being so tall, and having skinny legs! When we were coming through as juniors they were real role models ... and they were living so close to home, too. Even after he was world champion, Brad would come down to the local track for club racing nights and help push us all off in handicaps." Bates, like Brad McGee, is also retiring in 2008, and is looking to develop her career as a physiotherapist in Sydney.
Unlike McGee, however, Bates enjoyed a largely injury-free career. Bates won the 2006 Commonwealth Games road race gold medal, a deserved reward for a selfless and dedicated team rider through Australia's days as being the number one ranked nation in women's cycling. Indeed, she had still not broken a bone in all her racing and cycling. As she said, "apart from two trips to the physio for a small knee problem", she'd never been seriously laid up with any injuries.
Kate Bates, the younger of the Bates sisters, will continue to ride for Team Columbia in 2009 and plans to focus solely on the road by moving to Girona, Spain, somewhat at the expense of her track racing. Bates is a former world champion on the track, and has represented Australia at two Olympic Games, and has also won gold on the track at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Throughout McGee's cycling career, Kate Bates said, "Brad did pretty much everything I wanted to. World's, Olympics, road racing. He's amazing... and he's got so much more to give to the sport, too.
"We looked up to Brad and Rod so much," she continued. "I can remember, and I only recently found a photo that reminded me, how our families used to go on hiking trips, and there was one trip to Victoria Falls. I couldn't climb back out carrying my pack, so Brad carried his on his back, and mine over his chest. I was about seven or eight, so I think he was... maybe 14 at the time."
McGee bridged two eras in Australian cycling. He was a survivor of the 'Charlie Walsh days', a reference to the hard-as-nails head cycling coach of the '90s, and then through the glory days of the Athens 2004 Olympics, with the track team headed by the Canadian Martin Barras (in Athens McGee took a gold in the team pursuit, and a silver in the individual pursuit). He's relieved to be retiring, as he told Cyclingnews at the charity ride day, and earlier at the 2008 Road World Championships. Plagued by injuries over the past few years and with frustration growing, Bjarne Riis threw him a lifeline with a job offer he couldn't refuse.
The day after the ride, McGee boarded a plane back to Monaco to be with his family and begin preparing for his new job in the 2009 season. He's still not exactly sure what races he'll direct in 2009, but expects his fluent French will see him probably taking the wheel in that country, though not necessarily the Tour in July. "It must be hard for him to stop," added Natalie Bates. "That's because he's done so much, so quickly, and it seems like he's been around for so long." And with his new job as a director-sportif of one of the world's leading cycling teams, it seems the McGee name will be around for some time longer.
The glory days of the Centenary Tour
The 2003 Centenary Tour de France was a milestone in professional cycling. While firmly establishing France's Grand Tour as a global sporting phenomenon, the early days of the 2003 TdF also saw the brash emergence of Australian cycling, as a band of talented and fiercely determined young riders took on the world.
It was led out by Brad McGee's stunning victory in the prologue, and continued as a pair of feisty Australian sprinters, Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen, made the points competition an all-Australian affair. At one stage, of the four major rider classifications in the 2003 TdF, three of those leader's jerseys were worn by Australians, and two were in the same team.
As a gobsmacked French journalist wrote after the first few days of the 2003 Tour, "Rolling on Champagne's roads towards the Ardennes, the Centenary peloton found its new lords yesterday. They come from the very end of the world and are Australians, something the creators of the race certainly never imagined."
"I look back at those days (in Fdjeux.com, as it was then known) and they really were the best times," said Matt Wilson of racing - and regularly winning - while with fellow Aussies McGee and Cooke in the French professional team.
After his early success with the prologue, McGee - and Wilson - knuckled down to became part of a powerhouse lead-out train that helped Cooke snare the green jersey. The Aussie trio went on to record many more victories while with FDJ, but the 2003 TdF remains as a highlight not just for their own careers, but Australian cycling in general.
Indeed, McGee's retirement could mark the beginning of the end of an era of Australian prominence on both the road and track, notwithstanding the efforts of Cadel Evans, who is also part of that same generation of cyclists. His efforts could be a once-in-a-lifetime.
Read Gerard Knapp's account of Brad McGee's recent retirement ride