A cycling trailblazer tells his story to Cyclingnews
With just two days until the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Cyclingnews continues its recap of some of the greatest moments in Olympic cycling history by taking you back to the Munich Olympics of 1972.
It's been 40 years since Australia has won a medal in the men's road race at the Olympic Games. The event has been included in every Olympiad bar four* and it's a strike rate which may raise the odd eyebrow. Clyde Sefton, aged 21 from South Purrembete, Victoria, defied the odds to win a silver medal in the men's road race in Munich, 1972.
On the morning of September 5, 1972 eight Palestinian terrorists from the group Black September climbed a six-feet high chain-link fence and raided the Israeli team barracks within the Olympic Village. The Games of the 20th Olympiad had been underway for 11 days. This was supposed to be the 'Happy Games' but these hooded men, armed with hand grenades and Kalashnikovs would leave a ghastly scar. Eleven members of the Israeli team would lose their lives, as would five of the terrorists and one policeman.
It was not the first time, nor would it be the last when political struggle loomed large during an Olympic Games. Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Games of 1936 to promote Nazi ideals, only to be thwarted by the supreme athletic prowess of Jesse Owens. The men's water polo semi final in Melbourne, 1956 became infamous as the Hungarian team sought revenge on their opponents from the USSR following a brutal uprising which cost over 3,000 lives. The stoic actions of Americans Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman during the medal ceremony for the 200 metre athletic event in Mexico City, 1968 gave rise to one of the most enduring, powerful images of humanity as they protested for human rights. In fact, it would take until Barcelona in 1992 for an Olympic Games to be run free of any boycott after 1972.
Clyde Sefton or, "Country Clyde" as he was known to his teammates, was ready to race. This was his first time on the Australian team. But, there was a problem. He wasn't allowed out of the Olympic Village to train after the immense tragedy of what had occurred elsewhere in the living quarters. The four-man Australian team had been on the continent for six weeks preparing for the 182 kilometre event but being holed up in a room as the clock ticked down to the final cycling event of the Olympic Games was not what Sefton had in mind. The road race was two days away. Sefton went training outside of the Village anyway.
International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage somewhat controversially declared "The Games must go on!" and they did after a 34-hour hiatus. For Sefton and his teammates, there was absolutely no doubt.
"It certainly put a dampener on the whole thing and you had prepared yourself and worked yourself up," Sefton, now aged 61 told Cyclingnews of the Munich Massacre from the comfort of his lounge room in on his deer farm in South Purrembete. "Something like that just sort of undermines you to a certain extent.
"I guess we were all in the same boat but it sort of nulls your spirit and that keenness to be on the edge."
Earning the right to race
Sefton finished fourth at the 1972 Australian road championships and then two days later won the Olympic selection race. Twenty minutes later, he knew he was on his way to Munich along with Donald Allan, Graeme Jose and John Trevorrow.
A full-time builder, cycling had to fit around Sefton's day-job. The weekend was for racing but Monday through Friday, he would leave his home at 6am, train for an hour and then head to the building site at nearby Camperdown. At lunch, Sefton would down tools and still wearing his overalls, would put on a pair of bike shoes and ride to Mount Leura, the remnants of a 20,000 year-old volcano. Upon return, he'd eat his lunch, get back to work and then his day would end with a circuit of around 50 to 60kms. On Tuesday's, Sefton's boss was generous enough to give him the afternoon off, and he'd ride another 140kms.
Sefton's training was done under the tutelage of Melbourne-based Ken Trowell who would later guide Phil Anderson to great success. When it came to the Olympic training camp, it was a haphazard affair.
"We had this training camp going but there was never really anyone... they had Keith Reynolds for the track riders, but the road team didn't really have anyone experienced to tell us what to do," Sefton explains.
The team was based at a scout camp in Gippsland, and with little in the way of amenities, local farmers donated chops and sausages for the cyclists to fuel up on. It was up to the athletes to come up with the funding to get themselves to Munich and so the local community rallied around Sefton. Wealthy grazier and racing identity Sir Chester Manifold chipped in, as did Sefton's 12-year-old cousin whose pony club raffled a Shetland pony. The Olympic Games brought out a sense of community.
"All these people are behind you and it gives you such a determination to win," admits Sefton. "Whereas now, I think the calibre of riders, is probably better than what we were because they're so refined with their types of training. The level of training that they do and the scientific way; we didn't have that but we had something that they don't have now and that's if they don't win a medal, they go back into their teams and it's all paid for. They've got their hotels and they've got everything for next year and their bikes everything supplied - we had nothing of that.
"If they don't win, it's not the end of the world," Sefton continues. "For me, it was like it was going to be the end of the world because I was going to have to come home and face all of these people who had supported me so much to go over there, they'd raised all this money for me and that just gave me that little bit of an edge I think."
Sefton's teammates would punctuate their training rides with doubtful chatter in the lead up to the event on September 7, 1972.
"John Trevorrow and these guys were naming bike riders, you know we'd see them out training and he'd go 'what chance have we got against Fedor den Hertog or Régis Ovion'? All the big riders were there like Freddy Maertens, Francesco Moser, but I'd never heard of any of these riders at the time," recalls Sefton. "I had just done my training and I was going over there to try and win a gold medal. I didn't take any notice of what they were saying." Someone had to win, thought Sefton. It might as well be him.
Those riders were called to the start line ahead of the Australians but the political drama was far from over.
Despite a heavy police presence, seven members of Ireland's National Cycling Association launched a protest against their exclusion from the Ireland team. They were republicans and therefore not recognised by the Union Cycliste Internationale. In hiding in the lead up to the race, the seven had no idea of the dire circumstances beforehand. Sneaking past security, four of the men melted into the riders marshalling at the start line and they began to hand out leaflets outlining their political message.
Concentrated on the task ahead, Sefton admits that he was "not quite sure what it was all about," as the race was delayed several minutes while the men were detained.
"When the race started it was just chaos, there were riders all over the place and it took probably the first lap for everybody to settle down," says Sefton.
One day. One race. One chance. Unconcerned by the big names that surrounded him in the peloton, courtesy of the fact that he didn't read the cycling magazines of the time, Sefton concentrated on his own race, moving his way to the front of the bunch.
A group of 23 riders moved away from the main bunch, with Sefton one of the last to make the jump.
"If there's a breakaway, you be in the breakaway," says Sefton. "It's always the best place to be and it's not like you have to worry about tomorrow like a stage race. You're there for one day and one day only and you put everything into that one day."
A few more laps gone of the 23km circuit and Dutchman Hennie Kuiper made a move off the front.
"We were sort of all a bit hesitant and I didn't know who Hennie Kuiper was, I was sort of looking around because no one was chasing," Sefton tells Cyclingnews. "All his teammates are straight to the front of the group and protecting him and of course as soon as someone would go to chase him they'd be on their wheel. We'd be jumping down the road trying to get across and of course we'd sit up, and in the meantime Hennie Kuiper's getting further down the road and away."
More chaos was to descend on the road race as three of the northern Irishmen burst out of the trees on their bikes and infiltrated the race. Their target was countryman Noel Taggart who was an official starter. An argument ensued, and several riders got caught up as fists flew. Taggart's race was over.
Meantime, the breakaway was being whittled down and eventually just four men would be left in contention chasing Kuiper.
"It was amazing, there was myself, Bruce Biddle a Kiwi, there was Phil Edwards an Englishman, and I think it could have been Phil Bayton another one, Jaime Huélamo the Spanish rider who went on to finish third**," recalls Sefton. "So there were three English-speaking people in that break. Of all the Europeans and all the riders from around the world, there were three of us from Commonwealth countries in the break.
"So we were talking between ourselves and I can remember Bruce Biddle at one stage said to me - I wasn't sure who he was at the time, but I ended up racing with him in Italy later on - he said, 'C'mon and we'll show these Europeans how it's done.' We're all hammering down the road chasing Hennie Kuiper.
"We bought him from three minutes back to 24 seconds with a bit under a lap to go. We could see him going up the final climb as we were going down, there was sort of like a big dipper. So we were at the top about to descend and he was just going over the top of the climb, at that stage he would have been at about 45 seconds with about 4km of flat road to the finish."
Kuiper would look for those in pursuit as he powered to the finish line but he was safe, waving his arms in celebration as he won gold in a time of 04:14:37. Sefton may have described himself as "naïve" but this was an opportunity he wasn't going to give up on easily, outsprinting Huélamo and Biddle, along with a fast-fading Bayton with a few hundred metres left to race.
If there was a dark horse that day, Sefton knows who it was.
"I was probably the dark horse that day," he says. "I got under everyone's guard and came up with second place."
Standing on the podium for the medal ceremony after the race, it was plain to see that a battle was raging in Sefton's mind. There he was on the other side of the world, racing for only the second time outside of Australia having made the comparatively short trip across the Tasman to race in the Dulux Tour in New Zealand in the past, and he was an Olympic medallist. Sefton had won silver. He had however, come for the gold and was disappointed.
"It's a thing of honour to be able to stand there and you've got the national anthem - it's not yours - the crowd's there and the television is there and I probably feel much honoured now than what I did at the time I think," Sefton tells Cyclingnews, his eyes lighting up as he thinks of the rollercoaster of emotion. "At the time I was disappointed because I didn't get what I wanted.
"But now when you've got the silver medal and you've got young kids coming around and looking at it and they want photos taken with it on, it's just something that's very difficult to explain."
Having driven the dirt roads en-route to Sefton's property, there's no mistaking it when you reach it. Fashioned out of old wheel rims, is the Olympic rings, painted and proudly hanging on the gate which marks the entrance to Sefton's farm. It's a silver medal Sefton grew in to.
"Being the only one to have one... nobody else has done it again, it's almost unheard of."
*Men's cycling road race was not included in Paris 1900, St. Louis 1904, Athens 1906, or in London 1908.
**Huélamo was later disqualified for a positive test to coramine, a substance which was banned by the IOC but not the UCI at the time.
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