Tales from the velodrome, February 9, 2006
What is it about Rockhampton, on the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia's Sunshine State of Queensland, which has turned it into a production line for world class riders? Cyclingnews correspondent John Michael Flynn went behind the scenes at the recent Queensland Track Championships and Rockhampton Cup on Wheels to find out, and met the man whom many credit as being the driving force behind Rocky's success - the legendary Ken 'Reggie' Tucker.
As the Australian Senior Track Championships continue and with the Melbourne Commonwealth Games just around the corner, you can be sure to hear the city of 'Rockhampton' getting plenty of mentions when it comes time to talk of medals and glory. Since the days of Kenrick Tucker (Jnr), 'Rocky' has produced better than its share of champions, both on the track and the road, and it seems the likes of the Meares sisters and Miles Olman will ensure the trend continues, at least for the immediate future. A fair portion of this success can be attributed to the elder Tucker, Kenrick 'Reggie' Tucker.
Maybe it's the silvery hair, the weathered features, the determined 'don't mess with me' glare which seems tattooed to the face of every one-time prize fighter. There's just something about Ken 'Reggie' Tucker, which draws immediate comparisons with Burgess Meredith's character in that celebrated story of a no-good Philadelphia southpaw. He is, after all 'Rocky's coach'. The man at the helm of a cycling regime which has turned better than its share of bums into champions.
It seems almost ironic that Ken Tucker Snr plies his trade in a city built around a struggling meatworks, where Adonis-like statues of droughtmaster and hereford bulls adorn the approaches to the city limits in every direction. Ken Tucker's Rocky is a city of battlers, of survivors, fighting above their weight in the competitive international world of cycling.
Tucker is not a man to be interrupted, he works to schedules and routines. So Cyclingnews waited for just the right moment at the completion of the Queensland Track Cycling Championships to probe the master coach about the secrets of success.
"You've gotta want to do it above all things, it's all about priorities," Tucker revealed of the blueprint. "And if your priority isn't being champion, you won't be," he added bluntly.
Significantly, when we pinned Tucker to the ropes for a few moments, Rockhampton had just come away from the 2006 Queensland Track Championships on top, and whispers around the Chandler Velodrome were of how the Brisbane (capital city) based clubs needed to lift their game to stay competitive.
In Rockhampton's case, the standout performances were across the board.
Commonwealth Games gold medalist Kerrie Meares in the women's 500 metre time trial, three time World Junior Champion Miles Olman in the individual pursuit, Grant Irwin in the kilo and sprinter Jeremy Hogg, World Junior Championship medalist, in the under 19's. Those were just a sample.
In total, the Rockhampton Cycling Club is contributing eight members of the 23 member Queensland team to contest the National Track Championships. A truly remarkable effort for a regional city.
Kerrie Meares, Anna Meares (O.A.M.), Anouska Edwards, Miles Olman, Grant Irwin, Jeremy Hogg, Lachlan Plane and Josh Edwards have all made the journey to the Adelaide Superdrome in 2006. Coach Tucker joins them as an assistant to Queensland head coach James Victor.
The question is why?
What right does a town of 60,000 residents have to constantly stick it to its big city rivals and produce State, National and World Champions?
"Well success breeds success, it's been going on for years in Rockhampton," Tucker says with more than a hint of pride. "Those that come along behind and see these other people succeeding, it's a great mind stimulus, not a physical thing, it's a mind thing. They say 'if they can do it, why can't I?'
"In recent times we've had Anna Meares (World and Olympic champion), who as you know went to the top, and we've got Miles Olman who they all look up to, three times Junior World Champion."
For more than a second, as I absorb yet another verse from Tucker's book of quotes, I can't help but picture this most senior of coaches in a scene from a movie, climbing the darkened steps outside some wayward athlete's shoebox sized apartment, armed with folded up newspaper clippings from his heyday.
"Ken was a good bike rider in his day," Rockhampton Club President John Phelan said of the senior coach. "Anyone that's come out of Rocky, I guess you could go back to his boys Kenrick, Russell and Byron, he started out coaching them."
Tucker, it could be said, appears more than a little old school when it comes to the mental aspects of coaching. At first glance, he's not the sort of bloke you would see enlisting the help of university trained sports psychologists in any real hurry.
"That's a good question," Tucker mused when asked what it takes to turn a talented cyclist into a champion. "It takes a lot of, shall we say, examples. We give them examples of people before them, you gotta bulldoze 'em; we've got a very soft society today and you've got to discipline them."
Discipline is at the centre of Ken Tucker Snr's creed. It's a principle Rockhampton's club coach has applied since the days when he guided sons Kenrick, Russell and Byron to become champions, forming what is known in Australia's cycling community as the 'Tucker Dynasty'. Like the great Joe Frazier, Tucker is a believer in telling the success of an athlete by his or her daily routine, and the most important aspect of that routine is training.
"One of my favourite discipline methods is track starts at four o'clock," Tucker revealed while sneaking a cheeky grin. "That's on track at four o'clock and I don't arrive at ten to four, I arrive at four o'clock and I expect em to be all ready and if they're not I'm giving them a serve. If they're not disciplined enough to get themselves ready to train on time, they're not going to make it anyhow."
'Reggie' Tucker's former pupils don't all speak glowingly of their experiences, but then, as the coach says, it takes a lot more than loving the sport to be successful.
At the recent Rockhampton Cup on Wheels, Cyclingnews caught up with one of Tucker's former protégés, team Cyclingnews.com's Cameron Jennings, who provided some insight into the experience. Jennings, who holds a sports science degree, is also eyeing a future in coaching and has recently taken on a squad of Rockhampton Under 17s.
"I've had a few run-ins with Reggie in the past and I don't agree with everything he does," Jennings admitted with honesty. "But if he wasn't here, yeah for sure, the club and the region of Central Queensland wouldn't be as strong without the influence of Reggie Tucker."
First class facilities
As important as his contribution has been, Ken Tucker Snr is the first to admit that facilities have played a role in the success of Rockhampton as a cycling city. And what has occurred is perhaps a lesson for sporting administrators everywhere.
The recent evolution of Rockhampton cycling can be traced to Ken Senior's son Kenrick, whose Commonwealth Games cycling successes rank him not far behind tennis great Rod Laver on the city's list of favourite sons. Kenrick was the first person from Rockhampton to win a Commonwealth Games medal. When Kenrick returned home from the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games with gold in the sprint (he also won Commonwealth Games Gold in Brisbane in 1982), the city fathers decided to celebrate by gifting the town with a 'fair dinkum' outdoor velodrome. Very soon, the Kenrick Tucker Velodrome became a reality, and Rocky has never looked back.
"It meant a lot I think to the whole community in Central Queensland, to see Kenrick come through in the 70's and 80's," Olympic champion Anna Meares told Cyclingnews when asked about her beloved home town. He (Kenrick) had a fantastic run with two Commonwealth Games gold over two competitions."
The Rockhampton Cycling Club couldn't be prouder of what Tucker Jnr's success brought. "We feel pretty privileged that we've got such a great facility in a regional city," Rockhampton Club President John Phelan told us during a tour of the complex. "They were riding on an old bitumen dish down the road a bit. This velodrome's the same design as the Edmonton Commonwealth Games and the Chandler Velodrome in Brisbane (1982 Commonwealth Games)."
Tucker believes it's a combination of the velodrome, quiet country roads for training, and a cycling culture which have made Rockhampton the success story that it is. Even the taxi drivers in the cattle capital can reel off a list of winners over the years from the Cup on Wheels Track Carnival and be prepared for an ear bashing when you ask the local cabbie if he reckons the Meares sisters will go alright at the Commonwealth Games.
Anna Meares tells a story of her own, after returning home victorious from Athens. "I went out one night after Athens - I was with all my mates- and they said 'yeah we've got Anna Meares in the cab,'" Meares recalled with a smile. "And he twigged when he saw me and he goes, 'can I have an autograph?' and I said, 'yeah no worries'. Then, as I was leaving, my mate says, 'can we have a free cab ride?'"
In a roundabout way, Meares' recollection tells the story of Rockhampton, a place where even the town's champions are kept well grounded. "It's a country town that has taken bike riding to heart," Tucker admits with pride. "We've got a magnificent velodrome and some great roads to train on, yes there's traffic on it, but not like a capital city, so the environment is great."
Cameron Jennings agrees the environment for riding does play a major part. Even in mid-winter, the climate is mild, and while the summers can be hot along the border of the tropics, cycling in Rocky is an all year round affair.
Unlike in the bigger cities, Jennings says, it's the fact the up and coming juniors are forced to train and race with elite athletes which also makes the difference. "You've got under 15 under 17 boys coming out on bunch rides with us and we clip along pretty fast," Jennings said. "You've got them suffering along with us all the time."
One can't help but think the word 'suffering' might just be music to the ears of Ken 'Reggie' Tucker.
As Australia prepares to celebrate the success of another generation of Commonwealth Games Champions, the ageing coach will just keep going about his business at home in Rocky, whispering words of wisdom into the ear of his charges before giving them a push and sending them on their way.
"I think the younger generations will wear me out," Tucker concedes. "Each generation is softer and less disciplined."
Perhaps it just gets back to that old adage, "You've gotta want to do it above all things."
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