The pursuit race is the ultimate battle of man against the clock and, in the end, man against man. Once upon the time the pursuit champion was the king of the boards and everyone would know his name. Australian Steele Bishop was one of those men of the ’80s.
When I first got ‘into’ cycling, back in 1970, if the World Professional Road Race Champion wasn’t riding but the World Professional Pursuit Champion was, then the track man was entitled, nay, duty bound to wear his rainbow jersey – that’s how important the title was.
Things have changed, since 1993 the championships have been ‘open’ so there’s now no distinction between amateurs and professionals, all ride the 4,000 meter distance. Before then the Pros rode 5,000 meters. No longer do the big road stars and real specialists who used the title as a big bucks calling card into the Six Days line up for the pursuit.
The late 60’s up to the mid 70’s was the time of Great Britain’s Hugh Porter and Belgium’s Ferdi Bracke rivalry; with the rest of the 70’s seeing big power houses like Dutchmen, Roy Schuiten and Bert Oosterbosch, Germany’s Gregor Braun and Italy’s Francesco Moser lift the title. The 80’s was the period of another British pursuiter, Tony Doyle’s rivalry with Danish perfectionist, Hans Henrik Oersted. They were the ‘big two’ in the event for much of the decade.
But in 1983, a name appeared on the roll of honor which had results anoraks like me scratching our heads, Steele Bishop of Australia. But if we’d studied the pursuit results from previous years closely then we’d have known that this was the big Australian rider’s third serious Worlds campaign and on both previous occasions he’d made the last eight.
In 1983 he thought he’d retired but circumstances put him on a plane to Zurich with the thoughts firmly in his mind that this would be his last ‘Worlds’ and only gold would be good enough.
You rode the 1972 Olympics, it was 1983 when you won the Worlds – that’s a long while, Steele?
“I was the youngest cyclist at those Games in Munich at 19 years-of-age; I’d actually set my sights on Olympic selection for 1976 but we’d achieved a qualifying time – despite the crap bike that I was riding – in the team pursuit so the Federation decided to send a team.
“I’d moved from West Australia to Melbourne which was Aussie Cycling ‘Heartland’ where the best riders were so as I could train and compete at a higher level.
“When I look back, my aim was to represent Australia, not actually win anything.”
You rode the ’73 amateur Worlds in San Sebastian too?
“I was 20 years-old and headed off to The Netherlands to race and prepare for the Worlds. I was riding the criteriums three times each week and making the top 20, that brought in around $150 dollars; back in Australia the average wage was about $90/week and if you won a race you’d get a $20 money order to a bike shop.
“I was really looking forward to the Worlds and was psyched up for it but when I got down there the first event on the program was the amateur pursuit qualifying.
“And I was first starter, on the track on my own against the watch…
“I had been offered a contract with the Peugeot-Michelin amateur team in The Netherlands for the 1974 season but had to return to Australia due to my visa situation.
“I’d realized my goals in representing Australia at the Olympics and Worlds but hadn’t set myself a goal to be on the podium – there wasn’t enough input on the mental aspect.”
Then you turned professional back home?
“I quit the sport but then came back as a pro four months later, it was the money that lured me back to the sport.
“Each year I’d win one or two national titles; a total of 13 with eight pursuit titles. In that time I took the national 5,000 meters record from 6:25 down to 5:51.
“But it wasn’t until one year when my coach, Ken Benson said to me; ‘you know Steele, if you’d ridden five seconds faster over the five kilometers you could have won the Worlds?’ I’d ridden 6:07 and the Worlds was won with a 6:02.
“Ken’s words took me back to when I was 13 years-old, sitting on the step of my house reading the results of the Tour de France in the Saturday morning newspaper and dreaming that I wanted to be the best in the world one day.
“Ken ignited that boyhood dream which now turned into my goal. I decided to set that as my goal, adopt a ‘can do’ attitude and frame a strategy.
“I put a team together – my cycling coach, a physical coach for the swimming pool and gym, a dietician, a mental coach, a mechanic and masseur with my wife as manager.
“I also had a chiropractor to deal with my bad back, they worked with me through four national pursuit titles and my three Worlds campaigns.
“But whilst I had a mechanic, I’d check every bolt on the bike before each ride, and the tires too – the ultimate responsibility was mine.”