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Bernie Nolan – Racing in Oz; “the happiest time of my life”

"My biggest mistake was not applying for citizenship. I was too impatient to get to Europe to be a pro. What was I thinking?"


The last time ‘Bernie the Pom’ (Bernie Nolan) appeared in our pages it was to tell us about his adventures in the Belgian kermises of the 70’s. But prior to that he sought fame and fortune in the Antipodes – under the Aussie sun and surely the racing down there wouldn’t be as savage as Belgium?

He had, of course, not realised that there were gentlemen down there like Don Allan, Danny Clark, Gordie Johnson and John Nicholson – the latter three would all become world champions with Mr. Allan going on to become a Six Day legend. 

Read on…

* * *

By Bernie Nolan

It was 17th October 1969 when I left Manchester to emigrate to Melbourne, Australia. I was 19 years-of-age at the time just eager to get away. I was working for my Dad back then in the Greengrocery business, which I didn’t like. 

It was only a year before that that he refused me permission to leave home and live in Belgium to earn my living as a racing cyclist, in retrospect a good thing; however the next year when I was moaning about the cold weather he said I could go and live in Australia (sounds odd doesn’t it). 

I think it was because I went out to live initially with my Uncle Bill and his family in Melbourne. This I did for about a month until I got my first job as swimming pool life guard and cleaner. 

I remember lying to the manager about my life saving credentials. The only time I was called upon was to help a young girl who was in difficulties. I just reached out with the broom handle and told her to grab it. Job done and I didn’t get wet.

However my aim was to get into the racing scene and get to Europe via the Munich Olympics. A bit of a long way round I know, but I was forever the optimist. 

Bernie Nolan
Bernie Nolan today. Photo©supplied

I discovered that the nearest club to me was the Carnegie Club which had its own track so off I went and joined.

It was a Mrs Salisbury who told me about the club and she also told me her son raced for Carnegie. She said they call him ‘The Snake.’ ‘The Snake’ I thought? Why would they call him that – the mind boggles?

When I first met him, he oozed confidence, and told me how good he was and how lucky I was to be talking to him. 

The Snake turned out to be a good mate and an extra good trackie, but you could never tell him that.

Because it was November it was the beginning of the track season The track was a large shallow one that was in good shape – what struck me was that most clubs in the city had their own track, some good and some not so good. That gave rise to a lot of good track riders. 

There were lots of track riders that were so good and I’d never heard of them, Hilton Clarke being one of them. 

Bernie Nolan
Hilton Clark. Photo©supplied

Then there was Gordie Johnson, John Nicholson, Don Allan (who was a road rider at the time) and Danny Clarke – who became world renowned a few years later as a world champion, along with Johnson and Nicholson.

In the summer you could ride your club track on Saturday afternoons and then the big meets at Brunswick on Saturday nights. 

It was all really good. 

I forgot to mention the old Melbourne velodrome near the city centre, which was a wooden track with vertical slats, which made a loud noise as you rode it.

Handicap racing was the main type of racing, with all the other events thrown in. 

At Christmas there were the Tassie carnivals and country Meets like Euchuca, Bendigo and Ballarat. 

If you were a decent rider you could make good money at these places, especially if you were in the winning ‘train’ as they called it, a group of riders worked together to get their man over the line first. 

The racing was fast and furious with elbows and head butts – the lot.

Bernie Nolan
Don Allan celebrates a stage win at the Peace Race. Photo©Don Allan

But my main thing was the road, where again it was handicap racing; this season ran from about May ’till October.

The racing was all place-to-place; the open events were every two weeks with the main handicap on the Saturday and a criterium on the Sunday, on the in-between weekends there were local combines where three or four clubs would get together and race. 

These were also good races, mainly real road races and criteriums.

When I first arrived on the racing scene I was befriended by John Shields who told me he would “train me to be a champion”. Instead of asking who he’d trained before and just took him at his word and said, ‘okay.’ 

Sheildsy, as he was known, was a likeable nutcase (a bit like myself some might add). The training was a bit haphazard and after a few months it died a death. 

He used to say things like; ‘You’ve got the souplesse,’ which left me in wonderment as to what he really meant. I was too embarrassed to say ‘what?

[It’s French for ‘flexibility’ relating to a nice, supple, fluid pedalling style, ed.]

I could write a whole book on John Patrick Sheilds, but not here.

But like Sheildsy, the place was rammed full of interesting characters. My club had a few, so apart from the Snake there were the Hollingsworth brothers, Mick and Paul.