It may have been home to the Sutton Brothers, not to mention one of the nation’s largest annual track carnivals. But with just seven Cycling Australia registered members, today the NSW town of Moree has one of the smallest cycling clubs in the land. Peter Maniaty visited recently to find out if size really does matter.
In Star Wars episode v: The Empire Strikes Back, Grand Jedi Master, Yoda, suggests to Luke Skywalker ‘size matters not.’ Well apologies oh powerful green one with funny ears, but we can only assume you’ve never sat on the committee of a cycling club. For within the inescapably labour-intensive and volunteer-dependent world of amateur cycling, size is arguably the most precious commodity in the galaxy.
Even in our major cities, some of Australia’s largest clubs frequently struggle to secure the amenities and resources they need. But venture beyond the metropolitan boundaries and it’s a scenario that all-too frequently reaches crisis levels where many of our smaller, regional cycling clubs are marginalised to within an inch of their lives.
There’s perhaps no better example than the decidedly bumpy road ridden by the I cyclists of Moree in north-western New South Wales which, according to Sydney Morning Herald archives, staged its first club race back in 1898.
With a population that oscillates anywhere between nine and eleven thousand Moree is no thriving metropolis. The economic staples for Australia’s self-proclaimed Artesian Spa Capital have long been cotton and mining. While on the sporting field the town is renowned for producing elite footballers, including many Wallabies and rugby league stars. But not so long ago Moree was also a hot-bed for cycling, punching far above its weight on the national scene and boasting a two-wheeled alumni including no less than Gary and Shane Sutton, amongst many others.
Sadly, things are rather different today. The original Moree Cycling Club has long since folded. The local velodrome fell into disrepair over thirty years ago. There are few juniors on road or track. And according to Moree cyclist and fire fighter Andrew Noakes the town now struggles to stage much racing at all, save for a hotdog triathlon series in the summer. These days it doesn’t even have a bike shop.
“I was a member of the original cycling club. At one time there were close to 300 members,” reflects Noakes of a period when a lack of size, and the accompanying clout that comes with it, was the least of the local riding community’s concerns.
“Moree was one of the strongest clubs in the country, certainly in NSW. We had a velodrome and a big annual carnival at Easter. We’d get all the top cyclists from down south and Queensland, people like Kenrick Tucker and his family used to race here. In turn we had some pretty prominent cyclists ourselves. Gary, Shane and Steel Sutton all grew up here, as did Geoff Skaines (1976 Olympian). Top juniors like John Clissold and the Mathiske boys, Louis and Noel, they’re from Moree as well.” Noakes humbly neglects to mention he was also an Australian representative himself, first as a junior on the track and later as an elite-level triathlete and duathlete.
Given things seemed so rosy in the 1970s and 1980s, what went wrong?
“There was a tragic accident in 1989,” explains Noakes with a sudden gravity in his voice. “Two riders were killed out on the highway one morning. They were prominent members of the cycling club and had a big business in town. It really rattled everybody. Out here it’s mostly major highways and we get a lot of trucks, especially during cotton season. After the accident everybody was up in arms – ‘bike riders shouldn’t be out on the road!’ – and that’s when the club dropped right off. Eventually it folded completely.”
Making matters worse was an incident several years earlier that had rendered the once-buzzing Moree velodrome virtually unusable. “When it was built back in the 1960s it was the steepest velodrome in the Southern Hemisphere,” Noakes points out. “It hosted all our big carnivals and club races for many years. Then in the early 1980s they decided to lay a new asphalt covering. There were a few problems and some parts never set properly and that was the end of serious track racing in Moree, pretty much overnight.” (Ironically, after being left derelict for many years and even being used once for a rodeo – a bull escaped and smashed into a nearby shop – the dirt-filled infield is now home to a BMX track thanks to ex-National BMX rider, Chris Poole. The old track is still there, cracked and stricken with weeds. And yes, it is very steep.)
Noakes’ views are shared by arguably the most pivotal figure in the history of Moree cycling, Sonny Clissold, who despite fathering a National Champion (his son, John), coaching multiple National and World Champions and being a 21- year life member of the original Moree Cycling Club swears he’s never ridden a pushbike in his life. “I was a horseman,” he laughs with a gravelly voice in the shade of his backyard carport. “I’d go out and motorpace them though, mostly along the road out to Warialda.”
“It’s hard out here now,” reflects Clissold. “Cycling will never go back to what it was in the days of the Suttons and the Skaines’ when you worked and rode pushbikes – not that Gary ever did much work, mind you. He won 47 national titles but I went to the bank to see him one day and he was asleep behind the counter!”
Clissold may be getting on in years but as the man affectionately known as ‘Unc’ recounts story after story, barely stopping to draw breath or sip at his cup of tea, it’s clear the memory of those heady days shows no sign of fading. “Everyone would be here at Easter and I mean everyone,” he says proudly. “Phil Bates would bring three buses up from St George each year. We’d put 5,000 people in that old velodrome. It was the last carnival on the track circuit and everyone used to come. Back then the prize was a canteen of cutlery, the big boxed-style, people would kill for that in those days. It was something pretty special.”
On top of the big carnival at Easter, the club also raced on Monday and Wednesday nights throughout summer. “It died down at the end, but usually we’d have between 40 or 50 people riding. What we used to do was draw teams out of a hat and have a three-hour team race. You might draw one of the top guys, but you might draw that young girl too. It didn’t matter, everyone wanted to help so much.”
As Clissold begins to share yet another story, the night he was called out urgently to remove a two-metre brown snake sunning itself on the velodrome – “I killed it with a stick, the kids had to train” – we refocus the conversation on the resurfacing debacle.
“We’d actually resurfaced the track twice before,” he says. “Jock Bullen and me are pretty close and he put me on to this rubber, so we brought some up from Melbourne and it was fine.”
But the third time was different. “The council were in charge, they only had to pay for half of it. I met them on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and what happened, they’d put all their machines down in the centre of the track, then they resurfaced the velodrome. How were they going to get them out?” he asks, still in disbelief today.
“Oh, they made a terrible mess. This was just three weeks before the Easter carnival, the whole town was booked out. But it never happened. The top guys like Sutto and Kevvy Nichols said they wouldn’t ride on it and that was that. I had that many blues with the Council. We tried to use it for a while, but it was no good and no one was prepared to fix it.”
With a nervous community and no genuine riding alternatives to the surrounding Newell and Gwydir highways, the tragedy in 1989 delivered a near fatal blow to organised cycling in Moree, particularly when it came to juniors. With a significant number of local children already living away at boarding school, the parents of those who remained were reluctant to let their kids brave the open roads – and based on the mood when I was recently in Moree, the current crop of parents feel exactly the same way. Who could blame them?
History shows for more than a decade there was no cycling club in Moree. Locals still rode, of course. But it wasn’t until the new millennium that things began to look up. “There were a few of us doing a bit of riding back in 2000 and we got talking,” remembers Andrew Noakes. “‘How about we try to start a club again?’ We actually formed the Moree Services Cycle & Triathlon Club through the local RSL. We figured by doing it under their umbrella we’d be able to get more support and sponsorship – and that’s pretty much where we are today.”
“We have three regular group rides: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays,” continues Noakes, proudly sporting the Club’s blue, black and white kit. “On a good morning we might get 12 riders. Once a month we also try to organise a training ride out at a place called Croppa Creek. We invite guys from Inverell, Goodiwindi, Narrabri and do a big loop, about 100km. The local shop owner puts on morning tea or a barbecue too, it’s a great community out there.”
Racing is a very different story however, the unfortunate by-product of Moree’s tiny member base – Noakes was thrilled to learn they have seven Cycling Australia members, “That’s more than I thought!” – and the ever-increasing red tape required to stage public events, surely the bane of club committees everywhere.
“You get guys in town saying ‘we want to race, we want to race!’ I say, I want to race too – but first we need someone to do this, this and this,” laments Noakes. “With all the rules sometimes you wonder why don’t we just plead ignorance and go out and do it anyway?” It’s this general lack of bodies, more than any lack of funding, that presents the single greatest obstacle to the Club’s future. “We used to have the Inverell to Moree, a 136km handicap,” Noakes offers by way of recent example. “It was a great hit-out before the Grafton to Inverell each year, we’d get some good riders to that. But because our committee is so small it was always extremely difficult to manage. Even if we gave up thinking about riding ourselves, we’d still have to call in friends and family every year. The locals are more than happy to give you a bit of money. But getting the people you need to run these events, that’s always the hardest part.”
Given all this, how do Noakes and his fellow club members feel about the future? Hopefully optimistic probably sums it up best. “Things are stable at the moment,” he says. “But so many things in Moree depend on the weather. If it doesn’t rain everyone packs up and leaves. We’d really like to see our member base build, maybe in ten years we might have 100 members – then those in charge might relax some of their restrictions and get behind us more.”
“Whether it’s Moree with the Suttons, Inverell with the Sunderlands or Bathurst with the Renshaws, so many good cyclists come from country areas,” reminds Noakes. “We do as much as we can ourselves, but I do believe the powers that be could be helping us out more instead of having so much emphasis on the city.”
The more we speak the clearer it becomes. The future for cycling in Moree – and no doubt plenty of other clubs just like them – hinges inextricably on weight of numbers; numbers the club simply doesn’t have right now.
After setting off from a virtual standing start just over a decade ago, progress has been slow and far from smooth for the Moree Services Cycle and Triathlon Club. Numerous potholes have threatened to bring them down. But you get the feeling momentum is finally beginning to build once more. Will the town ever reach the almost unstoppable velocity it enjoyed back in the 1970s? It seems unlikely. But the wheels of Moree cycling are certainly turning. Here’s hoping they get there.
Happy then, they shall be.