My mate Brad and I were brainstorming about a regular feature which would cover the stories of men and women who you see in everyday life who have made an impact on Australian cycling. Some you may have heard of, many will be more obscure. We’ll kick it off with a gentleman you’ve all heard of – David McKenzie. We all know that David has won a stage in the Giro, but few of us know the story behind it. Thank you to Jamie Jowett for writing up this exciting tale.

Dave McKenzie – the Aussie Espresso in a glass half full

by Jamie Jowett

On the 7th stage of the 2000 Giro d’Italia, Dave McKenzie rode into history. Jumping from the peloton for a long solo breakaway, he won a gutsy and very popular victory. Race commentary talked of the chase:

“McKenzie has been away alone for over 120 kilometers. The closest chasing rider is the Italian Mazzoleni , four minutes down on Macca, and about a minute ahead of the peloton. He had as much as a twelve minute gap on the peloton earlier, but it was sl

owly eaten up when the peloton started to chase, as they always do. The peloton has yet to reach the top of the mountain but McKenzie is already on his way down after crossing the mountain prize line. He sits huddled up on his bike with his chin close to his bars while descending”.

Pulling out of the Tour de Romandie, Dave spent four days in bed and in the ten days prior hadn’t ridden longer than two hours a day. “I turned up fresh, and hoped to ride myself in”, McKenzie says with understatement. Clearly he was confident, but the 26 year old worked into the race more each day and on the morning of the 7th stage he knew something special was happening. At the team meeting he got the ok from Team Management to go. Go he would.

The stage started at a hectic pace, averaging 50-60km’s/hr, with attack after attack being chased down. Finally, the stern admonishment of “piano! piano!” came in a booming voice that could only be Cippollini. The peloton included Garzelli, Konyshev, Rebellin, Casagrande, Simoni, Basso, Pantani, Di Luca and Petacchi, but Cippo ruled over them all, and he demanded the pace settle down.

In fact, Dave had already had a run in with the ‘emperor of the peloton’. Unknowingly, McKenzie had chopped Cippo in another hectic start to a stage and hearing a stream of abuse from behind in Italian, Dave hoped it wasn’t meant for him. Then the deep voice finally boomed, “ehh Mah-Kenzie!!…Mah-Kenzie!!” An apology in broken Italian from the stocky little Aussie seemed to placate the larger-than-life Cippollini, for a while at least.

Floating easily amongst the first 20 riders, McKenzie sidled up to another cheeky and talented Aussie in Robbie McEwen. Not happy with the slow pace, Dave wanted to know what he should do. McEwen’s advice was blunt,“Go mate, go! F… ‘em!”.

He literally said “Righto! See ya!” and threw it in the gutter at the 18km mark. Ignoring the abuse behind, he got out to a 500m lead, and with the rolling hills was quickly out of sight. Bit by bit, he built a lead, which got out to 12 minutes.

“Dave McKenzie is tired now, his body rocks back and forth as he struggles to stay ahead. He is thirsty and asks his team car for something to drink. Mazzoleni is keeping a higher pace, but he hasn’t been away as long as McKenzie either”.

“McKenzie is 2 mins 22 secs ahead of Mazzoleni who is starting to look tired. McKenzie though is starting to look a lot better now. His lead is so great that he is not likely to be caught and his win here would be inestimable. Eddy Mazzoleni is caught by Lampre and Mobilvetta with 4 km’s to go, but the gap to Macca remains the same”.

Embedded in his DNA, through his Dad and older brother’s influences, Dave first raced at aged 8 in Ballarat. Progressing through the VIS and AIS, in 1993 he headed to Europe as an amateur. He recalls fondly the times he shared a room in Belgium with six other riders, sneaking across the road into Ghent University just so they could use the showers.

Turning pro with Spanish team Porcelanotto, then Italian team Kross Montanari, he signed with Team Linda McCartney Foods. As the first British team to enter the Giro and first British team for 13 years to enter a Grand Tour, they were written off before the Giro and disparaged for its requirement that its riders be vegetarians. But after nearly seven years of hard, constant racing in Europe, Dave had earned it, and he wanted it.

Talking about that day, Dave says he had a feeling unlike any other before, nor has he ever had it since. An almost surreal ‘zone’ where he could do anything, beat anyone.

In his head, he imagined he was riding the rolling hills between Safety Beach and Mt. Martha, a familiar Melbourne weekend ride. By now, he had pulled out his earpiece and was getting updates from the team car every 5 km’s.

When his lead dropped to 9 minutes though, his team car came alongside. Keith Lambert, an English ex Pro who Dave held in great respect, suggested he save himself and settle for the Inter-Giro prize. Dave’s response isn’t printable here, and he pushed on with only the TV motorbike for company.

With about 40km’s to go, Mazzoleni had bridged to within a few minutes. A quality domestique who would later place top 10 in the Giro, Lambert suggested Dave drop back to work with him. Dave thought it would hand too much psychological advantage to the Italian, and continued to fight to stay away.  He said later, “I didn’t want to be one of those breakaways that gets grabbed with only a ‘k to go”.

The doubts were creeping in though, as the exhaustion of a virtual 164km time trial against the pack began to take its toll. Finally, at 20km’s to go, the team car pulled alongside. This time, Lambert knew McKenzie could win. He said, “Mate, this is it. This is what dreams are made of”.

The intensity in him at that moment was so strong, the comment still gives McKenzie a lump in the throat today. The exhausted solo rider lifted, but behind him the peloton was coming, and it was coming fast. At 5km’s to go, they were picking him up rapidly.

“Lambert is in the team car thumping his fist into the door and the soigneurs are dancing around behind the finish line. The road up to the finish rises and the Australians elbows are pointing right out from his body, but he doesn’t care because he just realised that he is going to win a stage in the Giro d’Italia after spending 164 kilometres on his own…”

Photo by Graham Watson

Dave talks about crossing the finish line as if it somehow broke a spell, and recalls Jens Voigt’s comment once about it being a special moment that only the rider can enjoy and understand. Dave is too positive for regrets, but he would love to experience those last few hundred metres again.

The little Aussie Espresso crossed the line 51 seconds clear and was rugby tackled off the bike by an exhuberant support team. The rest is a blur, except the vivid memory that each and every one of the Aussies racing that day all came and hugged him, sharing his special moment.

The true meaning of his stage win came months later when driving on the Italian Autostrade with Neil Stephens. At about 150 km’s/hr a big shiny Mercedes loomed large in their rear view mirror. Lights flashing and waving madly was Mario Cippolini. The two Aussies looked at each other and laughed, and with a “Ehh Mah-Kenzie!!” Cippo sped away.

Leaving most of his trophies back in Europe, Dave’s only momentos from that win are unique, understated and genuine, just like the man himself. One is a beautiful Italian suit that was awarded to the stage winner, and the other a ceramic bowl from Teramo where the stage ended.

True to his positive nature, Dave mixes his TV commentary with cycling coaching. Echelon 1 provides a mix of personalised programmes via the internet with days on the bike. Dave coaches everyone from corporate types looking to improve their bike skills and fitness, to young guns looking to make the next big step in their racing careers.

His record, experience and skills are obvious, but it’s the glass half full attitude that strikes you when you meet him, and that’s what makes him a true Aussie cycling legend.

1Race commentary from Cycling News “Tales from the peloton” (www.cyclingnews.com)