Eddy introduced himself as if we didn’t know who he was. We were lost for words. He proceeded to tell us about the man sitting across from us and the true significance of Don Allan. He told us stories about what happened back in the day and pumped up Don and his palmarès much more than he did for himself. It was the most fascinating 90 minutes I’ve ever experienced as a cyclist.
Jamie Jowett caught up with Don Allan last week to find out more about his story and what he’s up these days.
Where Are They Now – Don Allan
by Jamie Jowett
Don Allan comes across as just your average ordinary Aussie bloke. No airs or graces, old school hard, modest. Rode a bit once, he reckons. Yep, your average ordinary Aussie bloke.
Except this one is good mates with Eddy Merckx , an Olympian, rode two Tour de Frances and La Vuelta’s (including being the first Aussie to win a stage of La Vuelta), and rode most of the Spring Classics. Ok, so not quite your average Aussie bloke then…
Starting out with Blackburn Cycling Club in the ‘60’s, Don rode about 600km’s a week while working fulltime. After good local results, Don was paralysed in a car crash in 1970, breaking his back and fracturing his sacrum and pelvis. Doubting whether he would ride again, and barely able to finish a race for over a year, his morale was shot. But the support of Keith Reynolds and Barry Waddell, he returned to the top again, riding in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Don Allan was part of a trailblazing unofficial Aussie cycling team organised by Ron Webb. In 1973, this bunch of young future stars wearing green and gold rode all the big amateur races across Europe. Don won stages in cycling’s version of the Cold War Tour de France, the Peace Race, as well as the Tour of Austria, Tour of Scotland, and multiple crits in Holland and kermesses in Belgium.
At the end of the race season Don returned to Holland, but not before he was initially refused entry and forced to plead to Customs officials due to his meagre savings. In November he was offered a pro contract with Dutch team Frisol, to ride for Hennie Kuiper, winner of the 1972 Olympic gold and, later the World Championship, a Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, and second place in the Tour. This was a huge breakthrough for an Aussie rider.
In 1974 Don first rode the Tour De France, finishing 104th. Ever the loyal domestique, he sacrificed himself constantly dropping back to the team car for rain jackets, food and bidons. In between, he led out the team’s protected riders, who won a couple of stages while his leader Kuiper took 11th overall.
Don’s breakfast before each stage was big juicy steak, was fed jam rolls on the bike, and Filet Mignon each night. Literally riding with the Lanterne Rouge in his hand until the last stages, Don was shafted by Lorenzo Alaimo, who took the ‘honour’ by hiding beside the road for Don to pass by, and with it all the post-Tour crit cash for a Lanterne Rouge rider.
In 1975 Don rode his 2nd Tour de France, finishing 85th. On a stage, Don and a team mate were dropped off the back, took a wrong turn and finished outside the cut-off. Don began packing his bags, but one of the team’s Soigneurs used his skills as an old vaudeville actor and went to officials crying and arguing for their reinstatement.
Don must have been regretting it some stages later as he “got cantankerous” and stopped on a mountain stage. He demanded his mechanics change his rear cog (knowing they didn’t have a spare handy) and then threw in “and I want a ham sandwich and a beer!” for good measure. When the support vehicle found a house nearby and came back with a woman bearing a sandwich and a glass of red wine, Don was forced to stop his grumbling and got back on to finish the stage.
With the Tour finishing on the Champs Elysees for the first time ever, Don was able to break away for a couple of laps on his own in front of a crowd of around 500,000. Anyone who thinks the Lanterne Rouge is just last place clearly doesn’t understand the Tour.
Riding as the only Aussie in the 1975 Worlds in Yvoir, Belgium, Don finished 22nd, a race which he counts amongst the best he rode in. Typically, it was his adulation of those who he competed against and the toughness of the course that stick with him. Only 28 finished the 266km course, Hennie Kuiper won ahead of De Vlaeminck, Zoetemel, Thevenet, Van Impe, Merckx, Moser, Gimondi and Poulidor – that’s 23 Grand Tour wins and 7 World Championships amongst them.
Don rode his second Grand Tour that year, becoming the first Australian to win a stage at La Vuelta. Despite his Frisol team being down to only 4 men, the Team Manager found out Don had won on a cinder track and it was decided he was their best chance. Don still recalls the big name Pro’s scoffing as he was being brought to the front of the peloton, but he put that all behind him as he entered to the roar of thousands in soccer stadium. On the shifting track, Don hit the line ahead of World Champ and multiple Grand Tour stage winner Marino Basso. Don’s efforts also lifted Kuiper to 5th overall.
In 1976, Don withdrew from La Vuelta after breaking his wrist, but came 9th in the World Road Title in Italy. Again, his place among quality opposition showed what real class Don was. Behind the winner Maertens were Moser, Conti, Zoetemelk, Merckx, Hinault, Gimondi, and Raas – in total 19 Grand Tour wins and 7 World Championships shared amongst them.
After the Worlds, Peter Post offered Don a contract with the Raleigh team on the road, but as it meant only riding a couple of Six Day races, Don chose the track instead – track titles meant everything to Aussies back then. Don was so successful he ended his 6 day career equal on 16 wins with Eddy Merckx, due to a formidable partnership with fellow hardman Aussie Danny Clark. Another fractured pelvis and other injuries effectively ended Don’s career. Matching with his low profile in the sport, Don does not take much of an interest in the sport these days. As a friend of Don’s once said, “the trouble with Don is that he doesn’t know how good he is, and he keeps too quiet about it”.
Experts at the time said Don was an observant, thinking racer who would not let a group get too far away without making a counter move. A chaser, not a sprinter, whose tempo riding was much valued by his teams. Put simply, Don was firmly of the belief that racing got you fit, not training.
Today, Don runs the Mast Gully Gardens B&B with his wife Jenny, with a weekly courier run delivering flowers. A perfectly normal life, for an extra-ordinary bloke.