Sunday 13 January 2008, Ballarat. The Australian National Championships road race is in full swing, with three laps of the punishing 10.1km circuit remaining.

The early break has disintegrated, falling from 13 members to just five: international pros Tom Southam, Chris Jongewaard and Scott Davis, along with Western Australian Nathan Jones and the rangy form of Robert Hodgson, a relatively unmarked rider riding under the flag of Northern Sydney Cycling Club.

Robert Hodgson in the break (on right in blue helmet)

Robert Hodgson in the break (on right in blue helmet)

With eventual winner Matt Lloyd closing fast, Hodgson is struggling – ‘yo-yoing off the back on every climb’, according to the Cyclingnews race report. It’s fair to assume Hodgson will soon crack. But he doesn’t.

At a lap and a half to go, during the final ascent of Mount Buninyong, Lloyd finally solos away with the taste of victory in his mouth. Job done for Hodgson, you’d assume – time to climb off. But he keeps pushing, driving as hard as his depleted legs will allow. He eventually comes in 22nd of the 35 finishers, 5 minutes and 12 seconds down on Lloyd.

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It’s the hardest day he’s ever had in the saddle, but he rode it his way, proudly – just as he lived every day of his life. A life that was tragically cut short by cancer last year, but which has just been celebrated by the staging of a race in his honour that attracted the best and brightest of Sydney’s racing talent.

Below the radar?

Robert’s story is not one of big results, although he took his fair share of those. Rather, it’s the tale of a young man who was something of a maverick.

While a relatively late convert to cycling – switching to the bike from cross-country running at the age of 17 – his talent was obvious from his early races. Indeed, it came as no surprise, with his father Ross a noted local time trialist and his mother Alison representing Australia as a runner in the 1972 Olympics. Robert’s passion for speed and anything with wheels – sparked by his first tricycle at the age of two – was also a big hint that he and the bike were meant for each other.

Solitary by nature, he trained without a coach, preferring instead to ride on feel. He often adapted his equipment – yet was fondly ribbed for turning up to events with his bike in a state of disrepair.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHis ambitions were clear, though. Robert’s father Ross Hodgson says Robert always intended to race professionally in Europe.

“He always planned to be a professional cyclist after he left high school, although he didn’t tell us at the time. His choice of degree led him to study at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Of course, that university ran a respected amateur team, VMC Konstanz Europcar, which Robert promptly joined. He raced across Europe with them from 2003 to 2006.”

For the next few years, Robert split his time between Europe and Australia, seeking a professional contract. Even when racing back in Australia, Robert was always one of the most popular members of the peloton, known for his humility, generosity and willingness to support other riders. Former teammate Justin Morris, who now rides for the Pro Continental Novo Nordisk team, recalls riding with Robert during one of Hodgson’s trips home.

“There was no ego whatsoever with Robert,” says Morris. “He always flew under the radar. But Robert didn’t care. He thrived best when he was carving his own path.”

Like his father, Robert’s forte was time trials. His power output and aerobic capacity, combined with his independent streak, meant Robert was perfectly suited for the mental and physical stresses of the ‘race of truth’. He regularly placed highly in the Australian time trial championships, notably 10th in 2008, just before his breakaway in the road race. Indeed, that performance saw him finally secure a spot with the Brisbane-based Ord Minnett Triple Play (now Budget Forklifts).

Rob with his father Ross

Rob with his father Ross

It was Sydney’s Calga time trial race where Robert really felt at home. In 2008, he set a course record for the 25km course not once but twice. Morris recalls watching Robert race a time trial.

“The Calga time trial was Rob’s marquee event,” says Morris. “He broke the 25km record in January 2008, and then went back and broke it again a month later. He had so much power. And he could just suffer – he knew how to fight. He’d be dribbling from the mouth, sweating buckets, but he’d just go harder. He’d keep fighting. That’s exactly how he dealt with the cancer.”

Riding through the pain

In 2010, Robert’s life was good. He was still splitting his time between Europe and Australia, but had secured a professional contract with a Romanian team, Olimpic Team Autoconstruct. He was also engaged to be married to his longtime girlfriend, Catalina.

However, he was being troubled by back pain. Initially diagnosed as a herniated disc, the pain grew worse over the ensuing months. Eventually, doctors discovered that Robert was suffering from a Ewing’s sarcoma in his lower back: a form of bone cancer rarely found in adults.

Robert returned to Australia full-time to undergo treatment. Initially, his health improved, with Robert recovering enough to attempt time trials and A-grade road races at Calga. Robert’s characteristic fighting spirit and humility also informed the way he dealt with his illness.

“He never wanted anyone to know he was sick,” says his mother Alison. “He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. The last three years were far from easy, but he made it easy for us because of who he was. He encouraged us to keep doing things. I’d feel bad about going out, and he’d practically push me out the door. He encouraged lots of people like that – helping other riders with their bike setup in particular.”

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Despite his improvement Robert’s health deteriorated again through 2012, eventually reaching a point where Robert barely had the strength to ride.

“One of the last times he really rode his bike was a year ago, at the 2012 Tour of Bright,” says Ross. “Alison and Rob had driven to the top of Mount Hotham to watch me compete. He then rode back down – overtaking us in the car on the way down! He then hooked up with the women’s AIS team to ride back into Bright.”

After this, Robert turned his need for speed to racing open-wheeled cars, and his problem-solving brain to restoring and playing an old steel guitar. Even so, he still tried to ride on his home trainer as much as possible, even in his last days. Robert finally passed away on Anzac Day 2013, aged 31.

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Celebrating a life

The idea of a race to remember Robert was hatched soon after his funeral by Morris and a longtime friend, Doug Robinson. The race – organised by Northern Sydneya Cycling Club and sponsored by local businesses MOITS, Thornleigh Autobody and Park Bikes – took place on 5 January at the club’s Beaumont Road criterium circuit. It featured a field peppered with Australian national and international riders from the last decade, including:

  • Former Oceania champion Richard Lang;
  • Belgium-based pro Chris Jory;
  • Former V Australia rider Cameron Peterson, along with current GPM-Wilson teammate Tom Patton;
  • Novo Nordisk rider Justin Morris; and
  • Several former teammates of Robert’s including Phil Chapman, Nash Kent and Bradley Mills.

The racing was fast and furious, with the early break only brought back with a lap and a half to go. In the end, it was the Danish strongman and winner of the 2013 Blayney 2 Bathurst event Michael Jaeger who came out on top, besting Caleb Jones and Nick Yallouris in a bunch sprint.

The response to the race exceeded all expectations with ‘overwhelming’ support from Sydney’s cycling community, says Doug Robinson.

“The amount of enthusiasm and passion everyone has had for this race is amazing,” he says. “Robert had connections with many clubs, even if just racing as competitors, and the response from the Sydney peloton really shows how loved and respected he was.”

Robert’s father Ross says Robert would be ‘incredibly humbled’ by all the attention, and hopes that the race will help raise awareness of the importance of early cancer diagnosis, especially in young men.

“Because he was young, the symptoms were dismissed to some extent,” says Ross. “It wasn’t seen as serious, but it was the one in a million that was serious. It’s about awareness that cancers can happen, even in young people – whether it’s Ewing’s sarcoma or other types of cancer. Early detection is the key – the earlier you catch it, the better chance you have.”

The club plans to develop the race into a one-day Classic-style road race – perhaps including the Calga time trial course – over the coming years. However, an even more enduring reminder of Robert may be encapsulated in a phrase that’s been adopted as the slogan for the race: ride tall.

“It was a phrase used in Robert’s obituary,” explains Robinson. “It encapsulates the way he lived his life – tall in height and tall in personality – and honouring that attitude.

“We can all ride our bikes whenever we want, but Robert can’t any more. Ride tall is about making the most of every day, in memory of Robert.”

The Robert Hodgson Memorial Race took place on 5 January at Beaumont Road, Mount Kuring-gai. Race details and event updates can be found at www.facebook.com/ridetall. Kevin Eddy is a writer and editor based in Sydney.