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Born: August 6, 1974
1st Stage Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under
1st stage Giro d'Italia
1st stage Bay Cycling Classic
1st Australian Road Series + stage
1st criterium Melbourne
By Gerard Cromwell
What a difference a year makes. Just ask David McKenzie. After a year in the wilderness that is third division cycling, Australia's Cyclist of the Year 2000 is back in the spotlight again. Only this time around, McKenzie is not worrying about how to put into words the emotion of winning a stage in the Giro D'Italia. Instead, he finds himself pondering the longevity of body paint as he poses in his new team 'skin-suit' under the glare of the photographers' lights.
The launch of McKenzie's new team, iteamNova.com came a little early for the team's kit manufacturer, but "no worries" as the Melbourne man might say. Showing true professionalism, ‘Macca' spent six hours getting his new bright yellow and blue kit painted on for the photo-shoot.
In May 2000, McKenzie was being hailed as a hero of cycling fans worldwide when he surprised everyone, including himself, to win the seventh stage of the Giro D'Italia in the colours of the un-fancied Linda McCartney team. After years of hard work and sacrifice, the teak-tough, little Aussie had made it. He was a star. A stage win in the Giro, he was set for a few years anyway. Or so he thought.
"At the time," he recalls, "you think, this (breakaway) could make or break my career. If I win this stage, I could move my career up two levels maybe. If I get caught, then I'm just another guy who tried but failed to win a stage in a major tour. Another hard luck story really. At the time, you think that anyway!"
The stage win in the Giro had been a culmination of a lot of hard work over the past eight to ten years. It had been a long haul for McKenzie since the early days as an amateur when he left Australia as a bright eyed, 20 year old to try and make a living riding a bike in Europe.
"It was and still is, from day one as an amateur, my whole dream to win a stage in one of the three big tours. Obviously the Tour De France is the big one," says McKenzie. "Last year, I came pretty close. There was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to come to live and race in Europe. I've been there eight years now. I love it. It's good!"
McKenzie left Melbourne in 1993 to follow in his brother's footsteps as an amateur in Europe. "My brother raced for a couple of years with a French amateur team. My dad raced too, so I guess cycling was always in the family. It's all I ever wanted to do."
The first two years saw the young Aussie based mostly in Germany with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) National Team, under the influence of a former East German coach. "I just turned twenty," recalls McKenzie. "So, you know, being around people from your own country, English-speaking, was great. It was a good way to come into the scene in Europe. We had a pretty hard program, a lot of races in Germany, national tours and classics. Then, when we weren't in Germany, we were based in Ghent, in Belgium."
It was here, in Ghent, that McKenzie found himself spending half a season living in a single room with five other Aussies. He laughs at the memory. "I left the national squad in June and joined a very small amateur team in Holland that was full of Australians. The team folded and we all headed for Ghent in Belgium to continue racing. There were six of us. In one room! We didn't even have a shower, so we used to sneak into Ghent University across the road and pretend we were Uni students, so that we could use their showers!"
"That was probably the best time I had as an amateur. I still keep in touch with those guys. A lot of them have stopped racing now, but we're still mates. I think you have to experience stuff like that at the beginning. It makes you appreciate things more when they do come good. I mean, there are guys who come straight from the national team and go into a first division team and they handle it no problem and that's fine. I think that kind of stuff is half the fun. It's OK when you're young. I wouldn't want to do it now though!" he laughs again.
McKenzie laughs and smiles a lot during the course of the interview. He displays the stereotypical Aussie outlook on life. Nothing seems to get him down too much and a positive never-say-die attitude is one of his biggest weapons.
After riding with the AIS for two years, McKenzie joined the Spanish amateur Porcelavatta squad for a year. Based in Valencia, it was a big culture shock for the Melbourne man. "It was a big learning process for me. I went into a team where nobody spoke English. It was a whole different culture. I found it pretty hard for the first couple of months. But, I'm the sort of person that, once I commit myself to something, I gotta see it through. In the end, I loved it, loved the country, loved the people, still do. I think I like the Mediterranean lifestyle more than anywhere else in Europe."
A successful season in Spain saw a friend of McKenzie's put him in touch with the Italian professional squad, Kross Montenaria (now Selle Italia). "I spent two seasons with them, on and off." he says, recalling the adaptation process from amateur to professional racing. "Italy is the hardest racing in the world I think. It was a bit of a shock to the system! But I never really got to a point where I thought this is too much, too hard."
"I mean, you think - Oh my God, I'll never be good enough to be able to ride a three-week tour. I remember the first year with Kross. They got a start in the Giro and they were thinking of putting me in about three weeks before. Then my form started to go downhill and in the end, I was hoping to God they wouldn't put me in!" McKenzie laughs, then thinks for a moment. "When I look back to then and think about last year, you know, anything's possible. You've just got to set yourself goals and work towards them all the time."
In his second year with Kross, McKenzie took a mid-season break to join up with the AIS team again to ride the Tour of Slovenia and the Prutour in Britain. Older and wiser this time around, it wasn't long before McKenzie was drawing the attention of the bigger pro teams. "It just so happened that I had probably the best form of the season in those two races, so the McCartney's took a liking to me and asked if I would be interested in joining them and by October that year I had signed a one year contract. For me it was great. They were an English team, a team getting bigger and better. They had a five-year deal with the sponsors...supposedly, so it sounded good."
"It was a great time. Even with what's happened now, it still is. I enjoyed riding for the team, I enjoyed working with the people involved with the team - most of them." he smiles, not divulging any more. "I don't have any regrets about what happened. You know, that's life and you gotta carry on!"
McKenzie heralded the McCartney's coming of age, their biggest triumph, two years later, when fulfilling part of his dream and winning stage seven of the 2000 Giro D'Italia. "The first six days of the Giro, I just felt like I was riding along in the bunch, getting dropped on the last climb, making the gruppetto. I thought to myself, I can go another two weeks of this and just be another statistic in the Giro, or I can at least have a go. Instead of watching attacks go up the road, I can be the first guy to attack and maybe start something, at least put myself out there, give myself a chance. That's basically what I did."
Rolling out on day seven, McKenzie noticed his legs felt good and decided to make the most of it. After watching other attacks being chased down for the first eighteen kilometres, the little Aussie threw his hand in.
"It was just one of those days." he recalls. "I don't think you get them very often in cycling anymore. Everything is so competitive. But there's always one day in a big tour where one rider attacks and they just let him go and he slowly builds up a lead. There were a lot of attacks at the start of the stage and it just suddenly calmed down after about 16k. Everybody just stopped. Everyone was just happy to ride along for the next three hours. That's when I thought - this is it! This is my opportunity to do it. I wasn't real interested in going on my own." he laughs. "But once I got over two minutes, I knew it was going to be a long day!"
McKenzie spent the rest of the day with only the McCartney team car, a commissaire's car and a TV motorcycle for company, building up a maximum lead of 12 minutes. "At the time, I thought it was nowhere near enough. I remembered watching the Tour on TV and seeing guys build 20 minutes and still get caught. So, I just said, well at least I'll make a name for myself - give the team a bit of publicity anyway."
"I guess it wasn't until the last 40k that I started to believe I could do it. Then I thought, well it's only an hour. If I ride fast enough! All sorts of things were going through my mind. As the gap started to come down and down I kept thinking I was going to be caught in the last kilometre. I was thinking - oh well, at least people will be sympathetic towards me, but in the end it never happened. Even though it was only fifty seconds in the end, I got there easily in a way. I mean, you see guys win by 10 metres or less, so it was good to be able to sit up and enjoy it in the last kilometre."
"The critics said we'd never get a start in the Giro, we'd never finish if we did. I guess people were going off the record of the ANC team in the '87 Tour. Obviously, we all wanted to prove them wrong. Personally, I was proud to be part of the MCartney team. For us it was huge success. We went there with the goal of winning a stage and for me, it was a dream come true. In the back of your head you dream about it, but you don't actually tell anyone what you want to do, until it happens!"
At the beginning of 2001, things were on the up for the little Aussie. A new, improved contract from McCartneys meant that McKenzie didn't have to worry about being able to support his wife Susan and newly arrived daughter, Lulu. A stage win in this year's Tour Down Under in his native land showed that the form and the enthusiasm were there earlier than usual this year. But that stage win was to be the last time McKenzie or anyone else would ride in the colours of the McCartney outfit.
The Aussie admits the team break-up came as a bombshell. "It came as a big shock. It still is a bit. You still think the team is going to start up again one day, especially the fact that we raced at Down Under just a week or so before the split. I started the season the best I ever had in about three or four years. I had some big goals for this year, we all had, the whole team. Suddenly it just fell apart like that. There seemed to be really good morale in the team. The two Spanish guys came to Down Under. We met them. Everyone was getting on really well. I think we had a good system going. It's sad the way it ended really."
Suddenly McKenzie had no team, no race program, no income, no home, and with another mouth to feed, things were looking grim. With the 2001 season already started, most teams had full rosters and places were scarce. "It was really frustrating," he says. "It still is, even now. People come up to me and say - I can't believe you signed with this small Swiss team, Fisconseils. They say - I know a friend, or I know this guy. You know, it's not as easy as it seems. You don't just pick up a phone and contact a team and they say - sure, we'll take you. Teams, big teams, good teams, set their budgets. Come January they're not thinking about signing riders - they're at their team presentations, thinking about how the new jerseys look with the sponsors names on them. It was very difficult to find a team."
"It got to the stage where I was almost ready to pack my bags and spend a year at home in Australia with my wife and kid and put the year down to a loss really, try and get a few rides here and there and come back over for the World's. There was a point when I thought - what do you have to do (to get a team)? I didn't really want to spend the year in Australia because it could have been the end of my career. Teams forget about you. It can be very difficult then, especially for a non-European."
McKenzie's plight was noted in Cyclingnews, with his brother's mobile phone number as a contact number. Along came third division Swiss team, GS Fisconseils and Macca signed for a year, with an opt out clause in his contract if a bigger team came along mid-season. "They were good to take me on." he says. "Basically, I had nothing else happening at the time. I had two or three offers from small teams, but nothing concrete and after the McCartney thing it was a case of once bitten, twice shy. You don't wanna go somewhere that's not a decent set-up. This team is a very small team." (So small, in fact that in the Tour of Beauce in Canada - where McKenzie won a stage - and teams are allowed seven riders, Fisconseils could only afford to send five!)
"It took a little bit of adjusting to get used to it. There's a lot more driving long distances to races. With McCartney's we were flying everywhere. It was tough, but we were all in the same boat. You gotta look on the positives. Sometimes it's hard, but you've got to look at the big picture and try and grab a chance, get a good result, move up to a bigger team."
With Fisconseils' race programme running out in August, the McKenzie family found themselves back in Melbourne for the end of season. While David worked on his form, winning the toughest single day race in the country, the mountainous Grafton - Inverell classic and also the first stage of the Herald Sun Tour, wife Susan worked on a new idea she had come up with. "After what happened to Dave and the other McCartney members," she says "I wracked my brains to think of a solution to the problem of a team collapsing when they lose their sponsor. I thought a public membership base could be the key - and would also get an Australian trade team into the peloton. Then, because cycling teams, unlike football clubs do not have stadiums, I came up with the idea to run it all from a website, which members could access to follow the team as it competes on the international scene."
From this idea, Susan McKenzie has formed iteam.Nova, the first publicly funded professional cycling team in Australia. The team will be managed by former Tour De France yellow jersey and McCartney DS, Sean Yates and will be led by McKenzie. Thanks to Susan's determination and business acumen the likes of The Pines Corporation of Singapore, Tailormade Logistics of Belgium, De Rosa bicycles, Dejai Website Design, Ventou Australia cycling clothing and Crumpler Australia (bags) have already come aboard.
"I believe that we will get the support, that Australians as well as people around the world, will want to be part of the team," she says. "In Europe people love Australians...I think they will get behind us. Now all we need are the memberships, which we hope will come not only from supporters in Australia, but around the globe,"
The concept of the fans being involved with the team through the Internet is a new one. For AU$200 each member gets the team jersey, team postcards and access to all team gear and all on-line benefits. On-line benefits also include chats with riders and guests, access to live race coverage, discussion of race plans and training schedules, on-line competitions and team news. Team patron and ex pro Phil Anderson says "I'm surprised it hasn't been done before. If there is a problem with the sport of cycling, it is the distance between the supporters and the riders. Cycling supporters are very curious about the inside of the sport. This team fills that void. Through the website, the members can get close to the riders, get the dirt."
Starting off in division three, the squad hope to get a ride in the Tour De France in the next three years. "We don't want to jump the gun, but with Sean as Directeur Sportif, he has already shown with the McCartney team that it's possible to move up a level."
The team line-up consists of five Aussies; McKenzie, Jamie Drew, Alan Iacuone, Trent Wilson, Brett Lancaster, one New Zealander; Scott Guyton, Britain's Russell Downing, American Aaron Olsen and Mckenzie's ex-Fisconseils teammate Canadian, Dominique Perras.
"Our race program hasn't been finalized," says McKenzie "But at this stage it looks like we will start with the Bay Series then go into the National Championships. We really would like to go to Europe with a green and gold jersey on our backs. Then we have the Tour of Malaysia at the end of February then onto Europe to do whatever events we can get into."
The affable Aussie remains upbeat about the future, despite his previous misfortunes. "I'd never change anything that's happened." he says "I've got a little girl now and for me and my wife, it's great, she keeps us going. Coming home has actually been a bit of a blessing in disguise because I can watch her growing up. She seems to grow every day. I think if I was away for a week now I'd really miss her."
"My whole goal would be to bounce back with iteam.Nova. To have people say - 'Jeez, McKenzie, he went from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows and bounced right back'. That for me would be satisfaction."
More information about McKenzie's team can be found on the iteamNova website
1st Stage Jacob's Creek Tour
1st Grafton to Inverell
1st Melbourne to Warrambool
1st overall Tattersalls' Series
1st Stage Herald Sun Tour
1st stage Giro
1st stage Circuito Montanes
Other Talking Cycling Interviews