News for January 5, 1997

The battler on a bike

Sydney Morning Herald writer Jeff Wells wrote this story in Saturday's edition in the series the paper is running under the headline of Sporting Heroes. Jeff Wells has the opportunity to choose his sporting hero. The choice is interesting. Read on as he writes.....

It was a tough decision choosing between Jan Ullrich and Hiroyuki Yajima as my sporting hero. Ullrich will be one of the great road cyclists of our time. Yajima may have been one of the worst.

But that doesn't lessen the little Japanese in my eyes. Sport is about using natural talent to maximum ability. Heroism is about doing more.

In 1993, Ullrich was only 19, and reigning world amateur road champion, when he came to Australia to race the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic. Just a slim, freckled, polite German kid wearing a rainbow jersey. But what a streamlined athlete, a natural wonder, who could climb, sprint, and think.

That year, he won for the Bosch team, and in 1994, he rode shotgun for his winning teammate, Jens Voigt, before he was snapped up by the pros.

Last year, riding for Telekom teammate Bjarne Riis, as the big Dane ended the reign of mighty Miguel Indurain, Ullrich, 22, finished second in his first Tour de France, an astonishing feat.

He also won the final time trial, the trophy for the strongest man left pedalling.

So, as I may never get to le Tour, I can at least say that I watched Jan Ullrich, one of mankind's supreme athletes, from the privileged front stalls, the back window of a minibus.

But that was watching an elite rider doing what he had to do. With Yajima it was watching a helpless athlete doing much more than anyone, but himself, expected. A man performing on pride, for no reward, when his body had long given out, and his mind was fevered, and his cause Quixotic.

This was in 1985, and only the fourth Classic, which promoter Phill Bates had started as a one-off for Commonwealth Games riders in 1982. It eventually became Australia's biggest amateur race, a World Cup fixture, and a launching pad for young Australians.

It spawned its own legends such as the little terrier Barney St George, who took on the biggest and best of the Europeans in desperate duels on burning bitumen. And 1986 winner Andrew Logan, now the national women's road coach. And Clayton Stevenson, who took so much skin off in a fall one year that when they got him to Sydney he looked like a mummy. And little tough guy Graham Seers who went toe-to-toe with the poms in one memorable roadside stoush. And the unforgettable Vladimir Golushko, the "Kazakhstan Kisser", who was as dangerous to local beauties on the presentation dais as he was brave on the road, once carrying his bike across a stage finish line bleeding like a raw steak after being smashed into the barricades in a terrifying two-man sprint.

There are so many strange, and vivid, and haunting memories from this race, hundreds of riders come, performed, given, starred, suffered, gone, with only a handful of addicted journalists to understand. Yet none quite matches Yajima.

He was 22 and riding for the Suntour team. Japan is not a noted cycling nation, but Suntour was a major parts producer and for several years sent teams that invariably tried hard but were overwhelmed.

He was a shy, mop-haired kid, with no English, and we had no idea of his abilities as the field lined up on the first day.

But later I was to write: "I did not learn much about the finer points of road cycling from Hiroyuki Yajima during the nine days and 1,381km of the fourth Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic from Brisbane to Sydney. which ended in treacherous conditions at Coogee Beach last Sunday.

"And, as the point of joining this cavalcade of lean, hard athletes, kamikaze drinkers, daredevil drivers and motorcyclists and assorted jokers, aficionados, oldtimers and madmen, as it snaked down the coast, was to learn such refinements as there are to this form of mobile derangement, I suppose these columns should not expend too much valuable space on Mr Yajima.

"For when they finally lifted his tiny, limp body from his bicycle at Coogee he was, in accumulated time, comprehensively last and officially 2 hours 17 minutes 12 seconds behind the leader, which is something like being lapped in the Melbourne Cup."

On the first day of a Classic you match riders with numbers, jerseys, sizes, styles, and equipment to be able to recognise them down the road.

In 1985, the race started with a criterium of half-mile street laps. The first few laps are usually a warm-up before anyone tries to jump away. At the end of the first lap I turned to a colleague and yelled: "Hey, who's that tailed off. The poor bugger must have punctured already."

But it wasn't a tyre. It was Yajima's body with a slow leak. He couldn't hang on to anybody's wheel. These were the first moments of what would prove to be nine days of loneliness and humiliation under baking sun on empty roads in a foreign land with no-one around to understand, or even talk to.

And in those nine days Yajima's demeanour never once changed. We later learned that he was only a weekend rider, a battler from the Suntour factory club team, who never rode two-hour races, let alone nine-day stage races.

He had one speed. Slow. Head down, sweating, grinding, grimacing, ceaselessly slow.

Every day they filled him up at breakfast, put him on the bike, and hoped he wouldn't fall off in a coma. It became a bit of joke among the press, getting radio reports from the back of the peloton. Was Yajima running last or second last? Had he yet passed another bicycle? Was he tailed off yet?

Not every stage of a tour is ridden at breakneck speed. Sometimes the field takes it easy, or if there are moves on up front, groups of exhausted riders drop off and roll home together. So some days Yajima had company for a little while - but mostly he was alone in the landscape.

It was up to the discretion of race officials to pull him out for finishing too far behind, but I don't think Bates had the heart to yank Yajima. It would have destroyed the little man. And soon he was to become an attraction.

When the race got to Forster there was a 30km criterium stage. Early in the race, when they were rolling around, an unfamiliar figure, head down, backside up, straining at a low gear, pushed his bicycle to the front. It was Hiroyuki Yajima's bid for glory for his team and for his country. An exultant cry went up from the media. But then some rider put pressure on a pedal and went straight past him, and he was expectorated out the back again. But, undeniably, Yajima had led the field for at least 20m of that 1,381km.

I WENT up to race commentator Stuart Doyle and told him about the man who had been dubbed "the tail-light of the tour". Stu told the crowd and they began to yell for him every time he struggled past. He gritted his teeth and pushed harder.

We decided to send around the hat, as there was no chance of Yajima winning a cent in prize money on the tour. I swear that a bloke from the local RSL, almost in tears, came running up with a bundle of twenties. If Bruce Ruxton had been there he might have bearhugged Yajima.

Something like $350 was collected and Yajima was to be called up to the dais with the bemused race leaders. But he would not go until he had been assured this was not an act of charity - it was sincere recognition for courage and endurance.

Then he came up, and the crowd cheered, and he grinned the most beautiful of grins and, through the translator, said he wanted to come back and win the Classic next year.

A couple of days later, just as the field was ready to leave Hornsby, after an hour's rest, for the ride to Sydney, Yajima came in alone with the pelting rain masking his tears of pain. They dried him tenderly and fed him chocolate and put him on the bike again and he made it to the finish.

With two frenzied laps of the final criterium at Coogee to go, stragglers were ordered off the circuit. But his manager had to run on to the road and drag Yajima off the bike. Honour had finally been satisfied.

His team later told me it was a matter of a couple of concepts. One, "yamato damashii" was about self-sacrifice. Another, "ganbatteii kudasai" was about finishing at all costs. Put them together and they spelled "hero" to me. It was the last I saw of Hiroyuki Yajima, but I'll never forget him.