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105th Austral Wheelrace - IM

Vodafone Arena, Melbourne, Australia, March 15, 2003

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Higginson and Neiwand back on the track

One is an Australian track cycling legend past his prime but "a shocking spectator" who misses racing, the other was one the country's brightest track cycling talents who is returning to competition at 24. The 2003 edition of the world's longest-running track cycling event promises to produce some surprises. Gerard Knapp reports.

Gary Neiwand
Photo: © AFP
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This Saturday night will see a return to competition for two of Australia's brightest stars of the track cycling. After their respective two-year layoffs following the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Lyndelle Higginson and world champion and Olympic silver medallist Gary Neiwand will hit the boards of the Vodafone Arena in Melbourne as part of the Fitzroy Cycles Austral Wheelrace night of track racing.

However, the two track cyclists have somewhat different ambitions for the evening. At 24, Higginson still has a bright future ahead of her and has been in training for the past four months, while Neiwand only decided on the day before the Austral that he would enter the prestigious handicap, one of the richest events in Australian track cycling and said to be the longest-running track cycling event in the world.

The two-year break has affected the cyclists quite differently. Higginson was one of only three female competitors selected to represent her country at the Sydney games and then at 21, hung up her wheels after competing on the track since she was four years old. Towards the end of last year, she started training regularly is now keen to resume her place among the leading track cyclists in the country.

During her lay-off, Higginson lost some eight kilograms, while Neiwand gained a lot more. "I'm fat, unfit and 36," he joked. "I'll be doing well if I last three laps of the handicap (Wheelrace)." Even so, organisers have put Neiwand off a 50 metre handicap, which in Wheelrace terms is at the sharp end of the field. The fastest track riders in the country are likely to be 50 metres behind Neiwand on the scratch mark when the gun fires for his heat.

In the frantic eight-lap 2000 metre Wheelrace, riders are given head-starts of up to 300 metres, depending on their age, record and performance. Because Neiwand is a former winner of the Austral, handicap rules dictate he must start off a tougher mark. "But when I won it I was off 70 metres, so they've given me another metre handicap for every kilo I've gained."

Olympic silver
Photo: © AFP
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The final field for the Wheelrace is made up of the top three finishers of the respective heats. Neiwand is quick to admit he's unlikely to be among the finishers. His initial plan was to only enter the Victorian keirin title, but to do that he also had to enter the Wheelrace. "I'll admit it, I'm a shocking spectator and I thought with the Wheelrace coming up, I'd give it a go."

In fact, he only confirmed today that he was going to enter. The last time he was on his road bike "was about five months ago", while he has to retrieve his track bike from his parent's house and "go brush off all the cobwebs and hopefully it still runs OK".

The keirin is Neiwand's favoured event and his courageous performance in the final track event of the Sydney 2000 Olympics was a highlight of all the cycling. In the keirin final he was outnumbered by two French riders, two Germans and Marty Nothstein of the USA, so Neiwand had little choice but to go to the front and led out with over one lap to go. Rousseau only just caught the flying Australian as they hit the line separated by centimetres. It was a performance where Neiwand gave it everything and didn't hold back.

Now a hotel night manager, he admits "I've missed the world of cycling, but I'm not contemplating a comeback. Not in your wildest dreams am I contemplating that." Last year he played Australian Rules Football, damaged his knee and required a knee reconstruction. However, he still shaves his legs. "That's a habit from being a cyclist and they still look better this way, I reckon."

Lighter, but still fast Prior to the 2000 Olympics, Higginson was being developed as a sprinter and subsequently gained muscle bulk, which all fell away once she stopped training and racing after the Games.

Her temporary retirement from competition meant she could lead a relatively normal life. "I'd go to work, come home, sit around, eat, watch TV, then go out. I did normal things," she said. . Now 24, Higginson rekindled her love of racing and has been regularly training with leading track coach John Beasley offering a guiding hand.

As for her first real hit-out on Saturday night, "It's really like being in a dark room and not knowing what else is there," Higginson said. Women cyclists are unable to enter heats of the main Wheelrace, so Higginson will ride in the women's handicap, scratch race and keirin, "maybe".

"I'm still working out which event I really want to train for," she said. "But I still have the speed (of a sprinter). I've been doing 11.7s and 11.5s behind the motorbike at Northcote," she said of her training at a local velodrome, where she is timed over a flying 200 metres, which is the standard qualifying event for match sprint finals.

Lyndelle Higginson
Photo: © Tom Balks
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Nonetheless, Higginson admits that qualifying for the 2004 Athens Olympics "is now a bit unrealistic", so her initial aim is make selection for the Australian team, race at the UCI Track World Cups and then aim for the 2006 Commonwealth Games to be held in her home town of Melbourne.

"I'm much happier looking like this," said Higginson, who now weighs 59kg. "I'm almost 10 kilos lighter than I was in Adelaide (training for the Olympics). It has made it so much easier to get back on the road bike to start training, even to go up the hills. Like, it's not easy to do the climbs but it's made it a lot easier being lighter. I'm not sure if I want to put that weight back on again."

With the exception of a local criterium she raced late last year (which she won), Higginson has not raced seriously since the end of the 2000/01 season. Even at the recent St Kilda Club criterium, "I got talked into it", she said of her late entry. The person doing the talking was fellow rider and friend Todd Wilksch, who Higginson credits with the support she's needed to get through the initial phase of regaining her fitness.

Higginson said her schedule would be up at 6am to hit the gym prior to her full-time position in the office of Ponroy Panels, a local smash-repair shop which essentially created a job for her after she stopped racing. "They really got me out of a big hole," she said. The majority of her training is on her road bike four times per week, with one session a week at the local velodrome training under John Beasley.

"The gym work has taken a back seat now. I am gaining a lot more from riding the road bike." The road work includes fast mid-week training sessions with her local bunch and meeting up with Wilksch to do longer rides on the weekend. Like most riders with full time jobs, Higginson also feels the weight of the bed covers when rising early to head out on training rides, but finds that the commitment and support of friends is what gets her out on the road.

Similarly, her choice of the Austral Wheelrace as a comeback event is due to the support of Fitzroy Cycles, which is the naming rights sponsor of the night's racing as well as a sponsor for Higginson over the past three years, "even when I haven't been racing".

"Scapin have also provided me with a track bike and road bike through the three years. The support of these people, my family and friends has been awesome."

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