Thanks to the efforts of UCI World Track Cycling Masters Champion Tony Mills, plenty of Townsville cyclists know what it feels like to be beaten by a grandfather. Now 56, Tony tells us about his love of track and time trials (“the race of truth”), what it’s like to compete on the global stage, his tips, and his plans as he moves towards the big 6-0.
“I looked up at the scoreboard in disbelief with only my name appearing and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve won a World Championship’”
Editor’s note: Not familiar with the different types of track racing (there are quite a few!)? Here’s a good glossary of terms: http://vic.cycling.org.au/Track/DISC/Track-Races-Explained
Tony has been on and off the bike since he started riding competitively in the 1980s. Back then, he was heavily into triathlons but had to give it away due to the demands of work and three young children, and he really only got back in the saddle in 2002. His cycling style of choice was endurance road riding; at least until about five years ago when Top Brand Cycles’ Mick Ross invited him out to the velodrome.
“I went out there and had a go,” explains Tony over a mid-morning coffee at Juliette’s. “My third week out I had a crash and injured my hip pretty badly. No one thought I’d be turning up again, but I was hooked well and truly and, after three weeks, I was back out there”.
“I must admit the first time you ride track you are scared shitless because your bike has no brakes. Everyone reminds you, ‘you’ve got no brakes’, ‘you know you’ve got no brakes?’ and you go, ‘I remember: I don’t have any brakes!’ But you come to realise that everyone is in the same situation: you can’t suddenly stop and neither can they. Once you get that into your head it becomes a lot easier to race.”
Before long Tony was not only comfortable racing, but he was competitive with guys who were decades younger. In 2010, he decided to take the plunge from local to state racing and entered the Queensland Masters Track Championships, coming fourth in the Pursuit (50-54 years).
“Twenty years ago everyone thought once you reached 30 it was all over, but with improved training and recovery methods, this idea has been turned on its head”
“I’d been training out at the track and couldn’t break 2 minutes 40 seconds for 2km,” Tony tells. “Based on previous Championship times, I figured 2:40 was required to be competitive. My last practice pursuit, I clocked 2:38 and was really pleased. At the Championships I clocked 2:36. From this, I took away the experience of racing and seeing what the competition was like: Instead of being someone who got their arse kicked, I felt like I was in the hunt.”
The next year – 2011 – he went back and came second in the pursuit; and then in 2012 he expanded his repertoire and went into the pursuit and 500m time trial and won gold medals in both. In 2013 he did the pursuit, the 500m time trial and the scratch race and won gold in all three races.
“I came back from Brisbane and my wife Deanne said to me, ‘Why don’t you go in the Australian Championships?’ I said, ‘no, I don’t think so,” explains Tony. “I had that niggling self-doubt, plus it was over in Perth with all the time and expense that entails.”
But he got talked around to it, partially thanks to his good friend Brian Brown. At the Nationals, Tony recorded the fastest qualifying time of 2:31 and won the Australian Championship in 2:29.
“I came back, then of course everyone started with: ‘Why don’t you go for the World Titles in Manchester?’ Again, I was a bit reticent as it was very expensive and obviously I’d have to get a new bike for it (laughs).”
But Deanne and his track friends again urged him on and Tony came second in the qualifying race (55-59 years) in 2:27. “I was absolutely over the moon; so much so I decided to go for a celebratory lunch between the qualifying and the final that evening. So Deanne and I had a beer, a steak and a nap – which horrifies everybody (laughs).”
Tony recalls that he didn’t feel nervous heading into the final later that night because he had achieved his goals of placing in the top five and breaking 2:30; going for gold was a bonus. He ended up beating New Zealander Simon Lusk by 1.6 seconds (a bit of context: at that speed you’re travelling 14m per second).
“It was funny – I have a rule when racing to never glance at the opponent: it distracts your focus,” says Tony. “The pursuit was eight laps and, as I was going around, the New Zealand crowd was cheering louder and louder for Simon – hence I thought I was getting my butt kicked. Meanwhile my cheer squad, Deanne – despite her valiant efforts – was no match for the Kiwis’ increasing volume. I keep thinking: stay focused, ride the line, count the laps, control your breathing.
“Then as I was coming into the last lap there was no noise at all, which was really strange. Maybe he was so far in front it was embarrassing? Coming into the home straight I was expecting Simon to get the finishing gun at any moment. But it never came. It was me who crossed the line and got the gun. I looked up at the scoreboard in disbelief with only my name appearing and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve won a World Championship’.”
On top of his victory on the track last year, Tony also competed in the Queensland Masters Road Time Trials and won that.
This year on the track he won two gold and a bronze at states and a silver and a fourth at nationals. He also won gold at the state individual road time trial.
Tony reveals that, while pursuiting is his passion on the track, time trialling is his passion on the road. One of his main goals for 2014 was to compete in the Australian Masters Road Time Trial Championships in Ballarat, which he did coming fourth:
“There were 11 who competed in my age category and they were all pretty fast: This was no meeting of geriatrics. I averaged 44.4km/h over a 20km course and it was quite windy and cold so that’s pretty quick for a guy who’s getting near 60.
“I missed out by 0.7 of a second for third, so that stuck in my throat a bit – it’s a gear change. As Arnie would say, ‘I’ll be back’ next year.”
Unable to squeeze in a trip to the defend his UCI World Masters individual pursuit title due to the race being so close to the Australian Road Time Trial Championship; Tony still managed to make it back to Manchester the following week for the team pursuit race. His team of four won silver, unable to snatch gold from the British team. It was an ambitious attempt in hindsight, with none of them having ridden together previously.
Tony is now looking forward to next year’s competition calendar and has the state and national Track Championships and state and national Road Time Trial Championships earmarked; plus a handful of local races. Long term he wants to head back to the World Track Championships when he’s 60.
“I’ll have gone up to Masters 7 (60-64) and, being at the younger end of that category, I will have a competitive advantage,” he says. “When you get into your 50s it’s a bit like the black ski run – performance-wise you go down pretty rapidly if you’re not fit. However, they’ve found the fitter you are, the longer you can maintain your fitness in your age group. So for fit people in their 50s, it’s more like a green or blue ski run: a gentle and gradual decline.
“Twenty years ago everyone thought once you reached 30 it was all over, but with improved training and recovery methods, this idea has been turned on its head. That’s why you see older competitors in their late 30s to early 40s now in the Peloton – they might not be winning races, but they’re still competitive.”
There’s certainly a good reason for Tony’s edge: although he doesn’t have a coach he periodises his training around specific events, trains and recovers consistently, reads scientific journals to give him additional well-founded knowledge, and is constantly on the look out for small improvements in equipment and riding position.
“With competition riding I’m very focused and quite detailed about what I need to do, so you actually start to get very logical and cut-throat about what’s good and what’s not good for you,” explains Tony. “I’m still learning – today I was at Top Brand getting shorter cranks fitted to my time trial bike so that I can lower my position a bit and that might give me that 0.7 of a second that I lost (at the nationals). So, as Team Sky [British pro cycling team] say: it’s those marginal gains.”
But it’s not all serious for Tony – he still rides socially every Sunday with a group from the Townsville Hospital, followed by a coffee; an eight-year tradition. Coming from the Gold Coast originally, he marvels at how the cycling community in Townsville has grown since he came here in 2006 and says there’s certainly scope for other people – especially Masters – to get into the sport or take their riding up a notch.
“Particularly for men and women in their 50s, work commitments have freed up, some have retired, and the kids are older, so there’s more scope to be committed to training.
“It’s a great social sport and over the years it’s taught me a lot of things off the bike, like learning not to worry so much and adapt to various situations.”
Tony’s tips for new riders
- Buy a decent bike – I don’t mean $10,000, but $2,000-$3,000. Go to a quality bike shop and get a good bike to start off with; something with a Shimano 105 groupset, lightweight carbon frame, and decent wheels.
- Find a group to ride with, but make sure it’s one of your ability. Check out Townsville Bunch Rides on Facebook or ask around at work for someone who already rides, or approach a bike shop – most will already have a weekly group at your level.
- Take your time – don’t get into that racing mode straight away. Just get used to handling the bike, riding in a group, learning to be safe, and reading drivers.
- When you’re ready to race, choose your races wisely by racing to your strengths: If you’re good at endurance, choose longer road races; or if you’re a sprinter, then a criterium; and if you’re the next Eddy Merckx, then everything!