Steele Bishop: cycling champion with a story to tell
Elite track racing in 1983 was a complete contrast to how it is in 2019 and former world champion Steele Bishop, now racing in the Masters, enjoys elements of both eras.
As the track world championships of 2019 get underway, a cyclist from the past, Steele Bishop, has released a book about his racing days. The 1983 individual pursuit world champion tells his story in a 55,000 word, 228-page explanation of a career that finished not long after it began.
‘Wheels of Steele’ is an autobiography published by Rockpool Publishing. You will find it in quality book shops or order your copy via www.steelebishop.com.
Bishop contested the Münich Olympics in 1972 as a 19-year-old, stepped away from cycling for a few years and returned to win the worlds in 1983 as a 30-year-old. At 66, he’s back on the bike and enjoying his racing.
In 2018, he set himself the task of breaking the Masters pursuit world record and duly did so at the WA state championships in April, riding 2,000m in 2:25.9, taking three seconds off the previous best time for that age-group.
Despite being involved in cycling for a long time, and having spoken to almost all Australian world champions from the past 25 years, our interview via FaceTime earlier today was the first chance for me to talk to Steele. He is a softly spoken gentleman who tells me that, in 2019, he’s racing at the same weight he was when he rode the Olympics: 86kg.
At 188cm, he is relatively tall for a cyclist and although he admits that he has some physiological gifts, it’s his mental strength that has helped yield some impressive results over his many, sporadic years as a bike racer.
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You can listen to RIDE Media’s interview with Steele Bishop by clicking the link below (and/or read the transcript of our exchange).
Click the SoundCloud file (above) to listen to the interview.
RIDE Media: It’s with great pleasure that I get the chance to talk with Steele Bishop. He is a world champion from way back when – in 1983, he won a 5,000m individual pursuit to take a rainbow jersey home. He beat a Swiss rider back then, and he’s back on the bike and enjoying his racing. It all happened by coincidence; last March he started doing criteriums and by April he was owner of the new Master’s world record in the 2,000m individual pursuit. That’s quite a long introduction and now I’m going to get him to talk…
You’ve just written a book and it’s called ‘Wheels of Steele’… tell me a little bit about how that book came about. It’s quite an interesting project and you’ve written it all yourself, is that right?
Steele Bishop: “That’s right, Rob.
“My wife had been at me for years to document my history for my family, because my children weren’t alive when I did all my cycling… and it was just a book not to publish, it was just to have in the family so that that knowledge isn’t lost.
“Eventually I sat down and, over a year, I put – would you believe – a whole 5,000 words together. But it was just chronological: ‘I went to the Olympics as a 19-year-old…’, ‘I went to the worlds…’ dah, dah, dah.
“There were no stories in it and that sat on a computer for six years. Then, one day I was at a business meeting and a friend of mine, who is an author and a coach who coaches people to write books, he encouraged me and gave me the belief that my story is worth writing down for people to read.
“And so, in the three months after that, I put that 5,000 words into 52,000 words – with his help – and had it edited, found a publisher, and it comes out on Friday.”
That will effectively mark what’s the beginning of the 2019 track world championships. And it’s track cycling where you made your name. Are you engaged by the sport in 2019, all these years after having won your world title?
“Well, it’s interesting. I got lured back after 35 years off the bike. I got lured back into riding again and I got the bug. I thought, ‘Why not? I can break that world record in the two-kilometre [pursuit]…’ and so we really set some goals this year.
“We broke it last year by 2.9 seconds, unofficially, because we never had a national commissaire there.”
Photos: courtesy of Steele Bishop
What age category do you find yourself in now?
“Oh, you’re pushing it now… 65-69, and I’m at the same race weight that I was 36 years ago, so I’m pretty happy with that.
“I’ve got a coach again. It’s interesting too… you probably realise that Ken Benson was my coach back in the day and he’s the one who actually saw the potential that I could win a world championship if I took five seconds off my time…
“I thought, ‘Hmm, I’ve been breaking the Australian record every year… why not?’
“He saw the potential and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So, we put a team together and worked on it. It took us three years but now his son, Darryl Benson, who I used to race against – he was the WA Institute of Sport coach for many years… I’ve enlisten [him] as my coach now.
“Ken’s son will coach me for the worlds [in 2019]. We get on really well he is just so experienced.
“The difference in training now is so much different [to 1983] but the same principals of success are there.
“We’re using the affirmations and the mind power and all sorts of things.”
Just for the record, I’ve never spoken to you until today. I’ve been involved in cycling a long time – and you too – but this is our first exchange.
With the worlds coming up, I think it’s a pertinent time to talk about pursuiting. It has gone through a lot in recent times and, unfortunately, no longer part of the Olympic program, the individual pursuit that is… but it is one of those disciplines that tends to yield high-quality bike riders…
“Oh yeah, we’ve had so much success with Australian cycling in pursuiting. It’s just a shame they’ve taken it out [of the Olympics].
“In Spain, the pursuit – I think – it means: persecution. And that’s what you’re doing, you’re persecuting yourself in the pursuit. It’s so hard and there are so many tactics involved, believe it or not.
“It’s not just getting up and riding flat-out.”
Considering contemporary pursuiters
RIDE Media: You talked to me before we went on the record about Ashton Lambie, who is the world record holder in the individual pursuit, your pet event back in the day – and again now. You said he did what sounds like a training evening when he, himself, raced a team of four and he rode a 4:08, just one-second shy of his world record. That sounds extraordinary… What was your impression of watching this young American do what he does?
Steele Bishop: “Well, I’m tingling right now… I can see that ride.
“It was just amazing. His start, on this big gear, he just flewout of those blocks.
“I’ve never seen anyone start so smooth, so fast. And he got into this amazing position; it looked like the Superman position because he’s not that tall.
“That’s the issue that guys like myself have got: I’m two centimetres short of having exemptions [from the standard rules about position].
“I can’t be out [as far as Ashton] because of my height, however, he just rode so smoothly that I couldn’t believe it. There was no expression, it was just the same pace – start to finish. And what was really amazing about this ride is that it’s sea level that he’s riding at, not where he broke the world record at altitude last year (in Aguascalientes, in Mexico).
“He took a whole lap to pass this four-man team pursuit, which meant he was up the track for a whole lap. So he lost a lot of time; he’d have smashed the world record if he didn’t have to go around the team.”
I’ve had contact with [Ashton] this week and wished him all the best for what’s to come in Poland and, from what you’ve explained, I dare say we’ll see him in a rainbow jersey in a couple of days.
“Unless someone else comes out of the woodwork with an extraordinary ride, I think you’re right.”
Does Ashton make pursuiting glamorous again? He’s bringing a bit of spunk to the sport. He’s got tattoos and a mo’ and he’s got attitude. And he’s cool. He’s relaxed. Did you get to spend a bit of time with him?
“No, I just had a quick chat and a quick photo to put on Facebook.
“He’s just such a nice young man.
“Of course, all pursuiters are, right? They’re all nice young men.”
Ashton Lambie (above) is one of the favourites for the individual pursuit at the worlds in 2019.
He is the world record holder and a freak of a rider… (click the photo above to read RIDE Media‘s interview with him from last year).
What it was like in 1983…
RIDE Media: We could talk a lot about the book, but I need to read it before I delve into that greater detail. But just talk to me a little about what it was like back in your day: you were racing 5,000 metres, as opposed to 4,000m as they’re doing now; there was a professional and an amateur scene… it was basically chalk-and-cheese from what we know today. There was certainly no aerobars like what we know today. Can you talk me through your bike from 1983 and how it compared to what you saw Ashton ride just a couple of weeks ago?
Steele Bishop: “Well, when you say ‘no aero…’, we had just started with the cut-down frame, you know, the sloping top tube – that had just come in, along with whatever advantage that gave. And the tubing was slightly aero.
“But there were no disc wheels, no clipless pedals, no aerobars…
“Aero helmets had come in, I didn’t have one though. And that was it.
“Today, well… I got back on the track bike last year, after 35 years off the bike, and the difference!? Absolute chalk and cheese!
“I’ve got this track frame [now] which is so stiff.
“You know when you get off the seat and you throw your bike around to get going in a sprint? You can’t throw your bike around, you’ve just got to stay upright… you’re not moving sideways, you’re just moving forwards all the time. You can’t throw the bike around, it’s so stiff.
“The aero position took a little bit to get used to, being down [on the bars]. You don’t have the same control of your steering.
“The disc wheels, wow! What an effect they give you, just the speed from the disc wheels – can’t believe it. They just keep you going, they keep your momentum up.”
What gear did you ride in 1983 and what are you riding in 2019.
“Ah, it was a 91.8 [inch] gear in 1983.
“Now, I came back on the track bike just with training wheels last year on a 93.6, and I thought, ‘I’ve never ridden a gear that big…’ And I was getting pedalled off.
“So, I put it up to a 96, and I could stay with [the others].
“Then I tried 98 and it was too hard, so came back to 96.
“Well, the last six weeks, I’ve been training on 106!
“We’ll come down to 104 this week, and 100 the next week. Then I’ve got a full dress rehearsal in four Saturdays time, two weeks out from the nationals.”
[The masters distance] is less than half what you used to race but do you still get to the finish and have your pursuiter’s cough and all of the bodily collapses that comes at the end of such an effort?
“Actually, it’s interesting; I didhave the pursuiter’s cough last year [at the state and national titles] because it was pretty hot and I only had nine weeks to train for that world record (set in April) and I had done no strength work at all.
“Now we’ve done strength work and I’m not getting that cough now, which is great.
“I’ll tell you what happened in that pursuit, two things happened…
“With five laps to go, fatigue set in and immediately my affirmations came to mind. I’ve got one very, very powerful one from Mohammed Ali which I use all the time and it just came to my mind. And I started saying this affirmation over and over with five laps to go – and I didn’t feel the pain after that.
“It just kept me going, the power of the mind.”
And what was it that Mohammed Ali taught you?
“Well, I haven’t got any [notes] in front of me but…:
“‘Never have I suffered like I’m forcing myself to suffer now. I’ve fought this long for a fight but never this hard. To win, all I need to do is suffer. I’m not going to lose and spend the rest of my life saying, why didn’t I train harder?’”
And you would repeat that, as a mantra, while you were finishing those last couple of laps?
“And I tell you, you know when you sprint for the finish line and you give it everything to the line? Probably, 20 metres out, my body shut down, my legs just had nothing and I just rolled to the line.
“Obviously my momentum kept me going but I wasn’t pushing the bike. There was nothing left in my body.
“I’ve never had that before.”
Bishop in 2018 (above).
I think what you just talked about there is the power of the mind. In modern cycling, there tends to be testing and we understand power and we know output and we know what people are capable of. And perhaps a lot of bike riders get thrown by the wayside because of that testing because they are basically told they don’t have the physiology…
If you raced in the modern world – if you started now – do you think you would have become a bike rider?
“That’s a tough question.”
Would you have had the physiology, or would you say that it’s [your] mental capacity that helped you succeed when you have?
“I think I’ve got the physiology, to an extent.
“I’m probably a little bit tall, for a road rider, for instance – and a bit heavy for a road rider, at 86kg. However, on the track… I think I’ve got the physiology.
“But it’s the mental thing, that came in really for the last worlds with the team that I put together.
“You’ve got to have a team of people who are likeminded, that are sold out to the goal – that the key, they’re sold out to your goal. They are positive people.
“And I had my cycling coach, my physical fitness coach for the pre-season, I had my mental coach, my dietitian, my chiropractor/kinesiologist, my masseur, and my wife at the time helping to just organise everything – so I didn’t have to worry about anything.”
This was back in 1983?
“Yes. Charlie Walsh was doing the AIS at the time (actually ACF, Australian Cycling Federation).
“Actually, it was interesting… here’s a little aside: the amateurs hated the pros back then; the cyclists, officials… everyone. They just hated them.
“Charlie thought, ‘Oh, I need to get a gauge for my boys…’ so he asked me if I’d do this fat test a few weeks before the worlds.
“He tested me and he tested me again the following week. And he’s testing his boys – and his boys were sitting at around seven-, eight-, nine-percent body fat. And I was sitting at 4.8 percent every time he tested me.
“But they weren’t into diet [or] nutrition back then and we were.
“We used other training methods, other than just riding, for pre-season work, to get the body right.
“They didn’t do that back then. They’re doing it now…”
Culture of doping?
RIDE Media:What was the doping like back in your day? Did you get tempted? This was well before EPO or anything of the like but it was also the halcyon time for anabolics. Did you get there?
Steele Bishop: “Interestingly, no. I was completely ignorant to drugs. I never even read about them.
“I had seen drugs in Australia. I was sure that people were on them. I’d seen people and thought, ‘Yeah, okay. That is not how you normally ride.’
“I’d seen that in Australia, on the road and the track. I absolutely saw it in Europe when I was training for the worlds. That year I was doing the Coca-Cola Trophy in Germany, which was 15 days of criteriums, travelling around. I remember one day I saw a guy putting a needle in his arm and said to him, ‘What are you doing?’
“He said, ‘Oh, just caffeine…’ Whatever.
“So, we went out and raced and I beat him.
“And they all know how clean I was because with nutrition and food I made sure I had all the right stuff. Two weeks later [this bloke] had to race me at the worlds… and when he’s on it, he can’t beat me. So he’s just gone mentally.
“When I got back to Australia and retired later, I was in professional administration over here and I organised dope testing for the first time.
“That’s why I didn’t stay in Europe, by the way… I had contracts to ride Six [Day races] and back then 36 years ago, they were offering something like AUD$10,000 just to startin the Six Day bike races.
“Seriously, with prize money over winter and summer and contracts back then, [it would equate to] probably three-million dollars.
“But I didn’t stay because the Six Day bike riders [took] stuff to keep going. They can’t race 42 days… and have two days off in that time, without something to keep going, whatever it is. I wouldn’t do that to my body and my mind as well, because then I’m cheating myself, cheating everything – and that won’t happen.
“Anyway, it wasn’t until I read Tyler Hamilton’s book two years ago, ‘The Secret Race’ and I thought, ‘Hmmmm!’ That’s when I learned about drugs… I just had no idea. I was just ignorant. Blissfully. And I’d like to stay that way.”
The legacy of the 1990s should serve us well and let’s hope it does. But then let’s fast-forward to talk about a couple of other pursuiters. Did you race against the ilk of Gary Wiggins, or not?
“No. He was finishing. He was in Europe when I was racing here. I didn’t race against him or see him race, no.”
Okay, but you obviously would have observed the progression of Bradley [Wiggins]. Did you ever think you’d see a pursuiter like him – who was not far off your race weight when he was winning the [individual pursuit at the] Olympics in 2004, for example… did you ever think you’d see someone like him go on to win the Tour de France?
“Wow, no. He was a tall guy, as far as I could see. I’ve never met him but he looks tall. He didn’t look like a road rider to me at the time but wow, what a life. What an achievement. Very impressive.”
‘Wheels of Steele’ (above) goes on sale at the start of March 2019.
Of the Australians you’ve watched coming from the track, who catches your attention most?
“Are you talking current day riders?”
I suppose, yeah. I mean there’s unbelievable talent out there, like Sam Welsford, who you would have seen because he’s from WA. He’s jetting off to see if he can get another world title next week. It’s unfortunate; for all of his talent, he doesn’t get much media attention these days, for example. But is there someone who you have seen at the velodrome and thought, ‘What a fantastic style!’ Rohan Dennis captured me a couple of years ago like that, and I wonder if there’s someone you’ve seen race on the track bike and just said, ‘This kids going to go to the top…’?
“As I’ve said, I have been out of it and I haven’t had the opportunity to go and watch all these young guys racing now. So it’s a pretty hard call there for me…
“I’ve been away from it too long and these last six months I’ve been concentrating on what I have to do. I haven’t been looking sideways at anything – except Ashton Lambie the other day, that blew me away.”
I’m really looking forward to reading ‘Wheels of Steele’ just to find out more about you and your time but if we’re just talking about what you’ve gone through in the last 12 months, where you’ve come back to cycling – and it has been a long hiatus, let’s be clear – what do you get out of it now? Would you be happy enough if you didn’t have the goal of trying to go to the worlds and break another world record? Or do you need that competitive arena?
“Well, why I stopped racing was because whenever I’m on a bike – whether it be a club ride, a state ride, a nationals… whatever – I have to win.
“I might ride my bike a couple of times a week, going down the bike path and I’ll see someone up in front… and I’ve got to catch them.
“There’s still that competitive instinct in me, even though I wasn’t fit.
“Some days I’d come home all red and sweaty and the wife would say, ‘Oh, you’ve been chasing someone, have you?’
“I still had that in me, but not the fitness.
“But if I race, I want to win, which means I’ve got to train hard.
“I’ve got to put all my time into training, my whole life has to go into it. You’ve got to do it professionally or not at all.
“I can’t just ride and go to racing and just be a number; I’ve got to have a go.
“When I get on the bike at the track or anywhere… no matter what race or training ride I do, I don’t think of myself as nearly 66 years of age. I think of myself as a 30-year-old still. Mentally, that’s it. It doesn’t even come into the equation, my age… and I feel like I’m performing like that now.
“It’s just amazing, the power of the mind – mindset.”
Published by Rockpool, ‘Wheels of Steele’ is available from www.steelebishop.com and good book shops.
Talk to me about muscle memory. After such a long break, when you got back on the bike was it really natural or did you have to fight to get in position?
“It took me probably three weeks to go through a lot of pain to get my [form].
“You do have muscle memory but it took me about three weeks to get back into it before I started to feel pretty good. It just hurt until then; when the pressure when on, you didn’t have it. But after three weeks, [when] the pressure goes on, you’ve got that kick in you…
“Something happens, as they say, when you get over 65 something physiologically happens and you’re just not as good.
“My heart rate is not as high as it used to be. I’m getting a new maximum every few weeks. I’m getting up there again.”
What’s your maximum?
“At the criterium on Sunday I got up to 165bpm… but I’m constantly at 158, 159 in training.”
And it feels manageable? It doesn’t cause you concern?
“I’ve got to say, a couple of times I’ve said to Darryl the day after: “Last night I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest… literally burst out of my chest!’ It’s just pushing my heart so hard, but that’s what my mental capacity does. I just push it.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold