Words & Images: Russell Jones
Jack Swart is one of the all-time greats of New Zealand road racing. His many triumphs in stage races saw him bafflingly pigeonholed by the national selectors, meaning he missed out on many one-day opportunities. But that wasn’t the only source of frustration in his career.
It was amongst the pile, squeezed down the side with the race numbers from the 1980 Milk Race and the 1976 Scottish Milk Race. Bursting at the seams, the cardboard Chiquita banana box overflowed with memories from another time. If a picture can tell a thousand words, then this stage winner’s cap from the 1984 Coors Classic could tell you so much more.
“We were sitting around the dinner table that night,” remembers Jack. “We’d all heard about Afghanistan, but we didn’t really know too much about the politics.”
Jack Swart had made the selection to represent New Zealand at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the core of the road squad riding the Milk Race as a preparation event, just as many of the other amateurs were doing. The two-week British stage race was one of the premier races for amateurs at that time, and with previous winners going on to win Olympic gold (Kuiper won both the Milk Race and Olympics in ’72, Johansson the Milk Race in ’75 then the Olympics in ‘76) it was also considered the perfect opportunity to size up your Olympic opponents.
The evening after a team time trial stage New Zealand coach Ron Cheatley received a phone call in their Llandudno hotel from the Secretary of the New Zealand Amateur Cycling Association. “They were handing on a message from Muldoon’s office [The NZ Prime Minister at that time],” remembers Cheatley. “They told us that New Zealand was withdrawing from the Games and we were expected to come home.”
In protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the United States had announced they would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games. New Zealand was one of over sixty countries which followed suit. Gutted, Jack Swart would now have to wait another four years for his chance to ride in the Olympics.
From Good Stock
The first child of post-second world war immigrants, Jack was raised in the small town of Morrinsville, where his parents owned a small farm. They had chosen well. Unbeknownst to the Swarts, the small Waikato town was a hotbed of cycling – as the young Jack would soon find out. Interested by the bike racing that passed by the farm gates, he was embraced by the family-run Morrinsville Wheelers and their ‘school hall and tea urn, bring your number back for a cup of cordial’ racing community.
After a steady start he progressed through the ranks and by 1980 he was a household name in New Zealand. With an Edmonton 1978 Commonwealth Games silver, a win in the prestigious home-based Dulux stage race, three wins in the Manawatu stage race and two national road titles under his belt he was a regular choice for the national squad. Naturally strong, his style of racing was one of riding at the front and seeing who could stay with him. “I remember Jack was a big burly bastard,” laughs Phil Anderson, who crossed swords with Jack during the ’77 Dulux. “He was just a beast. He would be a good man to be in a breakaway with as he was a hard-working guy. I was away with him a few times and we’d always try and get something going.” The then-19-year-old Australian riding his first overseas race developed throughout the week, pipping Swart to take his first big win. “Looking back, it was a real stepping stone for me, firstly for riding in a better-quality field, secondly in preparing me for Europe.”
It was no surprise then when Swart was named for the New Zealand squad to compete in the 100 km team time trial at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Cleaning up in the previous year’s Oceania Games, a ‘shake-out’ event held on the same circuit, the Kiwi team were not only confident but were also on obvious form going in the 1982 Games, filling the podium at the tough Australian 226 km Grafton to Inverell race in the lead-in. But on the day of the 100 km TTT disaster struck. A slipped chain resulted in the team riding half of the race missing a rider. Their bronze medal was bitter compensation.
A marked rider on his home course, Jack Swart lined up as favourite to win the 1983 National Championships. It had been chosen as the selection race for the ’84 Los Angeles Olympic Games. As he had won the Waikato regional championships on the same roads just weeks beforehand things were looking good for Swart.
Watched so closely, Swart was not able to jump across to the early break on the day. The crucial moment came when he suffered a puncture. The bunch was quick to accelerate and distance him. To add to Swart’s woes, his Waikato support van was up covering the break. After waiting for a neutral wheel and then attempting to chase an attacking bunch Swart called it a day – a decision he still regrets.
“I mentally cracked when I saw that they all decided to take off. As it happened the whole race exploded, and if I look back on it now, if I’d just ridden at my tempo I would have grabbed them all back one by one. But that’s all history.”
Despite being one of the strongest road men in New Zealand, by not finishing the selection race he had not met the tough criteria set by the Olympic panel. Jack’s L.A. start was now on hold.
Eager to turn this around, Swart went out and duly won the Tour of Southland. Riding again from the front he attacked into the wind on stage 5, distancing the field. He went to win the Dulux tour once more, again sealing his win on the 175 km New Plymouth queen stage. “I wanted to show them I could ride,” says Swart referring to the Olympic selectors. “I knew before I rode Southland and the Dulux that I wasn’t going to the Olympics as I wasn’t selected, so that’s why those races were so important to me – to do well and to show them.”
Still not getting the nod, Swart was asking himself just how much more he would need to do. Regardless, Cheatley still trained Swart with the squad, in the hope that the Olympic selectors would see sense and find him a place. “In those days,” explains Cheatley, “you nominated your athletes to the Olympic committee and they handed that on to the cycling selectors for final ratification. Jack Swart got turned down on the basis that he was supposedly just a tour rider, which was an absolute joke!”
“Enough of this Sunday stroll”
Like the Milk Race in the previous Olympic campaign, the Colorado-based Coors Classic was used by many teams for pre-Games tuning. The high-altitude, tough American stage race even modified some of its stages to replicate the Californian Mission Viejo Olympic course. Cheatley asked Swart to join the New Zealand team, the coach still praying for a last-minute reprieve. Swart, forced to pay his own way, did so in the hope his Olympic dream would still come true.
Not surprisingly, the American squads were strong. The still-amateur 7-Eleven squad fielded medal hope and criterium specialist Davis Phinney to sharpen his sprinting legs against Canadian favourite Steve Bauer, while the likes of Andy Hampsten and Alexi Grewal were out to duel on the climbs against Colombians such as Fabio Parra.
As if it wasn’t already a big enough circus, the race was followed by a crew making the feature film ‘American Flyers’. Riders were used as cast members, the route doubled as a set and the young and moustachioed Kevin Coster joined the peloton at the start of chosen stages in his Shaver Sport kit. Not in the script was Alexi Grewal’s positive drug test. The American hope was immediately suspended but allowed back for the Olympic race.
Feeling on form racing at the high altitude, no mean feat coming from the lowland Waikato countryside, Swart saw his opportunity during the 100 km 18-lap Aspen stage. Although referred to as a criterium, at 2438 m and including 900 metres of climbing, this was certainly no Dutch or Belgian kermesse like Swart had ridden on previous overseas sorties.
“The circuit had a climb towards the end,” recalls Swart, “and then it went about 1 km down the main street to the finish. They were all out of wind on that last lap, so I attacked from the back in the biggest gear I had and just went for it! Got around the corner and figured I could be just as fast as they can, and that was it. Phinney couldn’t catch me. I held them off. It was 10 seconds on the line. It was a big deal, and what made it such a big deal was that it was a slap in the face to the Olympic selectors. I was riding with the Olympic team, winning a race against most of the Olympic riders and the Olympic race was only a week away.”
Cheatley remembers watching Swart on the podium next to Phinney in front of 20,000 people, shedding a tear while ‘God Save New Zealand’ played in the background, gleefully looking forward to sharing the good news back home with the selectors. “I naturally perceived that they would rubber stamp Jack’s selection. It didn’t happen. They rejected it on the basis that they still thought he was a tour rider and not a one-day rider. I remember putting Jack back on the flight to New Zealand while we carried on down to Los Angeles, I remember saying to him, ‘Jack, you’ll come out and smash them in the Nationals, you’ll win it and show them that you are more than just a tour rider,’ because he was more than that, he’d won a lot of one-day races. It was really sad Jack Swart never became an Olympian, really sad.”
For years he’d juggled with the continual balance of training combined with full-time work, and as the eldest of six he’d helped to support his family after his father had died. Now with a new family of his own, sitting alone on the plane home Jack faced reality. “I knew then I’d never to go to the Olympics. I wasn’t going to be around another four years for the next one as our kids were just about to go to school.”
Watching out for his mates, he tuned in for the race back in New Zealand. The Kiwis struggled in the heat, their best rider finishing 18th. Grewal returned from his ban to nose out Bauer for the sprint. Phinney was 5th, but his wife Connie Carpenter Phinney completed an American sweep of Olympic road race gold.
“For me the course was OK,” remembers Stephen Cox, Swart’s training partner and New Zealand teammate, “but the conditions, I’d rather see trees and rain sideways than the 40 degrees we had that day. The temperature destroyed me rather than the course, and I don’t think it would have been much better for Jack.”
“I don’t like the heat, not like that,” agrees Swart. “That and what those Americans did with their blood doping program, well . . .”
In early 1985 Rolling Stone revealed that the cyclists on the USA team had been using blood infusion practices prior to the Olympics. Although not yet deemed illegal by the International Olympic Committee, this revelation, together with the Grewal positive, certainly blemished the American success.
Ironically, in 1984 the New Zealand National Championships were held in the small South Canterbury town of Pleasant Point. Ironically, because Swart made a not-so-pleasant point when he accepted his winner’s trophy, saying “Well, that wasn’t too bad for a tour rider,” to the gathered crowd after soloing to the victory.
Continuing another two years, Swart announced his retirement on the top step of the podium of the Raleigh Cycle Classic, a new version of the Dulux race. In doing so he equalled the record of race wins. Next to him on the podium was his brother, Stephen, winner of the last stage. It was an emotional occasion – a passing of the baton, as it were. Jack was stepping down from racing after being a stalwart of the domestic scene for so long. Stephen, after seeing his brother’s career dictated to by internal politics, turned professional the very next year. In a nine-season career that saw him ride at the top level in Europe and America, he returned to this very podium in 1995, victor in the newly named Colonial Cycle Classic, this too his last race.
But Stephen Swart’s tale is another story for another day . . .