The Isa’s Games gold

MOUNT ISA PROUD: Brett and Melanie in Mount Isa in the late 1980s. Picture: Supplied.
MOUNT ISA PROUD: Brett and Melanie in Mount Isa in the late 1980s. Picture: Supplied.

“CYCLING is not only about physical ability and speed, it is about cleverness, experience, self-analysis, watching your opponents’ and tactical intelligence.”

And with those words, Heiko Salzwedel, former head coach of the Road Cycling Program at the Australian Institute of Sport, could not have known that some years earlier, a young lad in outback Queensland had already determined that he had the spirit and belief of his youth to cycle into gold, one day, using such criteria.   

From his first glimpse of the road cyclists racing south along the Dajarra Rd, Brett Dennis knew cycling was the sport for him. He had already flirted with swimming, tennis and soccer, so it was with a sigh of relief from his father, Arthur, when close family friend, Phil McFarlane offered to co-coach Brett in his developmental years of cycling.

And even though he had not taken to swimming like a duck to water, he took to cycling as fast as his young ‘chicken’ legs could turn his bike wheels to break away from competitors as they climbed Harvey’s Range, Townsville, to win his first North Queensland Junior Championship.

It was that win which whetted Brett’s appetite for the winner’s podium. And to prove his first title was not to be his last, ‘Chicken’ soon won the Australian Junior Road Race in Brisbane.

“Brett did have rather chicken-thin legs but really he got the nick-name ‘Chicken’ because he used to work (laughing) at the local chicken farm along Duchess Road”, said his proud mother, Beryl.

From chicken farm work to cycling along the arterial roads of Mount Isa, through Harvey’s Range and around the Gold Coast hinterland, Brett rode into the Australian Institute of Sport with a scholarship to attend the newly created road cycling programme, in 1991, with Heiko Salzwedel as the head coach.

And so, began Brett’s development into one of Australia’s top road cyclists, as he took on the international professional riders in competitions from Italy, Spain, France, and Denmark through to Mexico and the United States. Considered lucky even to be invited to start in the Tour Du Pont in 1993, the Australian road cycling team’s mettle was enhanced by Brett’s outstanding individual performance against some of the world’s top professional outfits.

And with the thrill of jumping from 34th to being placed 4th overall in his first Tour Du Pont behind the professional riders and place winners Lance Armstrong first, Raul Alcala of Mexico second and Aile Kosh  of Norway in third place, Brett symbolised Salzwedel’s statement that cycling encompassed not only physical ability and speed, but mental agility and tactical intelligence.

Not bad for a lad from the Copper City Cycling Club in outback Australia! Following Brett’s stunning success in the Tour Du Pont, former vice president of the Australia Road Cycling Federation Mike Victor said he was told by someone from Townsville about this kid from Mount Isa winning junior events in North Queensland.

“So, I got him to compete at the Junior National Road titles in 1988, he won that event and through a lot of hard work, is now reaching his peak,” he said. But Brett was soon to experience the fitness adage that, there is no gain without pain,” he said. 

And like many cyclists, he knew the pain of crashing or falling during a ride, but when he crashed during his second US Tour DuPont race in 1994, the pain was made more unbearable with the realisation his dream of wearing the green and gold racing lycra at the Commonwealth Games, three months out, was near improbable.

“Brett missed a sharp curve travelling at 70km/h, crashed through a road barrier and fell 80 meters down a cliff face. His leg was so dislocated it wasn’t part of the hip,” coach Salzwedel said to a stunned media, “Sadly, I don’t believe Brett will cycle again.” Improbable yes but to Brett, not impossible! However, to attempt the impossible meant he had to return to the guiding hands of physiotherapist, Vitor Popov, at the Australian Institute of Sport. He under went psychology sessions as well as REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique) an innovative method of recovery for the times, whereby he was suspended in water in a floatation tank, the likes of which had proven beneficial to athletes following major injuries. Miraculously just short of two months after that fateful crash, Brett was back in his cyclist’s seat, tenaciously and intensely, training at altitude through the Rocky Mountains to regain his spot in the Australian road racing team.

Coach Salzwedel and the Dennis family were concerned but Brett was happy to be back on his cycling seat doing what he did best – road racing. Another dream was about to unfold for the Aussie boy from the bush – to cycle into gold. The North West Star front page headlines proudly announced - ‘Mount Isa’s Brett Dennis, riding with two screws and a pin in his hip, was the hero of Australia’s gold medal winning road cycling team.’ The city could now proudly boast it had three sons who brought home four Commonwealth Games medals across two sports albeit 32 years between silver and gold. Steve Carlson said, “Brett was considered one of the pioneers and instrumental characters of the AIS road cycling program that produced many of Australia’s finest cycling athletes throughout the 1990s.”

“Cycling is a pure sport,  a flesh sport, it is quick bikes, raw muscle power, high speed, it is demanding and challenging’, and it was Brett’s life. And whenever he was asked where he was from, Brett always proudly declared - Mount Isa! He never forgot his hometown nor the Copper City Cycling Club and neither should Mount Isa.

Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton (in celebration of the life of Brett Dennis - RIP 22.09.17)  Photos from the Dennis family. Information from Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Rider Cycling Review, Bicycling Trade, Cycling Archives, AIS NWS and Arthur and Beryl Dennis.

COMEBACK: The 1994 Australian Commonwealth Games Gold Medallists in Canada Phil Anderson, Brett Dennis, Hank Vogels and Damian McDonald. Picture: Supplied

COMEBACK: The 1994 Australian Commonwealth Games Gold Medallists in Canada Phil Anderson, Brett Dennis, Hank Vogels and Damian McDonald. Picture: Supplied

ISA LOCAL: Brett Dennis at the start line for a road cycling race in Spain, 1994 after coming back from a serious injury. Picture: Supplied.

ISA LOCAL: Brett Dennis at the start line for a road cycling race in Spain, 1994 after coming back from a serious injury. Picture: Supplied.