Retro PEZ Talk: New Zealand Star – Roger Sumich
Retro Rider Interview: To celebrate the ‘Holiday Season’ Ed Hood has caught up with a leading light of the ‘Anglos’ who burst on the Euro scene in the 1970s. Roger Sumich was one of the trailblazers for the antipodean legion to try their hand on the Euro scene. A great retro read to get you through the festivities.
European bike racing in the 70’s was dominated by the traditionally powerful nations of Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and The Netherlands. But the ‘Anglos’ were coming, one of the furthest travelled to join the party was Kiwi, Roger Sumich. Here’s his tale. . .
PEZ: Tell us about the New Zealand race scene when you started, Roger.
Roger Sumich: I was born in 1955, I was just 11 years-old when I first saw a racing bike, a Carlton from the UK. We were living above our fish and chip shop in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert. The local barber’s son was a cyclist and I used to walk up there and watch this guy cleaning his machine. I was addicted within a very short period and wanted to be just like him. However at this stage in my life, I was a competitive swimmer and gymnast and those took up many hours of my time. It would take me another two years before I raced for the first time. This actually was such a funny tale….
The club that I joined had old bikes which they lent to riders starting out, so parents would not spend copious amounts of money on a short term fad. The bike was way too big for me as at that stage I was maybe five foot on a good day. My first outing in 1969, was a mass start race with riders up to age 16, I was 13 and had the small issue of what should I wear for shorts? No time to sort this out so late, so I wore some horrible shorts and a T shirt, no racing shoes but at least toe straps.
The race was three laps round a five mile circuit and with about 20 riders and pouring rain (similar to the UK), the gun went…. I lasted approximately 50 meters and was dropped, I rode the rest of the way on my own in the freezing cold (wasn’t lapped but should have been). By the end of the day my crotch was in such a mess that my mother thought that would I never father any children and that would be the end of this sport for me. Alas she was wrong. The following week was a handicap race of again 15 miles (school boy max distance for sub 16 year olds). I was off again on my own on what must have been the front group (minus the group) I rode the whole way on my own and actually won the race! First race, last; second race – first, easy this sport! I was now completely addicted and this would last until I retired/stopped riding when I was 31.
The first bike I bought was that Carlton from the barber’s son, it was $50.00 and I picked strawberries for six weeks in the heat of summer to pay for it. Mother and father contributed zero, which taught me a lot about sticking to it. I solved my cycling pants issue in my second race and have to admit had I had the foresight I could well now be a multi-millionaire. I stole my sisters Lycra, ‘Witches Britches’ – another eight years (late 1977-ish with the Japanese Descente company) along came the first Lyrca racing shorts. If only I patented my shorts eight years earlier!
Racing in NZ at that time, we had riders like Bruce Biddle, (who has been PEZ’d in the past, ed.) and Tino Tabak (who rode for the mighty Raleigh team under Peter Post, ed.), Bryce Beeston, a Mexico Olympics rider who I recall came in the top three in one of the pre-Olympic races in Mexico. These were just some of the stars in the 70’s along with Blair Stockwell, Vern Hanary, Gary Bell and even 40 year old like Warwick Dalton who made a comeback in those years.
We had two seasons, the track started in December and ended in March with the National Championships. The road started April and ended in November with the road National and major Tours like the Dulux six day, Tour of Southland, which is still going to this day. Most of us rode both road and track and this contributed to how well NZ have done in track racing. NZ had eight regional zones, most road races were club races in each area and as the year progressed the bigger races would bring all of us together, leading up to the Nationals when all guns would come out blazing.
PEZ: Europe was a long way away, how did you get a ride organised there?
In the early to mid 1970’s the NZ European charge started with Bruce Biddle and Tino Tabak establishing themselves in Italy and The Netherlands respectively. The odd Kiwi and Aussie (Clyde Sefton, Alan Peiper, Phil Anderson) then started to slip over there in every-increasing numbers. Gary Bell, Vaughan Richards, Vern Hanary all went to Belgium and stayed with Madam Bernon in Ghent, Madam Bernon looked after many Kiwis and Aussies, Paul Jesson stayed there for his whole career.
Alan Dempsey with Bruce Biddle’s help, went to Italy – we were are all green with envy, in my opinion Italy was the ultimate place to race, he was young at only 17 or 18 years-old from memory. When I was 20 I flew to Perth, Western Australia to see family, took my bike with me and raced there, going head to head with a Dutch rider, Jim Krijnen from Nijmegen. We got on well and while I had eyes on Italy in 1976, Jim convinced me to go with him and his whole family to The Netherlands in April 1976, which I ultimately did. I raced there non-affiliated to a team, with Jim and I driving all over the country from top to bottom racing four or five races every week. After a few months we knew every town and hardly needed a map.
My first race produced nearly the exact result as the first race I ever rode in 1969. Dutch racing was obscenely crazy, the first 10 laps you are in the red zone, when no one actually knew what the red zone was back then. Yes, I went from first on the grid to last after one lap and pulled out after five laps thinking this is the worst idea of my life coming here and I can’t even get around four corners with these crazy Dutchmen whose tyre’s defied mathematics gripping the cobbles/bricks/tarmac like I’d never seen before. I got over this and made slow process to go 10 laps, then 20 and finally finished a whole race. I ended up winning two criteriums in 1976 one in Bocholtz and one in Epe. I came back to NZ in September and did pretty well having made the NZ team for the Tour of Britain 1977.
PEZ: 1977, a Tour of Britain ‘Milk Race’ stage win, a big result, tell us about it.
My style of riding in these early days was based on a fair amount of natural leg speed on demand, being 1.73m leans towards sprinting style, I had an average tactical plan – power climbing, hills which were less than one kilometres. Tour racing at this stage was not my forte as racing in Holland improved bike handling – cornering like a mad man, power climbing (Limburg) and lastly, the ability to crush most other counties when the wind is over 20mph. No other country rides in the wind like the Dutch, even today I would pick a Dutchman’s wheel. The Tour of Britain therefore was an education with the Russians and Poles doing most of the damage. I managed to sneak away in a long break with six of us and then broke clear in the last mile to win from the Russian. My father heard the result on the world news at 06.00 am in NZ and woke my mother up to tell her Vern Hanary had won the last stage of the Milk Race, then they heard that their son had won and the whole street heard them scream!
PEZ: 1978, a ride with Eddy Planckaert’s team?
As I was living and racing in The Netherlands in 1977, I knew most of the top riders and the 1977 Milk Race the Gazelle Team rode it as the National Team. Early in the Tour, the Gazelle Manager said if I won a stage in the Milk Race, he would get me into his team. No further motivation required!
Returning to The Netherlands again in 1978, I was invited to stay in Tilburg to be under the wing of the Gazelle Team Manager Ben van Erp. I improved greatly that year and won two races in Belgium one in Herk d Stad and the other in Tielt. The Tielt win caused some people to seriously look at me as there were two combines working that day and these two Belgium riders had paid almost everyone in the race off as they had to win. The unfortunate thing was that, ‘no one told me’. I won the race in a great uphill sprint and it was hot news around the Flemish speaking north, guys were saying who’s this guy from NZ that beat off two combines? He must be good.
It was funny as I had been training with the late Bert Pronk (TI Raleigh) and he gave me a TI Raleigh jersey, which I rode that day, I think they all thought maybe I was turning pro or something and let me stay in the break!
Italian jerseys were so cool, the material is cut in a way that the front lower hem, when you ride always flipped up and you could see the label. After this race, Eddy Planckaert contacted me and asked if I wanted to race in his team in the Tour of Wallonia, of course I said ‘yes’ not knowing where Wallonia was and what the terrain was like. Yep, if you’ve ridden there in the early 1970’s it was wild land, hills and cobbles that came out of nowhere. I was far from a super star there, but Eddy was a great guy and he went on to have a solid pro career with some good results (including a win in Paris-Roubaix, ed).
PEZ: And an opportunity in ’78 to ride for ACBB in Paris?
Living in Tilburg, Belgium was only two K’s away so zipping across the border was always on the agenda as it provided a break in the racing style, corners were not so critical and the racing never started with the same hectic speed as the Dutch do. Add to this, the circuits were considerably longer that the criteriums in Holland, so it improved the tactical angles. The north-eastern part of Flanders had hills that were mostly power climbs and these suited my style. It was at one of these races we saw the late Alan van Heerden a super smooth South African amateur who brought his girlfriend to the race with him. It must be noted that her presence affected the overall race that day as every rider in the bunch (200-ish) was in love with her by the end of 120k’s.
After that race I went up to him and said what a great tactic to bring a Miss World to the race and defuse every rider in the bunch including me! We got on well and he invited me to come with him to Paris and join ACBB. Sean Yates, Robert Miller, Alan Peiper, Stephen Roche, Paul Sherwen, and many more turned pro from ACBB. I still have my ACBB Licence and was all set to bring my belongings from The Netherlands and get started and try to turn Professional in France.
PEZ: 1979 – but you went to Gazelle in The Netherlands, tell us about that.
I went back to The Netherlands and was getting my possessions together to return to France when the Gazelle Manager said he had the Dutch KNVU permission to let me ride for Team Gazelle. The first foreigner to be allowed to race in a sponsored team, in the heat of the moment and having lived there for three years and speaking reasonable Dutch, I choked and stayed in The Netherlands and thereby hand braked any potential pro career. I firmly believe even to this day that I would have been a good pro, but looking back on the 1970’s and early 80’s sports medicine may well have not been that healthy for me. The late Bert Osterbosch was a good friend of mine.
PEZ: 1979 a win in the Ronde van Achterhoek, another big result – were there others?
The Ronde van de Achterhoek was a great win with Englishman Steve Jones also in the break, he received his permission to race for the Jan van Erp team after me. That was a five man breakaway in the final. The Team didn’t think things would go well there as I was the only rider in the initial break of 22. Alone is a break of 22 usually means you don’t win! In 1979 I also won the KO Race a Classic in the North of Holland. I recall sneaking into the 10 man break away with my team mate Theo De Rooij and with about three K’s to go, he signalled me to attack and chase Jan van Tilburg who was away by 300m. I caught Jan and duly won the sprint. The Manager called me a Driftkicker (Which is a Dutch word I think meaning something like a ‘wildcard’ or worse) I think I was the only rider in Holland to win two classics that year. My nickname in The Netherlands was Summy, everyone knew me as Summy even to this day.
PEZ: 1980, no Moscow – disappointing. . . but you won the National, that must have been satisfying?
No Russian Olympics but I came back to NZ and decided that I needed a harder coach, I asked one of our National Selectors, Jack Broome to train me. It took me a while to get him, but if I would have asked him three years earlier, I could well have been pro and a very good one. We started training and I worked like never before and won the Nationals went onto the Track season won the National point race title and rode a 1.09.5 kilo which for a road rider in those days was not shabby. What Jack did helped my sprinting to a crazy level, I could lead out with 600 metres to go and gear change three times and no one could past my rear wheel. It was a great tactic and was made even better when I told Jack that an old Pro in Belgium that looked after me, suggested that I change my gearing to 45 x 54 and 13-14-15-16-18-20. Reasoning was that a 54 gave a huge advantage racing on the flat everyone else rides a 53 with a leg speed of 90rpm in the same gear means its inches at the finish line. However, if you have a 54 and pull the same rpm as the competition, then you must win!
PEZ: You never turned pro?
After 1980 my last year in The Netherlands I came home to my new trainer Jack and we had the NZ Games in 1981(Small Commonwealth games) the Italians came and they managed to find me a team in Milan to race with GS Monti-Guerciotti. I won two races in Italy that year, one in Meda the other in Busto Arsizio both towns around Milan. Both these races I rode 54 x 45 chain wheels and even the team director had a spit at me; ‘what are you riding those for – everyone rides 42 x 53?’ My answer was exactly that – everyone except me! I won both races so he was sort of impressed.
I trained with Giuseppe Saronni and Silvano Contini many times and nearly considered joining the Hoonved Bottecchia pro Team but as I was now 26, it was a tad late to make the mark and personally I think I had run out of time to turn pro. I first met Giuseppe out training with Gabriele Landoni, I was racing with Gabriele’s brother, Fiorenzo. We were ushered to the front to take a turn, and not wanting to look like amateurs too much we hammered it for about two K into a damn strong head wind of at least 20 mph in 53 x 17. Both of us were shattered and pulled over – Saronni and Giuseppe Landoni put on a display which to this day still impresses me. They were in 53 x 13 with hands on the top of the bars and we were doing 50kph no problem at all. A glass of wine would not have fallen off their backs, so bloody smooth it was sickening. I remember looking at Fiorenzo Landoni with a stupid Cheshire cat smile actually meant; what the hell are we experiencing here? And look what gear we’re in trying to hang onto these two guys and we’re on the drops, it was like motor pacing on steroids, pardon the pun! Silvano Contini (Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, ed) was another kettle of fish, smooth and a good looking dude, he took us out for a 200k ride to a hill called Passo Indemini above Lake Maggiore, it climbs over into Switzerland, just a wee hill of 18K’s. Silvano introduced us to interval training on this climb. He was mad, five gear change sprints starting from 42 x 25 and dropping down one cog, each one was a 60 m sprint, then he would slow and we would catch up. Wish I had known that trick 10 years earlier.
PEZ: Why head back to NZ?
That’s a really good question. I loved Italy for the life style food, weather and people and could have easily lived there. But I loved coming back to NZ with a great sun tan and racing here. Looking back now, I would have loved to have been a Team Manager, Jean Paul van Poppel, Erik Breukink, Steve Bauer, Alan Peiper, Neil Stephens, Marc Madiot and numerous others I raced with are now managers.
PEZ: What was the NZ scene like when you returned?
NZ racing was now changing fast, the new younger wave were starting to come through, these mostly ex-track riders like Eric McKenzie, Graeme Miller, Brian Fowler and Steven Swart were starting to shine. USA racing had surfaced and NZ Racing was now quickly changing to European style with many riders having the skills of riding in the wind and new training methods. NZ roads were not fast enough to produce the outright speed of racing in Europe but still many a European rider has come down here to race and could not fathom how we raced on these roads, Mark Bell did a good stint here and followed by our famous Dave Mann who lives in Hamilton.
PEZ: 1982 and third in the Commonwealth Games behind winner Malcolm Elliott and Steve Bauer – any ‘what ifs’?
No shame in being beaten by these two super stars when you are surrounded by the best in the Commonwealth; I was fourth on paper out of the four breakaway riders, it was easy to feel a little intimidated. Looking back I was the best there but inexperience of the big moment and not processing the fact that Bauer Elliott and Steve Lawrence hadn’t dropped me anywhere nor put me under any pressure anywhere should have triggered my brain to say, ‘it’s YOUR day sunshine, have a go’. I had three options that day. Firstly, attack at least once on the climb as I had trained for five full hill attacks and there was no way anyone else had five in their pocket. Or lead out if the speed into the last kilometre slowed too much. Or make sure I started the sprint in the right gear. Guess what, I didn’t attack once. I left Bauer to take the lead out roll. Unfortunately for me he was shocking, he left a gap on the left hand side of the road where Steve Lawrence launched his surprise sprint – Brian Fowler in the 1986 Edinburgh Games some years later was beaten by Paul Curran in exactly the same manner.
Golden rule: When you lead out a sprint, leave only one passage for passing and make sure that is the windy side! That way you have only to look to one side! Steve Bauer’s shocking lead out tactic and my inability to stay with the game plan made it easy for Steve Lawrence and Malcolm to dictate the sprint. I was just deadly lucky to keep third place from a fast finishing Lawrence. In saying all that history proves that Steve and Malcolm were far better than me, but ‘that was my day and I blew it’.
PEZ: Tell us about the Gazelle reunion ‘bash’ you attended.
2005 February, the guys decided with a bit of Kiwi pressure to have a reunion. All the riders from the Soka Snack and Gazelle days were there with their partners. Only three riders knew I was coming. It was held at the Gazelle Factory and even Mr Breukink (Eric Breukink’s father, the retired CEO of Gazelle) came out and opened that afternoon evening events. Race announcer Kees Maas was MC and we everyone had a great laugh when he asked me to the stage for some questions.
One of the first questions Kees asked me was ‘Hoe veel kinderer heb u’?’ (Translation, how many children do you have now) I said ‘alleen ma 14’ (only 14) 250 people, wives included burst into laughter, with the odd one saying how many of your children have you seen lately! It was a moment for sure. The following day we went to a cyclo-cross race in Belgium at Hoogestraten and Kees Maas was the race announcer (MC from the reunion party). When he saw me in the crowd, he came over the speaker system and stated that New Zealander Roger Sumich was here and all these Belgium cycling fans turned to look at me and were whispering; ‘who the hell is he?’ If Kees Maas knows him he must be good! – 30,000 plus people watched that race in Hoogestraten.
PEZ: Which ride gives you most satisfaction when you look back?
In Australia there was the Classic Goulburn to Liverpool; it was a 200k plus race, handicap format. The front riders started with nearly two hours start. The scratch bunch was 25 strong. The scratch bunch had Aussie national team guys in it exploded after 10k’s but about 10 of us went all the way through, we caught the front group – some 200 riders – with eight K to go, a three man break got away but I missed it. I chased and caught them on my own after three or four K into a head wind; two in the Aussie national team attacked me several times, then refused to work with me, so I lead for the last two kilometres, led out the sprint and won it with fastest time. The first time that had been done in years.
PEZ: And if you could do it all over again?
Yes, I would like to! But most probably race in just these three countries The Netherlands, Belgium and Italy – three months in the north and three in Italy. Staying in one country perfects a style – but you miss the other styles that complete the skill set.
All photos supplied by Roger Sumich.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,680 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.