Tino Tabak finished 18th in the 1972 Tour de France in what is by far the best result by a New Zealander in the world's greatest bike race. His style was to ride as though his life depended on it, as though personal validation hung on proving himself to be a champion cyclist. Both were true.

Tabak raced brave and hard, driven by the desperation of the misfit and full of the purpose of the obsessed. He was a master of the breakaway - racing clear with many miles to go and riding scared of being caught, scared of failing as a professional bike racer, scared of being discarded to a mundane working world he had never known. "We used to laugh at the people we saw working," Tabak says in Tino Tabak: Dreams & Demons of a New Zealand Cycling Legend. "Workers were idiots and we were heroes."

And he rode - fuelled by, sometimes befuddled by and ultimately undone by drugs.

Tabak ascended great heights. At his best he could foot it with the best - and that included the man regarded as the best ever to swing a leg over a bicycle, The Cannibal, Eddy Merckx, so-named because of his hunger for victories.

But the New Zealander also fell far. His self-absorption, his drug dependency and alcoholism cost him his marriage. He returned alone to New Zealand in 1995. His wife and daughter live in the Netherlands.

Tabak, 63, works in the rendering section of the freezing works in Ashburton. He lives near Methven, on the Canterbury plains with his partner. He speaks of his experiences with unvarnished frankness, though he can be contradictory, says the book's author, Jonathan Kennett.

"Sometimes he'll say 'I wish I'd never left New Zealand'," says Kennett. "At other times he'll say, 'I have no regrets, it was well worth it. Maybe I'd make some changes here and there but I'd do it again."'

"It really depends on what he'd been thinking ... If he's thinking about the races he won, then he thinks it's worth it but if he's thinking about his family or psychologically what he went through, then he wishes he hadn't gone."

Tabak was 6 when he, his sister, and parents arrived in New Zealand in 1952. They were from the Dutch village of Enschede, near the north-eastern border with Germany and were eager to distance themselves from wartime memories. His father, Gerben, proclaimed himself a Kiwi from the moment their boat docked. He threw himself into learning English and local culture and always looked forward, whereas Tabak, "looked inward", writes Kennett.

Unable to speak English, he was sent to school on his first day with a sign around his neck that read "Tino Tabak Dutch boy". He grew to be introspective but also self-reliant and with little respect for authority.

Cycling embraces the loner. A boy, a bike, the road, a strong will and countless hours. On that simple equation success can be built. Tabak had the necessary indomitable spirit. Anger, desperation, an overwhelming desire to prove oneself can add a further dimension.

"In the context of Tino's life, I think he was trying to build his self-esteem through bike racing and that his self-esteem absolutely relied on being a good bike rider," says Kennett.

"His self-esteem took a hammering from shifting to New Zealand as a young boy, not knowing English and going through all those sort of difficulties. Some people can do those difficult moves and others find themselves struggling afterwards. He found himself struggling in New Zealand and then he got on his feet through bike racing, though even then he wasn't accepted here fully.

"He tried to do the same when he went overseas. In Holland, supposedly his home, he wasn't fully accepted either, because he was seen as a Kiwi."

Irrespective of what drove him, Tabak was a pioneer.

He showed the way to Kiwis racing abroad today - five are currently contracted to division one professional road cycling teams and countless others are fighting their way up the ladder.

Few of them, however, would have had to endure what Tabak did to get there. When Tabak stepped off the boat in wintry Europe in 1967, he had a bag of summer clothes, a silver cutlery set from winning the Dulux Tour of the North Island, and £100.

Once he'd bought a bike there was little money left. He had to start racing and winning cheques to survive. Tabak discovered a world characterised by race-fixing and doping. That world both made him and undid him, yet he built a result sheet second-to-none among New Zealanders and proved himself to be a hard man on the hardest of roads.

Toiling for 11 seasons in Europe - eight as a professional - certainly didn't make him rich but he has an extraordinary store of memories.

A photograph (above) in the book shows Tabak driving the pace in a breakaway during the 1971 Tour de France. It is remarkable not because it was the decisive break of that year's tour or that they averaged a sizzling 46.6 kph for the 144km stage to Strasbourg or even that it elevated Tabak to fifth overall.

The picture stops you in your tracks because of those keeping the New Zealander company: Merckx, Tour de France champions Luis Ocana (Spain) and Joop Zoetemelk (Netherlands), and the rider known as The Gypsy, the king of the classics, Roger de Vlaeminck (Belgium).

Now there's a photograph to hang on your wall.

Tino Tabak: Dreams & Demons of a New Zealand Cycling Legend
by Jonathan Kennett (Kennett Brothers $20)

www.kennett.co.nz


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LONG RIDE TO GLORY NO MATTER WHAT THE PRICE

Tino Tabak forged the way for Kiwi cyclists competing in Europe today. In this extract from his biography, Tino Tabak: Dreams & Demons of a New Zealand Cycling Legend, he tells of the dog-eat-dog world he encountered in the 1970s:

You always had to perform. The pressure never stopped, and it drove some riders mad. In New Zealand there was only one Tino Tabak and I was the best. In Europe there were 500 Tinos and we lined up beside real legends like [Eddy, Belgian] Merckx, [Raymond, French] Poulidor, [Luis, Spanish] Ocana and [Joop, Belgian] Zoetemelk.

It gives you goosebumps to ride beside Merckx, or Poulidor. Those guys were special. If they said jump, we all jumped. If the Molteni team wanted a toilet break, they could arrange it and the whole bunch stopped. It was absolute dog weather once, in the Tour of Belgium. We were all struggling, like zombies. All of a sudden I saw Eddy Merckx in front of me, and his bike was shaking. I saw him stop! That was the sign for me to stop, too. I thought, 'If he is suffering that much, then I should stop now'. People came to put blankets around me and silver paper. We abandoned the race.


A few months later, Tabak again broke away with Ocana, on the ultimate race - the Tour de France. It was 1973; the Spaniard was destined to win. Tabak was racing for Sonolor, a mainly French team that looked down their Gallic noses at him. Friction was inevitable.

With 15 kilometres to go, I broke away with Ocana and one of his teammates, then at two kilometres I broke away from them. But near the finish, my own teammate sprinted up with a bunch and passed me. I was so angry that the next day I just attacked, attacked, attacked, right from the beginning until I hit the wall. We never got on after that.

But, for Tabak, the horrors of the 1973 Tour had only just begun. On stage eight, he reached the Col du Galibier six minutes down and chased furiously down the other side.

I can remember now how I crashed and the team manager put me on the bike again. The tour doctor drove beside me, cut open my ripped shorts and gave me an injection. Then later my bike just collapsed on me. You still try to go on. I got up and put my steering straight. My front wheel had a big buckle in it. I tried to straighten it, then undid the clip on my brake. Got someone to help me back on my bike and rolled down the rest of the Col du Galibier. I couldn't move my left hand.

After eight hours 55 minutes of riding, Tino finished last, in 107th place. It was extraordinary that he had finished at all.

The TV crew dropped me off at the school barracks and said 'Here's Tabak'. No one cared. Years later it sank in, and I thought 'F... yous.' We were sometimes treated like absolute crap, and when I think back now, it sort of disappoints me. We were worthless if we weren't riding well.

In cases like this, they sent you home because you cost them money. I never had no telephone call or anything to see how I was getting along - and I never got paid.


* * *

"Tino's station on the cross" was how one newspaper headline described it. A spread of photos showed the doctor leaning out of a convertible, examining his wounds, Tabak's face contorted with agony, a sympathetic spectator running beside him, offering to push with a hand on his injured hip and Tabak "screaming like an animal" to be left alone.

After such a promising start to the season, the crash had a devastating effect. At hospital, x-rays revealed a fractured hip, possibly forcing an early retirement. Resting up at home, with [wife] Mieke providing as much support as possible, Tino slowly healed, but with no racing his finances and morale suffered.

In September, the birth of his daughter Melanie temporarily lifted his spirits; then the worries about money and cycling swamped him again. There was no professional cyclists' union and riders had virtually no rights. Tabak's contract with Sonolor simply stated: "We will prolong your contract if your results are satisfactory."

At that time, though, in the autumn of 1973, Tabak's mind was spinning with all the desperate options for breaking free from whatever it was that was holding him back.

I was in the jungle category, the in-betweens, the sub-toppers. I wanted to be in the Merckx category but I wasn't. I definitely didn't want to be in the category below me, but was, and so I struggled to get above it and couldn't accept it.

One of the first big races Tabak attempted after recovering from the crash was the Grand Prix d'Orchies in northern France. This was an end-of-season classic, about 200km long, undulating, with cobblestones in the last hour. Most of the good riders were there and Tabak was fresh. So he attacked early and built up several minutes' lead.

I was on the edge of succeeding, but I knew I had to do something. I had to win a big race to continue. So I did something - but did it too much.

I was away on my own and had five or six minutes, when I hit the cobblestones. I hadn't eaten enough, and I just blew to the world. It's as if you're drunk and someone's trying to wake you up. I was shaking and my head was going left and right. I had a dry mouth and legs like rubber. By the time the peloton caught me, I was so far gone.

I remember crossing the finish line, somehow getting to the showers and then collapsing ... Later, when my wife found me, I was still sitting on the shower floor with water running over me. She said, 'Are you all right, Tino?', and I told her, 'If anything happens to me, this is what I did...' She said, 'You silly man.'

I'd taken a cocktail of all sorts of shit [painkillers and stimulants] before the start and every 20 minutes during the race. Because I had to win.

Cost? What cost? I had to win to go further. But at the end, I actually thought I was going to die. My whole body was trembling. My head was like a massive hangover. Sick in my stomach - empty, white as a ghost, blurry vision, heart going a thousand beats a minute. That was a big risk, and I think it was almost the end of my cycling.

But I didn't want to work - work scared the shit out of me ... So I carried on cycling.


Some men learn from books, others from experience. Tabak had no qualifications and little formal education but his experiences and knowledge, both good and bad, of professional racing at world-class level had taken him far beyond any other New Zealander.

People say taking drugs is cheating. Of course it's cheating, but cheating for what? Money? Fame? I was a keen, green New Zealander; I didn't know anything. I grabbed at the wrong things. Was it right? Was it wrong? Some people don't like hearing it. Tough! It's what happened. In everything where people strive to achieve things, they will do anything to get to the top. But in cycling, testing for certain things became a witch-hunt.

Tabak looked around him and observed double standards between cycling and other high-ambition pursuits in search of performance enhancers. Bottled oxygen to assist climbers beyond the "death zone" to the summit of Everest. Cosmetic surgery to extend slumping supermodels' careers. Amphetamines to help the United States' military fight harder. Caffeine, strong coffee or pills to stimulate driven businessmen. Like many riders, Tabak could not help but make these comparisons.

Ethical and health issues aside, one thing was clear - the moral goalposts, as ever, were shifting. Not only for cycling, but for sport in general.

Eddy Merckx, Joop Zoetemelk, Freddy Maertens - countless stars as well as water carriers - were tainted as drug testing evolved. According to European cycle historian Les Woodland, most top riders, both amateurs and professionals, took medication: "It has been that way all along. If the choice is between painting walls or labouring in the fields or chiselling coal and living your dream of bike racing, why hesitate if the only condition is that you take what everyone else is taking?"