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The dark side of world cycling

Published: 8:45PM Sunday July 18, 2010 Source: ONE News

For two decades Tino Tabak was the only name that counted in New Zealand cycling.

A driven man, and an arrogant man, he was a winning machine who did whatever it took to be first - including the drugs.

To reach the pinnacle of the Tour de France takes a special kind of athlete and Tabak says you have to be brutally focussed and iron-willed.

"There's doping going on, there's cheating going on," he told TVNZ's Sunday programme.

"Sport is about winning, not coming 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th - who cares?"

In the '70s Tabak was at the top and says he doesn't "give too hoots" if people want to stamp him as a druggie.

He says he didn't take drugs on "Le Tour", but in other top road races he had no choice if he wanted to stay at the top.

Obsessive, tough and cunning - Tabak and pro-cycling were made for each other. He says he was the best and "had that Dutch in me to want to win, and that arrogance".

Kiwi cycling had never seen anything like him - you name it, he won it - again and again.

"Ninety nine percent of the races I attack straightaway, got rid of them...people must have thought I was a pain in the butt, arrogant little so and so...but that was just my style...I liked to show I was the best."

Few friends

That ruthless streak made him unbeatable and unpopular.

"I had very little friends...I do think that they did have a bit of respect for me as a cyclist, maybe not as a person...but as a cyclist...they didn't have any choice because...I'd just beat 'em."

With Tabak, cycling came first and everything else second, including his wife and children.

"I was going to ride the Tour de France, there were no ifs or buts about it - that was my mission."

First he headed back to his native Holland to find out just how he stacked up against the world's best, and discovered "there were about 10,000 Tinos there".

But soon Tabak was a Dutch hero, winning the Dutch professional national road championship. And finally the man from Canterbury, via Holland, won an invite to cycling's most famous race.

Inexperience cost him the first time he entered but the next year he was tougher, smarter and faster.

To this day, his 18th place finish is the best result ever by a Kiwi in the great race. And in an Ashburton cycle shop they've got the jersey he wore on Le Tour.

But the best Kiwi ever tag is not good enough for Tabak and the effort of staying at the top took more and more from him.

Drugs took heavy toll

"That whole amphetamine was absolutely crazy," says Tabak, adding that he would do it again.

"It was a hell of a period, it was magnificent.

"I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn't know it was going to be that bloody."

It was a ruthless pursuit of success and he was eventually nabbed for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

"I knew it was wrong...but I took that chance."

Tabak talked his way out of it that time but went on to take more drugs.

He says he didn't take drugs to cheat, he took them to survive. "Put yourself in the same situation, if you ain't got food you go and steal food."

His son Paul, who now manages a cycling team in Holland, says it was tough to be a child of Tino and he hasn't forgotten his dad's volatility.

"One moment he was fine...and then the other moment he'd explode."

Tabak's most successful year was 1972 and he says he took amphetamines "maybe about four or five times" that season.

He would take anything, risk anything - even dashing into a toilet during a race with a syringe. But after years of stress, injuries and hard grind something snapped and the winning machine knew he was finished.

Life after cycling

The spark was gone but life outside cycling would prove to be even tougher.

"You're a hero and then you're nothing...and then you'd take one wee sniff or whatever and then that one becomes two and then two becomes three and then you found out you were drinking quite a lot."

Tabak's family life was at breaking point and he admits he wasn't a good dad. And while he never physically hurt his wife he says he was very verbally aggressive and "was quite cruel in that".

In the end Tabak walked out and never come back.

Paul says that for the family it was a relief because "the last few years were very hard".

Tino says he has only himself to blame and he has now come full circle, working as a supervisor at the local freezing works where he is just one of the boys.

"It's really good, just to be a normal person."

And there has been redemption with a new partner and family.

He has also rediscovered cycling, offering his expertise at a local club in Ashburton.

For Tabak, it's the chance to give something back.