Sunday, October 14, 2007
There’s a single paragraph in Allan Peiper’s excellent autobiography, A Peiper’s Tale, which stopped me in my tracks. It’s 1978 and Allan Peiper is in the United States for the Junior World Championships (track events at T-Town then a week later the TTT and road race in Washington, DC). Having finished the road race, Peiper finds himself stranded all alone in DC with another 10 days before he can fly back to Belgium. Here’s the paragraph at the bottom of page 34:
It was time for another angel. Luckily there was one in Washington, a guy called Mac who had raced in Belgium the year before. He arranged with his parents to take me back to his place in North Carolina. I didn’t ride well in the [road] race-my emotions were all over the place-but afterwards we drove home with Mac’s mother, and Mac got me a job for a week sweeping the floors in the factory where he worked. It ended up being the most fun week I ever had. I made some money, and even rode a race at the weekend where Mac arranged for someone who was going to back to New York to drop me at JFK.
Now, for those who live in North Carolina, the words Mac, North Carolina, and raced in Belgium can only mean one person: Mac Canon. Being very intrigued by this passage in Peiper’s book, I called up Mac recently and he graciously spent approximately 45 minutes talking about Allan Peiper, among other things. Thirty years ago in 1977, Mac Canon befriended Allan Peiper at an ultra low-budget rental house in Ghent, Belgium. I had a litany of questions lined up for Mac, but as it turns out I only had to interject very sporadically to guide the conversation. There’s probably several books worth of stories still locked in Mac’s head, but what follows is certainly fascinating reading. It’s a lengthy piece, but I believe one can never overdose on first-hand, insider Lore and Legend. Enjoy.
How did you end up coming to Allan Peiper’s rescue in 1978?
That’s a long time ago! [laughs] We go way back before that. When I went to Europe the first time, (because we didn’t have Colorado Springs and all that good stuff like we do now, and if you wanted to race you had to go to Europe to race) I searched around and kept calling and writing. A lady in Ghent, Belgium was putting some people up or getting them put up with a guy who ran a little place renting rooms. It was kind of run down so badly I don’t think even the locals could live there, it was only foreigners. It was me, Roger Young, Tom Schuler, and a whole bunch of Aussies. Allan was part of that Aussie group as a Junior. He was 17 or 18, and we rode all the races together. We just huffed around and raced. I think Alexi Grewal was there for a while, not at that particular place, but in the area.
The guy [landlord] was like the Fred Sanford of Ghent. He would sleep underneath newspapers and he was crazy. He’d burn you out of your room because he’d stuff the furnace with all kinds of junk. But he was a real nice guy and I think we lived there for less than $50 a month.
So Allan was part of that group. He and a couple of [Aussie] guys lived in the back. He went with a group of Belgians to Austria [1977 Junior World Championships]. He was doing well in the races. He came back with a bronze medal in the Road Race [actually, according to Peiper’s book it was a bronze in the Points Race]. So we just got to be friends hanging out there [in Ghent]. We’d head out to the cafes, head out to the pubs…just having a good time.
The next year  was just more bike racing and I was keeping up with him through some letters and things like that. He says ‘I’m coming to the Junior Worlds road race’ [held in Washington, DC]. I went with a friend of mine…we headed up to watch. We hung out, I can’t remember how he did in the race [Not well…but Peiper won a silver medal in the Junior Worlds points race on a borrowed bike a week before at T-Town.], but he had a week or 10 days before he was going to go back [to Belgium]. I said ‘Why don’t you come back [to North Carolina] with me and stay with me.’ I’m working at this door factory and I talked to the guy [the owner], he was a young fellow, and I told Allan ‘I’ll get you in, no worries’. This was back before all this stuff you deal with now. We paid Allan under the table and put him to work.
It was a hot summer and we trained a lot. That’s the first time that I ever saw veins on someone’s belly. My dad had this little BMW 2002 that he bought right out of the showcase in 1976. We used to motor pace behind that thing [after work]. Allan was tearing up the bumper with his tire. But getting back to the work thing…this is funny. Remember the small Cokes that had where they were made on the bottom, like Washington, DC or Water Valley, MS, or Spokane, WA or wherever? The workers had this big board with a bunch of pushpins out there. So I said,’ What are you doing?’ They said, ‘Oh, that’s Travel. When we break we drink Coke and everyone chips in a quarter and we travel’. ‘So what do you mean, travel?’ ‘Whoever’s Coke is from furthest away wins all the money.’ So we used to play ‘Travel’. And it used to get close, you had to break out the yardstick and measure. So Allan loved that, he loved to ‘Travel’.
It was just hot summer nights…skinny-dipping. Just hanging out. My sister was his age and she’s a good-looking girl and Allan liked her a lot. Mom fixed a sit down meal, old school, we ate at the table together. All the food you needed and wanted. He just loved it. I think Allan grew up in a broken family. His dad was an alcoholic and they used to not even tell him where they lived because his dad would show up drunk and raise hell. So they’d hide from him and just that whole deal dealing with that. Allan thought is was the best thing in the world being in Albemarle [NC], training and racing.
Then we drove up [to the Northeast]…did a road trip. The next week was Fitchburg–back before it was a stage race it was just that big crit downtown in Fitchburg. So we did Hartford, Fitchburg, and Walpole…three big crits they had 4th of July weekend. So we drove this guy’s big ol’ station wagon with a buddy of mine. Just seeing everything, hanging out in the New England experience, going up through the mid-Atlantic states, going to New York, and going to New England and racing. Allan had some good races. Just seeing 4th of July…he never experienced anything like that. When he left he was going back to Europe to stay with Eddy Planckaert. We got real close. We were both upset, it was a tearful moment so to speak, it was hard to say goodbye to him. It was just bike racing and being buds. He’s just a super guy.
I went back over there, I guess it was 1989, when I was racing some on the track just for a little fun doing some 6-days. He was there and he gave me a whole bunch of clothes. I was down on money and he loaned me money. The guy is just a million bucks. He had a tough time. He’s lucky to even come back to racing…I guess he had an amoeba or something in him. And the thing about it was that even back then the doping thing was pretty bad. He was real adamant about being clean, doing it straight up. He didn’t bend over for any soigneur in town, he wasn’t that kind of guy. His racing results weren’t as great as some of the other guys, but you have a lot of respect that you don’t normally get.
We had some good times there [Ghent, 1977]. We lived in the student area where the University of Ghent was located. I’ve got some pictures of these girls throwing water out the window. There was just a lot of friskiness back then. We used to go out all night and race, go out all night again and race. We used to eat beans on toast with rice, anything we could find we would fix it, cook it, eat it, and thought it was great.
Were you in the house in Ghent for just one year? Did you go back other years?
I was only going to go a month. It was a big deal, I was only 19 and going for a month. Actually, I had some pretty good races. You always remember the first race where you crack the top-20. It felt like you won a stage of the Tour de France. The racing was just bone knuckling hard. I had bruises on my forearms from banging the handlebars from being down in the drops. The bars are more anatomical now so you can’t do that, but the old days with those old bars with the funky bend…It was just hard. You’re going so hard in a 12…I remember a couple of times you’re closing your eyes because you’re trying to go as hard as you can go. Crazy. It’s just absolutely insane.
But then after a while you figure it out and start placing. Then you get asked to race. We did a 5-day stage race down in France. I went with this other Australian, Ian Chandler, who ended up winning. So it was Ian Chandler, John Eustice was on our team–back when he raced, Rory O’Reilly–the guy from California who was a good kilo rider, a couple of other Southern California kids, me…just a composite team of English-speaking riders. There was a team from Cuba there…they had everything. And of course you have all these French teams. But we ended up winning. I always felt good because Ian had a flat once and I went back and gave him my wheel. Support hadn’t gotten there. Jackie, our team guy, couldn’t get to him in time and I gave him my wheel and sent him on. Ian ended up winning the race by 15 seconds and I always felt proud that I had something to do with that 15 seconds. You just never know how things will pan out down the stretch so I always felt good about that.
Then, I did Circuit Franco-Belge and the Tour of Liege. Both of those now are pro races. Those were amateur races, then. Well, they were called amateur races but they were so hard. So I did the Belgian races first, had 2 or 3 days rest, then the French race, then I got god-awful sick eating something down there. Waking up with the shakes and sweats. I was supposed to do the Tour of Luxembourg but I said ‘No, I’m done…I’m going home’. I did this criterium, I won a prime, and then I just puked after winning the prime. I think I pulled out of the race. I was just 145 lbs…crazy light…just a skinny ass kid. Good fun.
Then I went in 1980 for 9 months and I lived with a family. That’s when I took John Patterson over there. Then I went back there in 1989 for the track thing. They tried to get me to stay, but I just went back to Florida. I just said ‘I’m out of here’.
Were you still based in Ghent for your 1980 and 1989 trips?
I stayed three months that year with Allan . I was only going to stay a month but stayed three. I came back with $500 in my pocket. Back then that was good money…usually you come back broke. To come back with $500 in your pocket, you did damn good. That was nice. In 1980 I stayed with a family. I went back to Ghent and then John [Patterson] and I split up. I went with a family looking for a rider and went to live near Ninove[?] where Allan actually lived. I worked in a bike shop in Ninove, but the guy kept terrible books. He had creditors up his ass, he was too nice and just gave everybody everything. He had two complete Campy took kits just sitting on his bench. He was a great guy but unorganized as hell. That’s when I learned to speak the language [Flemish] real well because I was changing tires and generator lights for these old ladies that came in while shopping. Practically everybody there, you know, they all ride bikes. They busted a tube or needed a generator light and you’d fix it. There was an old potbelly stove cooking back there and you’d just learn to speak, learn the language.
I stayed there for nine months and did the road and the first part of the track season. After the road season ended they asked me, ‘Do you want to do track or cyclocross?’. You know cyclocross is big now, but I did the first couple of cyclocross races and said ‘Noooooooo’. I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘Look…I’ve been cleaning my damn bike all summer. I’m out of here.’ It rained everyday in June that summer, so I decided to ride track. I rode that little Ghent track…50-degree banking, baby! 165-meter track with real high banking. Then, Noel Dejonckheere’s brother Richard came up. I’ve known him, he set up a lot of races for us, and he said ‘I can get you on a team’. It was Fangio, which became ADR, which was LeMond’s team when he won the  Tour. But I said ‘I’ve had enough…I’m going home. I don’t want to be bending over for some soigneur who I don’t know. I’m going to turn that contract down.’ Plus, I wanted to go back to school at State. I thought it could be me, but at that point I knew that I’d always be a kermesse pro and I just didn’t want to do it. So I politely turned him down. So that was probably the end of bigger and better things for me as cycling goes, but not as life goes.
What was the North Carolina and southeastern racing scene like back in the 1970s?
Well…it was a lot of key races and small stuff. It wasn’t as organized as it is now. I don’t know…I’ll give you a case in point. When we were Juniors, with guys like me, Ronnie Hinson, Randy Parker and some of these other guys, back then results were in the newspapers and we looked at other Junior state championships numbers. And you know how Juniors are ‘What’s their average speed? What’s their time?’ Hell, we had the fastest average speeds of any races in the whole country in North Carolina, back when there were 50 man junior fields. We were running some damn hot races. It was good. The Senior racing was good. Some of the big boys would come in, like John Howard. These guys would come in and spank us. We thought it was great. You’d just try to hang on…you never could. You had the Tour of Tallahassee in Florida; some other races in Miami; a couple of stud things in Georgia; the Tour de Moore and the Carolina Cup; a couple of key races in Charlotte—Dilworth; the DC area and Maryland was always a hotbed of cycling; Virginia Beach; the Tidewater area. You had plenty of racing. Back then to fill it up even more we’d race both track and road. We’d drive up and do 4th of July races [in the Northeast], go across New York and catch a couple of races in Buffalo, maybe race in Canada, then come into Superweek and do Superweek. And not just Superweek…we’d race Tuesday nights on the track in Kenosha. That’s back when the guys promoting the races were all 6-day riders. Then we’d race Thursday nights at Northbrook in Chicago. They had some tough Madisons…90 minutes at 50km/hr. They would just light it up, just HARD. Roger Young, Danny van Haute, [Tom] Schuler, a few of those other guys, some Belgians would show up. You’d come out of there just wide-eyed. You couldn’t get to sleep until 3 or 4 in the morning. And Belgian spectators would come up and say ‘You guys did great’, shake your hand, give you $20/$30/$40 wadded up in your hand. Just give it to you. Did you ever hear of that these days? Hell no! The supporters were just different…more European. And then you’d come back down here [North Carolina] and you’re tired but you’re so much fitter than everybody else so you’d kick ass.
Of course things got going in Colorado Springs. You hear stories about that 1980 group, well I was in that group out there: LeMond, Phinney, Kiefel, Mark Gorski, Andy Hampsten, Carmichael. Carmichael was my roommate, for god sakes! We’re old buddies from way back. I knew him when he was skinny. We called him ‘The Kid’. Eddie B. came in and changed the way we trained. Some East German ideas and that kind of thing. Things were never the same after that. You still went to Europe and raced, but with the development in Colorado Springs it started branching out a little bit more. Things were getting better at home for training.
How did you get into cycling?
I came along in the 1970s amidst the bike boom. At that point it was kind of a counterculture sport. But you were getting guys who were track runners who had damaged their knees, or somebody who wanted to do something different, someone who wasn’t your typical jock football player. Well, maybe up north where there were tracks it wasn’t as true, but road racing was a mainly a skinny hippie sport. Dale [Brown] put on the first race I ever went to. We got up there, and I shit you not, he had a race where I think first place was a six-pack of beer and a watermelon. Maybe it was for each of the first three places. Just a little thing Dale threw together at the last minute on the weekend, some road race out in the country. Back then you didn’t tell the police anything. It was very strange. That’s what started it there for me. You started racing in gym shorts, then got some shoes with cleats.
Where did you get your equipment?
I got smart and got a tax license and opened my own pocket bike shop, Mac Cycles or something like that. I never made any money, but I had it and I used to order stuff wholesale from up North: tubular tires, wool shorts and jerseys. Clean Machine had a big team and I rode for them so we had some shorts and jerseys to race in, but we had to have stuff to train in. It was kind of an underground thing. Most of the real choice bikes were up in the Philly and New York City area. Guys were getting bikes from some of the old shops up there. Dale [Brown] had some stuff. There was some other stuff down here: Skip Flythe in Raleigh and Higgins in Greensboro. I had a local guy who was a Schwinn dealer, one of the last ones that was an appliance dealer and Schwinn dealer. I used to work for him in Albemarle and do anything, fix everything when I was a kid. I got him to order me a Paramount. I raced on it and it was really nice. Those never broke in Belgium. There’s always bikes breaking over there, but none of those boys ever broke one over in Belgium. Later I went to an Italian bike…I can’t think of the name. I rode a few of those. Fiorelli or something like that. It’s kind of hard to remember. It was a typical Italian bike: a little cleaner in the lugs and a tad lighter for that day in time. Yeah, equipment was kind of hard to come by. Now, of course, with the internet it’s off the hook. Back then it was word of mouth…acquire here and sell there…wheeling and dealing…buying stuff out of someone’s car trunk at races. That’s kind of the way it went.
So I dropped the bomb that I’ll be in Ghent, Belgium during Thanksgiving week—which means I’ll be there for the 6-Days of Ghent as well as the World Cup cyclocross at Koksijde…Here’s what Mac had to say about that:
[The Ghent velodrome is] Rock ‘n’ roll central. Get inside the center of the track and drink some beer. You’ll get to see that track…it’s so steep and it’s so beautiful. What you need to look at is the blue line down at the bottom. It’s got a curve down at the bottom so if you ever got a flat you could glide it down and fall into that little dish at the bottom. I was training one time in there with Johan Lammerts. You know, he helped LeMond win that Tour that one year. We were doing exchanges behind a derny at like 30-something mph. Insane…and it was a blast. He wasn’t in good shape at the time, but we hung out and talked a lot. He had a shoe sponsorship with Time. And the next thing you know, I trained with him a few times and one day he said, ‘I got these, can you wear them?’ He gave me a pair of Time shoes and Equipe pedals. They were nice…I said I’d wear the hell out of these things. You just can’t put a price on stuff like that.
I never rode the 6 in Ghent, I rode the little 3-day. I tried but never could get a partner…couldn’t get in. I rode the 6-day at Bremen, I rode Paris with a Belgian. Then he went back home that winter and I did a whole bunch of track racing in Belgium that winter. I rode and worked in a bakery. A buddy of mine’s dad owned a bakery so I hung out with them. So I rode Bremen, a bunch of stuff in Ghent. Bremen is like Oktoberfest …that’s where Beck’s beer is made…that’s insane, that race. This is back when Danny Clark was kicking it pretty hard. I was hanging out with him a little bit, riding with him some. Then I think there were two sixes going on at once: some German city and then there was Bordeaux which was a new track at the time. It was like 200 or 250 meters and it felt huge. It was great. I rode with a British guy and we’d ride with the Stars & Stripes one night and a Union Jack the next night. This was all going on when the [Berlin] Wall came down. The East Germans were just going nuts, drinking vodka every night and just killing us. All the amateurs did is race one hour just flat out….an 88” gear with a 30mph average. I think we hung in there and got 5th or 6th. Anyway…that’s the extent of the 6-day thing.
Did you get acquainted with all the roads in Flanders, like the roads used in the Tour of Flanders?
After the 6-days are over at the beginning of the year guys start training for the Classics. So you go out on these big group rides. So I rode with a couple of different teams. I rode for the KVC-Diamant team, and I was trying out some other teams and I’d go out on their big team rides. Everyone rides just a two-up paceline with a follow car. It might be raining, it doesn’t matter what the weather is, you’re going to make this ride. You may go out and ride the Het Volk loop or something like that. So you’re out there dying going over these big hills and the team director is counting who did what, who’s getting dropped. So you’re out there in a paceline in the damn 12, not really even a paceline, just two-up and pulling off. They were just loving it. They were saying, ‘You’ve got to stay, we’re going to have a good season.’ They were just all into it. That’s another one where I thought I should have stayed, to be honest. And just when you felt like cracking out comes the tea and coffee and these Belgian pastries out the window of the team car. Crazy. It was always right at the point where you were ready to quit and crawl in a ditch they’d bring out the goodies. They’d just train like crazy, but they had a good time. Belgium is a country that takes it’s cycling serious. When you ride, there’s a guy down in the ground digging a ditch and he’s checking you out. And he’s digging a ditch decked out in an expensive team jacket, the equivalent of a Team Discovery jacket today.
Thanks again, Mac, for spending a Saturday afternoon speaking with me. I owe you a beer or two. Or three.