Laurie Tall's tracks leave pioneering mark
Laurie Tall isn't just an institution in Southland cycling: in many ways, he is Southland cycling. After all, how many people can claim to have been involved in a sport for 69 years? Nathan Burdon talks with this week's Legend of Sport.
Laurie Tall is in his second home, a utility room under the hardwood boards of the Southland velodrome.
The room is full of bikes in various states of repair. There's a work bench packed with tools along one wall. One of Tall's former charges, junior world track representative Cathy Jordan, has just wandered in, and over in the corner Olympic-bound Eddie Dawkins and fellow New Zealand elite sprinter Matt Archibald are doing a workout.
It's as good a place as any to talk to Tall about a life spent in and around cycling.
In 1943 a 16-year-old Tall was convinced to giving cycling a go by local legend Harry Hubber, a record holder in the Christchurch to Invercargill race.
"A couple of my mates biked through to Queenstown. They weren't cyclists, they were rugby players and they were on old hack bikes. They ran into this bloke called Hubber and he talked them into starting and then talked me into it."
Tall rode competitively until the late 1950s, one of the highlights being a runner-up finish in the Gore to Invercargill race.
He was selected a couple of times to ride for Otago, in the days before Southland competed nationally, riding on the grass in Wellington and the hard track in Auckland.
Cycling was a small but vigorous sport in Southland in the years after World War II.
"The first race I rode in, I think it was only out to Kennington and back, there were only 10 starters. Where the Queens Park cricket is, there was a track there in the 1800s. The Invercargill club was formed in 1930 and they probably had, at times, 20 to 25 riders. During and after the war it was hard to get guys."
It's been as a coach that Tall has left his special imprint on Southland cycling.
After managing an Otago/Southland team in 1958, he was approached by Peter Robinson's father in the early 1960s to see if he would coach the emerging junior.
"He ended up winning nine national titles on the grass and hard track and I just went from there."
Tall has lost count of the number of riders he has mentored over the years and it would be even more difficult to work out how many national titles he has played a hand in.
Phil Culling, whose sons Jamie and Michael have both been coached by Tall, said the mentor must have coached more riders to national titles than any coach in the country. "He's very old-school. He believes in using fixed wheels for training, time trials and motor pacing to build speed."
Culling said Tall also has nuggets for his riders, like "if it's going to be, it's up to me".
Humbly, Tall believes his success has been more a function of a scarcity of coaches.
"It's a bit like now, there aren't many coaches around, which is why I've been plodding around again of late. It was the same in those days. In 1964 we had a big track team, that was the second year Southland had a team, and I was the Southland coach at the time and there was probably only about two or three individual coaches around."
Tammy Boyd, who walked in off the street at Kew Bowl one day and went on to ride for New Zealand at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, was one of the most talented female riders he's coached, he says.
"Her parents later moved to Christchurch and she went on to spend a bit of time in the New Zealand team. She was a class on her own as far as the girls. When she was here she won a road time trial and also a 2000-metre individual pursuit," Tall says.
"Then there was Pete [Robinson]. They just showed out early in the piece."
Robinson hopped on a bike when injuries curtailed his running and struck instant success under Tall. He went on to be named New Zealand track cyclist of the year and won nominations for the Empire and Olympic Games.
More recently, Pieter Bulling has been one of the great finds of Tall's coaching career. "I call him a freak. He doesn't mind that either; he thinks it's a bit of a joke."
Tall's coaching philosophy isn't complicated: you can't achieve without doing the preparation.
"Road riders have got to do the kilometres. They have to get out three times during the week, plus the Saturday and Sunday. The trackies have got to do the k's too."
Cycling has changed hugely during Tall's career. Equipment has gone from rudimentary to space age, but the biggest change was the arrival of the covered velodrome in 2004. Over the years, Tall was involved in bids to get a partial roof built over Kew Bowl and even the purchase of an inflatable roof.
"We've come a long way. If it weren't for Ray Harper and the licensing trust we would never have got this [velodrome]. There's no two ways about that."
And if it weren't for Laurie Tall, Southland cycling would not find itself in the position it does now. There's no two ways about that.
- The Southland Times