IT seems somewhat ironic that I’m having lunch in a former motor vehicle workshop with a man whose surname is a local byword for cycling.
Rob Hadley has chosen Parry St Garage. As much as he enjoys his meal of sweet potato gnocchi served in a setting that respects the building’s light industrial past, that’s not why he selected this restaurant in Newcastle West.
“I thought I could ride my bike here,” he offers. Not that Hadley was planning to ride from home - he lives in Pokolbin these days - but he keeps a bike at a friend’s place in Hamilton, so that he doesn’t have to drive into the CBD and join the often frustrating search for a parking space.
In the end, he had to drive in for lunch, but this former bike shop owner and competitive cyclist much prefers to be pedalling.
While Newcastle’s heart is changing, Hadley believes not enough is being done to entice people to ride into town.
“I don’t think people will go en masse, ‘Let’s ride bikes’, because I don’t think they [governments] have done a good enough job with getting bikes to the top of town,” he says.
“What would have you put in, if you were in charge?,” I ask him about cycling infrastructure.
“I think the old railway line could have been used,” he replies. “Even if they want to build on top of the railway line, there could still be a bike path underneath the buildings. There could be a continuous bike path. They do it in other places. I ride in Holland a lot, there’s tunnels there under buildings, under roads. It’s just non-stop riding.”
Hadley believes Newcastle has missed an opportunity to create a more cycling-friendly city, “but there’s no political mileage in it”.
“There are cities like New York embracing the bike, and it’s making it a better place to live,” he says.
“I don’t know the answer, but we need more people aware of what’s possible.”
While Rob Hadley didn’t ride to the restaurant, in just about every other way, he brought a cycle to lunch. Which is hardly surprising, since he has pedalled his way through life, through good times and tragic.
ROB Hadley was born in July 1953, “just around the corner”, in Everton Street. He has only recently sold the Hamilton East home after it was in the family for more than a century and three generations.
Actually, three generations of Hadleys were living in the same property when Rob was a boy.
To escape a crowded house, he would fashion a race track in the backyard and compete against a neighbour on their scooters and bikes. Then he and his mates ventured beyond the backyard, racing their bicycles in the local streets.
“I’ve just always liked to race,” he says. “I never won. I was weak. I was a smaller kid with not much power.”
Being light would prove to be an advantage, when Hadley competed in official road races. Along the flats, he may have been out-powered, but “going up hills, weight is really important.”
“When I was 18, I weighed 51 kilograms. I’m 68kg now, so I’m 33 per cent heavier than I was, so I can’t get up hills like I used to. But you get older, and you can’t get up hills anyway!”
Hadley’s formal introduction to cycle racing came at Dick Tressider’s bike shop. Tressider was a local legend, having competed in Europe. Hadley was about 11 when Tressider opened his Hamilton business, and the boy began hanging around the shop.
“I eventually saved up my money and, for £12/10, I bought a second-hand bike, which was Dick’s older brother’s race bike,” he recalls, adding that Tressider arranged for him to have his first race out at Barnsley.
“That was my 13th birthday present,” Hadley says. “I raced on my 13th birthday. And I won. But I had a six-minute start in a five-mile race.
“It was exciting.
“And Mum won the raffle that day, and I’ve won the raffle once since in 52 years at the [Hunter District Cycling] club, racing.”
Dick Tressider not only helped Hadley onto a racing bike, he gave the boy his first job. The schoolboy worked in the shop part-time, until he was 16: “I had so much respect for Dick. He taught me how to ‘suffer’ on the bike. When someone’s just hit you as hard as they can, hit them back, because they’ve just given their best. He taught me all these things, and I took them through my career.
“Bike racing is you start with a half a jar of jelly beans, I start with half a jar of jelly beans, and I’ve got to take away all your jelly beans before we get to the finish.”
Fuelled by his competitive spirit, Hadley began winning races locally, then in bigger arenas. As a teenager, he won the NSW junior championship, and he placed third in the Australian titles.
His ambitions broke him out of the classroom. Hadley left school when he was 17, because “I really wanted to be a bike rider”. He moved to Sydney to compete and worked on the assembly line in the Speedwell and Malvern Star factory, “where bike riders went to work while not being bike riders”.
Within a matter of months, he was back in Newcastle, training with another champion local rider, Murray Walker, who opened a bicycle shop.
Life increasingly became a balancing act off the bike for Rob Hadley. He was married at 19, to Deidre, the daughter of the cycling club’s secretary, they had two children, Ross and Suzie, and he worked at Comsteel.
When he was 22, Hadley decided to do as his friend, Murray Walker, had done and open a bike shop.
“In those days, a full bike shop was 12 bikes,” he says. “Now, if [the present-day Lambton store’s] stock level gets below 600, you can see the holes. It’s just amazing, the difference.
“We would have a 16-inch boy’s bike, a 16-inch girl’s bike, a 20-inch convertible, then we had a 24-inch, 26-inch, 28-inch, that was it, that was the range. Boys and girls. And you very rarely sold anything to adults.”
Back then, he explains, the city was dominated by cars: “The people who used to ride their bikes to the BHP no longer rode their bikes to the BHP . . . They were totally out of favour with adults until mountain bikes came in [during the 1980s].”
From its beginning in 1975 in Adamstown, Hadley Cycles would grow into a local household name, expanding with stores around Lake Macquarie and the lower Hunter and putting wheels underneath thousands of riders, and not just children. Adults increasingly embraced the ease and health benefits of cycling.
In later years, Rob went into partnership with one of his younger twin brothers, Brett.
Yet the growth of the business, and commitments at home, meant the juggling of roles was “very, very difficult” and, as a result, “I never really got into anything 100 per cent. I was not good at it.”
What’s more, he had to ration his time cycling and competing, which included road races in Europe: “You get to the point where you’ve got 20, 25 employees, you can’t just walk out and play.
“I was always going to be a part-timer,” he admits of his cycling. “Some of the guys I went through with went on and did well, but I don’t think I would have made it.
“I don’t think I ever had what they had. Not the power or the drive those guys had, both physical and mental. I thought I had it in those days, but looking back, I’m well aware I was a level below them.”
Even so, Rob Hadley has done well in competitions.
As a “veteran” rider, he has been a four-time champion at the World Masters Games, winning in each age division since the 35-to-39-year category.
Yet the juggling took its toll early on. His marriage had ended. He sought solace in riding and advice from fellow cyclists.
“I was working hard, my marriage had split up, I was going out and partying, I was a mess,” he says. ‘I was going out and racing, and I wasn’t finishing races. He said to me, ‘Hadley, go home, pull your head in, stop racing until you can train. Otherwise, it will become a habit to not finish races.’ That was brilliant advice from an old guy who I knew and liked.
“I really believe that if you’ve got the drive and the desire, if you can get across the line, you can do it in all walks of life.”
One great constant in Hadley’s life were his children. He would ride and travel with them. In 2007, his daughter, Suzie, suddenly died, from what Rob says was a heart problem. She was aged 34. To honour her, the family organised a memorial race in Suzie’s name, and it’s still held each year.
“We as a family thought it was what she would have wanted. She was so keen on her cycling. I think Brett organised all of that. I was in no state to organise it,” says Hadley, explaining how his little brother helped him cope. “It was Brett pushing me to do some things that broke what could have been a downward slide.”
The tragedy changed Hadley: “I don’t handle stress anymore. I don’t want to be part of anything that causes me stress.”
As part of avoiding stress, Hadley gradually stepped back from the business he founded, before he retired in 2015.
Yet cycling remains a big part of his life. He rides three times a week with a group he helped establish in Pokolbin called The Vintage MAMILs (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).
Although, the 65-year-old says, “I’m an OAMIL (Older-Aged Man In Lycra)”.
But he was never a YAMIL.
“No, lycra didn’t exist in those days,” he laughs. “Everything was wool. And if it rained, the clothes would weigh 10 times what they are now. What we went through with clothes those days was just horrendous.”
Hadley has had to slow down a little: “I’ve had a bit of a breathing problem, and I just can’t get over it. If I don’t race too much, it doesn’t appear.”
Yet Rob Hadley is determined to never stop pedalling.
“I’m so happy I found a sport and a business that were all part of my passion. I think I’ve been the luckiest person.”