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Jocelyn Lovell, Canada’s first cycling icon

Love him or hate him, Jocelyn Lovell is an inspiration to many cyclists.

Reports on Friday say that Canadian cycling legend Jocelyn Lovell passed away that day at the age of 65. In memory of Lovell, we present our profile, which ran in our October/November 2010 issue.

Jocelyn Lovell
At the 1974 Canadian cycling championships in Vancouver, Lovell breaks away at the end of the 200 km road race, leaving Henk Koning behind. Photo courtesy Neil Lovell

by Paul Gains

Sitting in the back garden of his waterfront home, Jocelyn Lovell looks out over the scenic lake at a pair of kayakers and snarls “Listen to those damn paddlers. They’re out there again. Can you hear it? Drip, drip, drip.” Standing next to him, his wife Neil grins broadly before picking up on the theme. “So annoying! Can you hear the water dripping off their paddles?”

We are behind the couple’s Port Credit, Ontario home with its rooftop solar panels and various carvings of birds scattered about. Homegrown vegetables line the wheelchair-accessible path. The pair look over at their visitor for a reaction. Are they having me on? Is their hearing really that acute? Or, are they merely drawing attention to the idyllic view from their property?

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One never knows with Lovell, who was once one of the greatest cyclists to ever represent this country. You ask yourself, ‘what’s he really saying?’ A real character, whose actions and words could provoke and divide. Colourful is the word most often used to describe Lovell. There can be little dispute though, that this 60-year-old man sitting in an electric wheelchair, paralysed from the shoulders down, was once a revered cycling superstar with the ability to push himself to the limit and destroy the world’s best. Today, he can barely raise his arms over his head.

Among the scores of medals in his collection are six from the Commonwealth Games – four of them gold – as well as the 1,000 m silver medal from the 1978 UCI World Championships. Mix in two Pan Am kilometre golds and countless Canadian championships and anyone would have to take their hat off to this man. Canadian cycling had endured a medal drought of almost four decades until Lovell appeared and raised the bar.

Those medals aren’t all stuck away in a basement cabinet, either. A few are embedded in the pavement out in front of the house so that he can celebrate them over and over. He points them out and it’s clear that today’s visit provides a departure from the full-time crusade he maintains on behalf of the Spinal Cord Society of Canada. He’s in an upbeat mood and full value for an entertaining afternoon interview.

Only when we discuss the accident that left him a quadriplegic does another side of Jocelyn Lovell appear. Defiant. Bitter, even. Jocelyn Lovell has never accepted his fate and he remains critical of the lack of progress in the treatment of spinal cord injury.

It was August 4th, 1983, 4:55 in the afternoon, as Lovell points out, and he was out on a training ride when a pair of dump trucks approached him as he crested a hill. The first vehicle went around him. The second ploughed him down. Life changing? That doesn’t begin to describe his plight. That his life was spared is a miracle.

The trauma nurse who helped airlift him to Toronto Sunnybrook Hospital that awful night recognized him at the hospital 18 months after the accident when he had returned for yet another intense round of rehabilitation. She rushed over immediately, held his hand and, with tears in her eyes, said “Jocelyn, we thought you were going to die.” Lovell smiles warmly when he tells this story.

A procession of friends visited him in the ensuing months offering support to both him and his then wife, Sylvia Burka. The couple divorced in the mid 1980s. Throughout, his friends say, he has always maintained the same defiant attitude – one day he will ride a bike again. They say he’ll never accept his disability.

“Do you accept that you are sitting here?” Lovell asks quietly. “Or is that something you think about? Do you accept that you drove here today? What does that mean, acceptance? No. I don’t accept I am wearing glasses. Do you accept it? If you can undo something then you can talk about not accepting it.

“Only a warped person would say ‘I like being crippled’ or ‘I don’t mind being crippled.’ Then it’s not your body that needs examining, it’s your head. Or you got brainwashed somewhere along the line.”

Lovell bristles in mock horror when told there is likely a generation of cyclists who don’t know of him and his accomplishments. How can they become champions if they don’t know the champions who came before them, he reasons. The generation which followed him is certainly familiar with his accomplishments. Curt Harnett, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist in the kilometre sprint recalls his first contact with the legend when he was a junior cyclist.

“My personal introduction to Jocelyn was on the start line of a race where he came alongside me and introduced himself,” Hartnett reveals flatly, “Then he dumped a water bottle on one of my shoes.

“He was iconic. You could go many places and they would talk about this guy, Lovell.  He certainly set an example and created, in certain areas of the world, a love affair with Canadian cyclists. A trendsetter, absolutely.”

By Lovell’s standards, Hartnett’s initiation was rather tame. One teammate suffered the indignity of having his bicycle disassembled in a Colombian hotel room right down to the bearings. The parts were then hung from a curtain rod above his bed.  Time might have clouded the specifics somewhat, but Lovell is adamant on one point. “There were six ‘perps’ who needed direction. I merely supervised the operation,” is how he remembers it. Again, you wonder if he actually had accomplices.

Born in Norwich, England, Lovell floated back and forth between England and Toronto as a youngster as his parents, an English father and Danish mother, wanted him to benefit from a private school education. But it was cycling that caught his fancy.

“My brother Peer picked up bike racing in high school and I picked it up from him,” he says. “He was Canadian champion at one point in team pursuit. He was above average and then he got married and that was that. There were racers who were faster than me. I watched them. I always wondered, why do they always win? What is it about them that makes them faster than me? I was still young and they were 15 to 20 years older than me. They brought their experience from Europe. There were no Canadian bike racers then. Even my brother and I weren’t Canadian yet. We were still ‘limeys.'”

Success came quickly and he qualified for the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg while attending Newtonbrook Secondary School in Willowdale, Ontario. A year later, he competed in the Mexico City Olympics, the first of three Olympics in which he wore Canadian colours. Always locking horns with those in positions of authority, he failed physical education the same year he went to Mexico.

An old friend from those days, Dave Steen, a two-time Commonwealth shot put champion, remembers the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland. The velodrome was right next door to the Commonwealth stadium where the track and field competition was taking place and Steen said Lovell inspired him.

“Our events were on the same afternoon within minutes of each other,” Steen explains. “We were warming up outside the stadium and I remember hearing the roar of the crowd in the velodrome. Somebody said Jocelyn had made a break in the 10-mile race and it was a great lift. I know it’s cliche, but it raised my spirits and helped me win too.”

At the closing ceremonies, Lovell, who had won that 10-mile race and then took silver and bronze medals in the tandem and 1,000 m time trial, respectively, commandeered a child’s tricycle and completed a lap around the Edinburgh track much to Steen’s amusement. The shot putter, now an avid cyclist in B.C., says he was inspired by his friend to take up the sport.

There’s little doubt Lovell could have won more Commonwealth medals in 1974 in Christchurch, New Zealand had it not been for the fact he was suspended by the Canadian Cycling Association for an episode known as “The Cookie Caper.’ Steen, then a reporter for the Toronto Star, wrote a front page feature on the situation. It was also brought up in the House of Commons. Much ado about nothing, is how Lovell sees it. The Canadian team held a training camp in northern France following the 1973 world track cycling championships in San Sebastian, Spain where they prepared for Christchurch.

“We ended up with this coach, an independent from England and a few other morons who were going to teach you how to train and race,” Lovell says quietly, “and after the world championships they really want to whip you into shape. So you had people there who had something to prove to the Canadian Cycling Association, perhaps. ‘Well it’s 8 p.m. boys. Time for bed’ and we were like, ‘we haven’t been to bed at 8 p.m. since we were 8, you know.

“I was the only one who said anything. Everyone else went straight to bed because they had yet to solidify their places on the bike team. At the Canadian championships I was second in the road, I won the sprint, the ten mile, I was second in the time trial, so I could pick my event, really.”

Lovell was going training with the team one morning. He locked his hotel room then, more as a lark than a criminal act, he tried his key in the linen closet down the corridor and was surprised when the door opened. “There were all the linen sheets and towels, but also these cookies they would give out and put on the pillowcase,” he explains. “So I took the box of cookies. I went down the hall to this other room where the guys were playing cards and I started divvying up the cookies. The team captain told the team manager what I had done. I guess I was the irritant.”

The punishment was swift and harsh. Lovell was suspended for a year and sent home the next day in disgrace. Although the sentence was eventually reduced to six months, it still meant he would miss the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Deprived of the one thing he loved, Lovell vowed to turn professional and went to race in Holland

“I was very bitter and very hurt. Here I won all these championships, I didn’t ask to be paraded around on anyone’s shoulders,” he remembers. “I didn’t expect special treatment. But I didn’t expect them to always look to me to make an example of.” At first he made Amsterdam his home, but he soon discovered how tough life would be. He had no friends and couldn’t speak the language, but eventually taught himself to speak Dutch so well he was often asked which of his parents were from Holland.

“I went to turn pro. But once I looked at all the drugs and the living out of a bag all your life I realized they had beaten me. They had beaten me, after all. They had made me run away to turn pro and live a life I am not going to like,” he says, his voice full of resentment.

After winning the biggest amateur one kilometre sprint race in Holland, Lovell was approached to join a cycling team and stayed in the country for two years, learning the hard-nosed style of European bike racing and training.

The Dutch experience proved extremely beneficial and he returned to Canada for the 1975 national championships where, in another show of defiance, he entered every event from the sprint to the road race. Steve Bauer, who calls Lovell a mentor, laughs when he ponders the magnitude of Lovell’s accomplishment.

“He won virtually every event sprint, one kilometre, individual pursuit, team pursuit, team time trial, road race, everything,” Bauer says laughing in disbelief. “He won every medal just to put it back in their face. That was Jocelyn.

“Jocelyn would say he taught me everything I know, tongue-in-cheek. He was a good mentor. First of all, we got along. Not everyone got along with Jocelyn because he could be a little bit ‘above’ everybody because he was good, He would play mind games with people to make sure he stayed on top. He didn’t do that with me,” Bauer says.

Although Lovell’s crowning moment was the silver medal he won at the 1978 world championships, he was feted and toasted for winning three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton the same year. On the velodrome, he won the 10-mile race and the kilometre sprint before teaming up with Gord Singleton to win the tandem sprint.

His relationship with Singleton was not entirely smooth, though. The Niagara Falls rider believes there were two reasons for this. First, his career was rising at the same time Lovell’s was peaking and second, they competed in the same event. Singleton, who went on to become Canada’s first world cycling champion, remembers the circumstances leading up to their gold.

“We only saw the bike the day before and did a few laps in training and then the next day raced,” he says laughing. “One thing that helped, certainly from my point of view, Jocelyn was the best bike handler I have ever seen in my life, bar none and I raced against a lot of people. Bar none, the best bike handler I have ever seen.” Over the years, and especially since Lovell’s accident, the pair have become friends. Singleton says he has made it tradition to call his friend at the time of the annual world championships.

Love him or hate him, Jocelyn Lovell is an inspiration to many of the cyclists who came along after him. Over the years, even those who were victims of his mind games have come to appreciate his character as a type of eccentricity. And one by one, they have lined up to appreciate how much ground he broke for the sport he loves. An icon? Absolutely.

Paul Gains is an international freelance writer based in Cambridge, Ontario. He served as the press chief at the 2003 UCI World Road Cycling Championships in Hamilton.