You have to be hungry to win and if you love to win, then you hate to lose. And if you can train harder and better than everyone else, you stand a good chance to win more than everybody else.” Roger Gibbon’s steely gaze as he imparts his philosophy provides further emphasis to the thinking that made him the fantastic athlete that thrilled fans on cycling tracks across the world. In the midst of the great results achieved by their sportsmen, Gibbon remains the most successful Trinidad and Tobago athlete, ever! With the word ‘legend’ banded about with relative ease in recent times, he rightfully attained this status by the time he was in his early twenties. A model of golden consistency, his total commitment to the cause deserves equally renowned billing. Blessed with raw speed that he honed with rigorous training regimes and supreme sacrifice, his type of single mindedness is rarely seen amongst Caribbean athletes and it helped him overcome the considerable disadvantages he faced as a Caribbean cyclist. That a man from a nation with no velodrome could go on to win gold medals in cycling’s track sprint disciplines is nothing short of remarkable. Further consider that he was self-trained, having never had a coach, to compete against countries honed in technical intricacies of cycling, and those medals have serious added value.
During Trinidad and Tobago’s cycling golden era, a time when several grass tracks littered the landscape and thousands flocked to races every week, a bike crazy youth emerged from Queen’s Royal College. Consumed by cycling, he won races on borrowed bikes, rose through the ranks at a phenomenal rate and cemented it all by winning the first international race that he rode (of course he would!). Roger Gibbon was on his way. But it took the awakening at his first Games, the Commonwealth in 1962, to make him realise the effort required if he was going to continue satisfying that appetite for victories at the highest levels. “I only knew to train Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday because we thought if we did more than that we would be tired. In Perth we saw the English and Australian cyclists going out training, while we were going for breakfast. Then we would meet them on the track the same afternoon. Of course we were fools thinking that they would burn out before the event. We didn’t know better.” Eyes now opened, he returned to Trinidad and began to train twice a day, every day of the week. He still relied on ‘feel’, but most days he hammered up and down the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway until those legs could take no more. “I was never advised on what to do. Foreign coaches would not help me because I could defeat their own riders. I thought it best to go out there and ride harder than anyone else.” Amazingly, for a man involved in the fast twitch fibre game of speed he states, “I never put a weight on my shoulder. In retrospect if I did, I would have been stronger…and better.” However he was good enough to land three CAC golds and one silver, three golds and a silver at the Pan Am Games, double gold at the Commonwealths and a World Championship bronze.
In the days of zero government support, he worked full time, riding before and after his job, while his rivals enjoyed part or full time government sponsorship. The romanticism of his tale of overcoming the odds is tapered with risk: “I did a lot of motorpacing, riding behind trucks, which was dangerous.” It seems scurrilous to ask of one so dedicated how he kept up his motivation; the answer lay in a packed calendar. “The difference then was that I used to get invited to compete, in Europe during the summer, to South America in the winter plus all around the Caribbean and of course every weekend there was racing in Trinidad. So I had events to look forward to and that is a big plus. I raced all the time, no breaks.” Undaunted by the lack of facilities in Trinidad and Tobago, he ignored the falls that occurred in training on the steep banking of the foreign velodromes, stating with a smile that he often started events with bruises that were part of him getting accustomed to his new battlegrounds. One of his two events, the match sprint, requires full utilisation of the entire track, using the banking to slingshot past opponents; yet, he could never practice track craft because the track did not exist. Similarly, he never trained for his other Olympic event, the kilometre time trial. “The only time I rode a ‘kilo’ was in the competition itself.” Gibbon may point to his backbreaking training as the reason for his success but this extraordinary statement sums up his raw talent. The event is nicknamed the ‘killer-meter’, where each rider tries to clock the best time; there are no words to describe the feeling when the lactic acid burns the legs on the final lap, when stars appear before the rider’s eyes and the body is ready to pass out, making each remaining meter seem like a mile. For Gibbon to never have trained for it but win multiple titles begs belief. The man himself reiterates without hesitation, “I preferred the sprint because the kilo was so painful! My attitude with a kilo is that when I was finished I must not be able to walk. That’s the level of commitment I had to my championship races.”
Did victory in one event mean more to him than the other because of the level of pain involved? He craftily replies, “Not really because it’s the same anthem that plays.” Gibbon’s career coincided with Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, forcing the raising of the new flag amongst the pomp of the new anthem being played. He took the role very seriously. “I used to love to hear the anthem play, standing on the podium.” Along with the likes of Wendell Mottley, Edwin Roberts and Hugo Gittens, Gibbon formed the cadre of Trinbagonians that were bringing untold pride to the new nation and typically, there was great camaraderie in the camp. “We were friends; we wanted every Trinidadian to win a medal. We would go to each other’s events, get up to mischief together.” His favourite victory was at the 1966 Commonwealths, where his sprint and kilo wins in the same Games have not been emulated since. But he somewhat modestly says that he did not realise this fact until told so a few years ago. However, the victory holds a special place in his heart because his mother was present, along with his future wife. Sentimentality off the track contrasts with his own admission that he “was a fierce competitor.”
It echoes the ethos of the greats of any sport, that he would give his all and in most cases that also resulted in victory. But with his insatiable appetite for wins, came the cunning to achieve this. “I wasn’t winning my races by five lengths, I would just beat you on the line because I have three more races to come in the day. I had good judgement and could measure you from half a lap to go. It’s hard to explain my fitness but when you know that you’re fitter than everyone else and you have a fair turn of speed, you’re in there with so much confidence, they can try what they want, but…” There is no need to finish the sentence. “That is fitness from up and down the highway, seven days a week, Christmas Day, Carnival Day, Easter Day, rainy day, it does not matter.”
At the Tokyo Olympics he was still the outsider with a slim chance of causing an upset, four years later at Mexico in 1968, he was a red hot favourite, especially in the kilo where he had set an unofficial world record in the same rarefied Mexican air less than a year previously, just after his Worlds bronze and Pan Am golden double. If ’67 was his best year to date, all the hard work looked certain to bear fruit on the biggest stage of all. Hindsight provides one large avenue of regret; with the Games held at altitude the major factor was acclimatisation and Gibbon says without a trace of doubt that he should have flown into those Olympics as late as possible. Subsequent studies show this to be the best approach, not allowing the altitude to take effect until later on. “I regret the Olympics to this day. I would say with confidence that had I flown in the day before the kilo I would have owned the world record and the gold medal…I was better than the winner. I missed an Olympic medal by three hundredths of a second.” It’s a contrast to the self assured persona throughout the interview but it’s candid nonetheless, also providing some insight into his decision to shock Trinidad and Tobago by hanging up his wheels immediately, before he hit the sprinters prime age of 25 to 30 years old. Why? “It was time to get married and I had sacrificed so much in the previous years, I could not see myself doing it for another four years.” The universal opinion is that Gibbon called it a day too early but given that these were days where the amateur won accolades and little else, it is understandable. An even greater part in the decision was the recurring pressure that he put on his parents each time he went out to train. One morning earlier in his career, he went for a ride with his brother. Having left home together the two encountered a flood and Gibbon turned back; his brother continued training and never returned home, having been killed when hit by a truck. For one son to continue riding so vehemently after the tragedy was very difficult for his parents.
Despite serious strides in cleaning itself up over the past four years, to the outsider cycling’s murky leanings towards doping are a prominent factor, just as they were in Gibbon’s day. His comments that many of his competitors were artificially helped are backed up with anecdotes of what he saw, not just hearsay. On the European circuit he was offered drugs with the justification that “…if you take it, you can’t lose. If you don’t take it, you can’t win.” This led Gibbon to believe very strongly that a lot of people he raced against were on drugs. “It was very widespread. I didn’t take it.”
There is also truth in his assessment that much like the Jamaican penchant for producing the world’s best track and field sprinters, there is something unexplainable about the men that distinguished themselves on a bike wearing the red, white and black. Following in Gibbon’s wheel tracks, Leslie King, Ian Atherly, Gene Samuel, Maxwell Cheeseman, Michael Phillips, Clinton Grant, Mario Joseph and now Njisane Phillip and Quincy Alexander may not have attained his lofty heights, but medalled enough have represented the nation with distinction, all in sprint events. “We have the talent here, per capita, but we are not maximising that. We are very fortunate that at this time we have a world-class coach in Des Dickie (former Canadian national coach whose athletes have won medals at all major Games) but I am not sure that he is integrated with the cycling federation, which is tragic. Very seldom does a country have someone as competent and proven as Dickie, specifically in sprint racing which is where we have always been strong. He is not being utilized effectively and this situation needs to be addressed right away. As far as the necessary infrastructure, I don’t think we are there yet. We have got by with self-made cyclists.”
The cycling game has changed with great leaps made by the leading countries. “You’re now battling science in sport and we don’t know enough about that. Our current crop are marginally close to the top but they must remain dedicated and get the support; you cannot do it without the support anymore. Then, they can break through. That new track will be fantastic for our sprinters.” (The world class indoor velodrome being built in Couva, Trinidad).
The man who graced newspapers and radios for the better part of the 60s decade as ‘Golden Boy Gibbon’ says without hesitation that his is a life without many failures; he speaks of the “fantastic wife, Donna” with whom he raised his children Kristine, Joanna and David. He recognises the role his sport played: “I became very well known and I think I was a popular winner and that helped me immensely in my business career. It helped open doors for me. I have reaped the rewards of the total commitment during my international career.”
His career is an inspiration to all across the Caribbean, for this trailblazer who took the fire in his belly, married it to his commitment to give his all, refined his raw talent and took Caribbean cycling into unchartered territory. If we are to get close to his magnificent achievements once again we will need to look at the originator’s traits, while making use of the new infrastructure being provided. With this in mind there can only be one name for Trinidad’s new cycling facility, which will be world class, like the man himself: The Roger Gibbon Velodrome.