Damien Cook started cycling as a 12-year-old, and has since dedicated his life to his beloved activity as a sport, recreation, and most recently, as a profession.
Now the owner of Horsham Cyclery, Cook’s passion first arose watching the Commonwealth Games as a youngster and seeing Martin Vinnicombe’s gold medal wins in 1986 and 1990.
His dedication to the sport took him all the way to Belguim, competing in an enormous amount of races across two hectic European summers.
But it started at the Horsham Cycling Club, when Cook discovered a competitive edge and a serious passion for cycling.
“One day I just watched Vinnicombe and the Commonwealth games and it just clicked,” Cook said.
“Team sports didn’t really work for me so I joined the cycling club and started at the velodrome. We did road racing as well, and I found that was my scene so I started pursuing that.
“Once you start, you just get that competitive edge that really draws you in. You want to get faster, stronger and to beat everyone around you.”
The roads of the Wimmera proved the perfect training ground for an up-and-coming endurance athlete.
Cook first rode over Mount Arapiles as a 14-year-old, and through the Grampians at 16, testing himself on difficult rides, learning and improving.
“The first time I did Mount Arapiles it was like ‘wow’, this is intense,” Cook said.
“Once I got a bit older to about 16, my parents started letting me go on some longer, all-day sort of rides and really testing myself and where I could go.”
Back when Cook was up-and-coming, the Australian cycling scene was a fragment of what it is now.
There wasn’t the same money, opportunity or international respect for Australian cyclists.
“Nowadays you have a lot more going on back home compared to what there used to be back then, so youngsters can do a bit of racing and get noticed,” Cook said. “Australians weren’t high profile riders back then, whereas now there’s about one or two Australians in every team.”
Without sponsorship or much prize money, Cook took on the challenge of funding his own journey to a more vibrant cycling scene. He completed an apprenticeship as a chef after school and eventually earned enough money to join the European circuit for consecutive summers.
That's what you had to do, you had to earn that respect.Damien Cook
Cycling in Europe was always Cook’s goal, a boyhood dream to compete at cycling’s mecca.
“I just wanted to go over there from the very start. That’s where all the racing was,” Cook said.
“I would watch all the European races – the Tour d’Italia, the Tour de France – as much as I could as a kid, recording it on VHS tapes, waiting for highlights on SBS, all that sort of thing.
“Back then you just had to bite the bullet, head over there and that’s how you would get noticed.”
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He eventually made it to the Belgian town of Ghent, an area considered a hub for cycling during the summer season with professionals and amateurs alike competing in a plethora of events across the area.
Cook headed there for his first season with the company of another Wimmera export and fellow cycling fanatic, Tim Decker, who is now a renowned national cycling coach.
The racing was fierce and the culture vastly different from rural Australia.
“The first year was a serious shock,” Cook said.
“I was based in Ghent but we would race all over, in Holland, France, travelling whenever there was a race nearby.
“The architecture and stuff over there is just awesome. It was a big culture shock, you’re riding and you’re sort of half looking around and just watching everything rather than focusing on the road. Riding through the streets and even sometimes riding on cobblestones was really different.”
While he threw himself into the deep-end in his first year, Cook worked up enough money to go back and compete again the following summer.
He was more prepared this time, for the culture and for the physical demands.
Cook would ride in 120-160 kilometre races daily for two weeks straight, take a single day off, and then begin again, refreshed and ready for the next two weeks.
He was racing enough for the prize money to make it worthwhile, and to earn the respect of his fellow competitors.
“Second year over there I trained really, really hard and started to do pretty well,” he said.
“A part that was really rewarding was getting in with the locals and earning their respect. The Belgian cyclists usually hate foreigners taking their prize-money, but because I was racing so much, they were happy for me to get in their groups and work with them and their tactics.
“I showed that I was putting in the effort and they knew that I wasn’t just going to sit on them and then sprint away toward the end.
“That’s what you had to do, you had to earn that respect.”
The newfound friendships and better preparation held Cook in good stead, and he had some of the most successful riding of his career during his second year.
“I didn’t quite get up there, my best place was fourth, but I was averaging top 5-10 in that second year,” Cook said. “I loved it though, the whole atmosphere. You would go to sign in for a race and there would be odds on the board for betting. This was before the internet of course, so people would just go down to the pub to place bets on.
“When I first got there I would go have a look and see myself at 100/1 or 150/1 that sort of thing, but by the second year at some races I was at 3/1 or 5/1. It was really cool to see that sort of thing and see how the locals are really respecting what you’re doing.
“It was just an awesome experience to be a part of. I tell anyone thinking of doing it, just do it, and go to Belgium.”
Cook since returned to Horsham, and although he never turned professional, he was determined to keep cycling as part of his daily life. He helped set up Horsham Cyclery when it was first opened in 2000, and took over ownership 6 years ago in 2012.
“The opportunity arose and it was always one of those things, I always wanted to have a bike shop,” he said.
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Cook is still an active member of the cycling community and still regularly goes on recreational rides.
He’s currently preparing for the Peaks Challenge next March, a 235 kilometre ride with more than 4000 metres of climbing over Falls Creek and Mount Hotham.
In his prime riding days such an event might have seemed like a regular day out. But now the task is a little more daunting.
“I was very lucky injury wise in my years, I’ve only had that recently catch up with me,” he said. “I’m doing some rides with a few guys now, but before that challenge I better try and lose a little bit of weight.”