It is one of the injustices of New Zealand sport that road cyclist Brian Fowler rode superbly in four Commonwealth Games, but never quite earned the praise his performances deserved. He finished with one Commonwealth Games gold and four silvers, which most athletes would be proud of. But Fowler was even better than that and could easily have had at least two more golds.
At Edinburgh in 1986, "Chook" Fowler was close enough to road winner Paul Curran of Britain to be given the same time. Four years later in Auckland, team-mate Graeme Miller beat him to the line by 0.02s. And at Victoria in 1994, Fowler rode selflessly and skilfully to ensure another team-mate Mark Rendell won the gold medal, and had to be satisfied with the silver himself.
Elsewhere Fowler was equally well performed. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he was 18th in a very tough field. Eight times in 11 years from 1985 he won the six-day Tour of Southland, which, with the demise of the Dulux North Island four, was the big road annual event in New Zealand.
Fowler was born in Christchurch in 1962 and began riding competitively in 1977, when, at the urging of Roger Prince, he joined the Hornby club.
By 1979, Fowler had moved from the novice division to juniors and quickly made his mark, gaining a place in the New Zealand to the Oceania Games in New Caledonia, where he gained two seconds (points race and team pursuit) and a third in the road race.
The following year he was chosen for the New Zealand team for the Tour of Tasmania, though still a junior. He led the tour for a day before he got “ganged up on by the pros” and finished third overall. Ironically, he returned to the Tour of Tasmania in 1990, in preparation for the Auckland Commonwealth Games, and won it – so a 10-year itch was scratched.
Fowler, an electrician by trade, became the pre-eminent domestic road rider, winning the Tour of Southland six times consecutively from 1985-90, then again in 1992 and 1995. He also won the six-day North Island tour in 1985, putting himself in select company – only Tino Tabak, Blair Stockwell, Paul Jesson, Jack Swart and Fowler managed that double in the same year.
His first Games was to Brisbane for the 1982 Commonwealth Games. There he rode the 4000m teams pursuit with Clem Captein, Miller and Murray Steele, and gained a silver medal behind a crack Australian quartet.
“That was my only ride at those Games,” he said. “The Australians were a world-class outfit, so it was hard coming up against them. We closed 4min 29.733s, which was pretty good, but four seconds behind them.”
At Los Angeles in 1984 Fowler was a busy man at his first Olympics, lining up in the road race and the points race.
In the road race, American Alexi Grewali won the gold ahead of Canadian Steve Bauer, but Fowler covered himself in glory with his 18th placing in 5h 6min.
Coach Ron Cheatley said: “Brian had not long come on the international scene. He went really well to finish where he did and only just missed the final break, his only hiccup of the whole ride.”
In the points race, 40km on the track, Fowler finished second in his heat to qualify for the final, though it was difficult then because he was the only New Zealand qualifier.”I was lying third in the final for some time and eventually ended up seventh [one lap down on Belgian winner Roger Ilegems], so that was probably a better result overall than the road race, given the number of starters,” he said.
At the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, Fowler rode just the road race. “Paul Curran got away and I had a pretty hard chase after him. When it came to the sprint against Curran at the finish, I just didn’t have enough in the legs and got the silver.”
Fowler had two rides in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 100km team time trial and the road race.
“I finished in the pack in the road race and there were a lot of good pros riding there.”
In the team time trial, Fowler, Greg Fraine, Paul Leitch and Gavin Stevens were 12th of 31 starters.
At the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, Fowler and team-mates Ian Richards, Miller and Stevens won the gold medal in the 100km time trial on the opening day of the Games. They were in a class of their own, finishing nearly three minutes ahead of the second-placed Canadian quartet.
“After that gold, I was really looking forward to the road race,” Fowler said. “I’d won the national road champs on the same course a couple of months earlier. And I won both the Games road trials.”
To quote from The Official History of the XIV Commonwealth Games: “Brian Fowler, the most complete road racer in the race, learned only two days before of the death of his father in a freak cycling accident on a track in Christchurch. Everyone would have understood if he’d pulled out, but his attitude was that he was there to ride and his father would have wanted him to.”
It came down to a sprint finish among three riders after 180km – Miller, Fowler and Canadian Scott Goguen. Near the end Fowler developed a slow leak in his rear tyre, which the other riders soon noted.
The Games history again: “There was nothing Fowler could do. To change would have cost him too much time; the others would not wait for him. The Canadian led out in the sprint, Miller next and then Fowler. Fowler got past, but Miller grabbed the lead and crossed the line with arms upraised.” Miller and Fowler were credited with 4h 34min 0s, with the Canadian five seconds behind.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the road time trialists – Fowler, Leitch, Miller and Chris Nicholson - finished 11th of 31 starters, and Fowler was 68th in the individual road race. “If you’re not in the break in these big races, it doesn’t really matter where you finish in the pack. There’s not much difference between 20th and 68th in those circumstances.”
At the Victoria Commonwealth Games in 1994, Rendell broke away and Fowler then rode selflessly to hold the chasing pack back, ensuring his countryman won the gold. Rendell and Fowler had become involved in a brilliant breakaway with five other riders and were never reeled in.
Then Rendell, not a great sprinter, got away on the second-last lap and Fowler controlled the pack to ensure Rendell’s victory.
His final Games outing was at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, his fourth Olympics in succession. He contested the road race, but did not finish. That was the end of Fowler’s Games exploits, though he continued to be a force in domestic racing for several more years. He left memories of a superb all-round rider, a man who could sprint, climb mountains, race on the track, was tough and was also a great team rider.