Nickel City Nostalgia: Spears revisits cycling career in most unique way

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A quick Google search would suggest that self-deprecation is defined as “a modesty about or criticism of oneself.”

If you’re still not able to wrap your mind around the concept, spend an hour or so chatting with Dowling native and now longtime Ottawa resident David Spears.

By the way, you may have to push aside the reminder that Spears is both an Olympic cyclist and a successful lawyer, such is his ability to poke fun at himself.

He certainly won’t be the one to tell you this, but the journey of David Spears is a pretty special one. That said, the tone was set early in our discussion, as we revisited the very start of his athleticism, a time that predated even the foggiest notion of someday representing Canada at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

“When I was 14, 15, 16, the big thing for me was hockey,” said Spears, the youngest of three boys in his family. “I would have loved to have a hockey career. I could have seen myself taking hockey more seriously, but I don’t think anyone else would have seen me that way. While I may have been one of the fittest hockey players in Dowling, I was not a very good hockey player.”

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Thankfully, general fitness has its benefits.

While still in high school, attending the now defunct Levack Secondary School, Spears ran a marathon. The next summer, wanting to get in shape for hockey, he and a neighbour took up riding as part of their dryland training regimen. By sheer happenstance, his friend took notice of an announcement about a bike race that might be of interest.

“My recollection is that it was at Laurentian University, doing a few laps of the road there,” suggested Spears. “We entered, not thinking seriously about racing to win. It was just something to do, something to train for. I was riding a bike I think I got at Simpson Sears the summer before — no toe clips, no riding shorts, nothing like that.

“I’m sure I looked like quite the goober out there.”

A goober, perhaps — goober is defined as a slang term for an unsophisticated, goofy person, especially one from a rural area, somewhat similar to the term bumpkin, for those who might be interested — but a talented goober, apparently.

“I don’t know that there were all that many riders entered, maybe a dozen or so, but I came in third,” Spears continued. “That was my introduction to bike racing.”

The ensuing introduction changed his life forever. “It was there that Battista (Muredda, Sudbury Cycling Club head coach) came up to me and introduced himself.”

It was time to put NHL dreams on the shelf. While he might kid about his hockey talent, Spears knew that he had stumbled upon something special in cycling.

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“I think when I came in third, I realized that I may have discovered a sport that I was actually good at,” he laughed. “That was a big thrill for me. Running and bike riding were easy for me, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t mind the endurance stuff, suffering a little bit. I perhaps had some wires crossed somewhere.”

But it was far more than a natural comfort for cycling that set the tone for the next 15 years or so. As noted, there was the presence of a very special mentor.

“Just having a coach like Battista who takes an interest — that was so important. That’s what he does. But for Battista Muredda, I would have done nothing — it just wouldn’t have happened.”

As much as anything, the acclaimed coach and member of the Greater Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame unearthed a latent passion within his new sensation.

“Early on, I remember being completely enamoured with the culture that came with bike racing,” he said. “I was reading about European racing, reading about the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia.

“This was a whole new world that was opening up to me. Back then, the local Italian community was what really started and supported the SCC so well, right from the beginning. I was embraced by the cycling community; I never felt like an outsider.”

Success, while not instantaneous, came quickly.

He won his first provincial race as a novice, moved up to the junior ranks the next summer and proceeded to wipe out in each of his first three races.

“I was a bit of a hazard out there,” he said with a smile. “I learned early on what road rash was like. I would go down (to a race), break a bike and come back, but I was still passionate about it.”

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By the end of that summer, he was more than competitive. In his second full year, he quickly jumped the senior ranks, even capturing a Senior 1 race in southern Ontario. Back home, an environment that helped build his confidence was setting the snowball to success in motion.

“I drove home from that race that I won around midnight, maybe later,” Spears reminisced. “I remember going to Battista’s house at some crazy hour, just letting him know that I won the race. He brought us inside and we chatted about the race for a few hours still.”

Despite possessing a degree in law, Spears does not consider himself an academic sort (more on that later) — quite the opposite, in fact, throughout his teens.

“My interest in school, early on, was negligible,” he said. “I don’t know why that is — both of my parents were teachers. It wasn’t that I struggled intellectually, I just had zero interest.”

Following one term at the University of Waterloo, Spears made his way to Florida.

“I may have done a second term, after that, but basically, my academic career was put on hold. I didn’t really pick it up until my cycling career was winding down. I was all in on cycling.”

Who could blame him?

Through a university acquaintance, the door was opened to cycle in Spain. The visions that Spears had conjured for years, sifting through issues of Bicycling magazine, were now there for him to touch, to experience first hand.

While the Olympic Games appearance could never be minimized, it was not the one that connected at the very core of the being of David Spears.

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“The Olympic Games were fun, a great experience, but it didn’t change me like racing in Spain or racing in France changed me,” he said.

“The stuff that I loved was the years that I raced in different countries, moving to those countries and becoming part of the culture. That is, for me, what I really remember, the real bonus to my career.”

An impressive career, indeed, representing Canada at the World Championships four times (1987, 1989, 1990, 1991) and adding a Commonwealth Games silver medal performance to the memories of Seoul. Like most, it was a career that required the support of many, most notably his parents, as well as his coach.

“I think of all the people who helped me along the way, people who did a whole lot for me but never stood on a podium or held up a trophy,” said Spears. “They were there and every bit a part of it.”

David Spears is not one to kid about that.

Nickel City Nostalgia runs weekly in The Sudbury Star.

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