It was three years ago that Reon Nolan came out of prison. But now, he's on his bike fighting for all he is worth. His efforts are not just to break away from the peloton, but also to put his past behind him and to win, not just races, but self-respect as a man. Cycling saved him. At the age of 31, the New Zealander from the Scotty Browns Vision Systems amateur team secured a victory simply by finishing his first UCI event, the New Zealand Cycle Classic.
To his great surprise, the peloton has embraced him with open arms. "When I started riding my bike three years ago, the social riders were very accepting of me," he recalls. "They taught me the basics of cycling and the basics of life: how to control your emotions, talk about things, let things out and not hold them in... When they invite you to their house or over for dinner, you have to face your fears and turn up; we are all equal. I am not the odd one out anymore. The way they have behaved with me has made me love this sport even more. They welcomed me and treated me like a normal person even if they knew about my past."
The past in question was full of burglaries, drugs, alcohol and prison sentences. At the age of 16, Reon had already accumulated over 100 criminal convictions. Before he found another family in cycling, his own family had been torn to shreds. His father was murdered when he was just 11 and this is when Reonâ€™s troubles started.
After many chaotic years, Reon discovered cycling through the Salisbury Street Foundation that works in Christchurch to help former prisoners reintegrate into society. First of all, he took part in a 480 km charity bike ride. Then he got a taste for mountain biking.
"I love the feeling of pushing my body literally to the limits," he says. "Cycling up and down hills on a very hot day makes me feel good in myself - in the rain, it's even better. It gave me confidence. This was also the first time that I had done something healthy in my whole life."
Then he had to hold on. Hold on to himself and on to the wheels of others, including the hardest riders on the "Tuesday World Champion" chaingang rides. Reon feared that he would not be able to keep up with the experienced cyclists. "I thought as a tough guy in my past life, I would be able to stay with them, but I couldn't." Reonâ€™s response was to take on the regimented life of a competitor, with training sessions and a healthy diet.
Then in 2011, he won his first amateur race. Reonâ€™s voice is full of emotion when he remembers that day. "I never thought that I would even be able to get into a break. To be honest, the day I won, I started crying. To cross the line in front of all these guys who wanted to win the race, some people I respected a lot, thatâ€™s the thing I am most proud about in my whole life. It was such a massive achievement. It was the first time that I felt I belonged."
Although far from being a Junior in winning this first prize â€“ Reon was nearly 30 â€“ the taste of first success was just as sweet for him. Following the pattern of any young rider finding their way, Reon made progress until he had the opportunity of an amazing adventure: the New Zealand Cycle Classic, the biggest event in the country and the only stage race in the UCI Oceania Tour.
Standing on the start line at the end of January 2013 he admitted to feeling "pretty scared" when faced by Continental Teams from Australia. He finished 59th, some 39' 12" behind the winner, Nathan Earle (Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers).
Once again he managed to hang onto the wheels. In fact, he did better than that. Reon found himself in the middle of this elite peloton, a place where the past and future do not exist, just the 50 kilometres an hour present. It was his rite of passage and the event in which he earned his final stripes as a cyclist. Reon smiles: "It was pretty cool for me to look around and just to be there, helping my teammates by taking bottles to the front of the bunch. One day the whole team was behind me in the crosswind. I had a great feeling!"
Taking part in the New Zealand Cycle Classic represented his second major racing victory after his unforgettable first. "It has changed my life and the way I think about cycling," explains Reon.
"In my current life, I have focus and determination," he continues. "I'm trying to chase that feeling of winning every day." But ambition is a journey, not just an end in itself. "I might not win a race but if I can help my teammates it's like I win and I get a really good feeling out of that."
Reon hopes to soon compete in races in Australia and Belgium with his teammates in Scotty Browns Vision Systems, sponsored by bike retailers Scotty Browns.
He works three hours a week at the Salisbury Street Foundation. He considers himself "100% cyclist" and says he always will be. There are few riders who savour the details of their life on two wheels with such intensity, absorbing the fragments of happiness that repeat hundreds of times.
At a coffee stop, Reon talks about his previous life. Then he gets back on his bike and fills his lungs with the fresh air of the Banks Peninsula.
Wistfully he says: "I always have the feeling I wasted my early years, it saddens me to think about the people I have hurt in the past. That's what drives me to get up, get on my bike and not go back to the past."
Photo: Reon Nolan (credit: Bruce Wilson Photography)