Bill Mantova was born on 17th October, 1924, and began racing as a 14-year-old in Malvern Star Schoolboy Championships in Western Australia, 1938. By the time he joined the Army in January, 1942, he was riding in Open company off scratch. During his Army service he was stationed in Darwin with an anti-aircraft heavy artillery unit and experienced the latter part of the Darwin bombings. He was then deployed to Jacquinot Bay in New Britain as the Japanese began to be pushed back as a result of Macarthur’s “island hopping” strategy.
After demobilization in 1945, Bill was soon back on the bike and as a 21-year-old was making quite an impression. The following account of the 1947 Fremantle Sprint Championship indicates his improvement:
“One of the most thrilling and interesting races ever witnessed in the West was the sprint Championship of Fremantle (which doubled as the State Championship). In all, 25 races were run in the series, which extended over four weeks, and the winner, Bill Mantova, raced in six of these races to win the championship … the greatest surprise in the third round was the defeat of Stevenson by Mantova, who is the most improved rider in the West … the final between Burdus and Mantova was run over three heats. Burdus was favorite, but Mantova changed his tactics and rode a much bigger gear than Burdus. Winding up early, he left Burdus little chance to jump him, and won the first two heats easily, rendering the running of the third heat unnecessary. Mantova was practically unknown, but week by week he gradually improved and was able to go right through the series undefeated.”
Bill had a bike shop sponsor at the time who provided him with a couple of racing bikes and often, after a successful punt with the SP bookies, slung him a few extra pounds on the side. One of the unusual challenges offered to Bill was a 120-yard race from a standing start between a trotter, a professional runner and a professional cyclist for a side bet of £10. Bill had no trouble in cleaning up his two opponents and this was a pretty good result for Bill when you consider the average weekly wage in 1947 was about £6. Bill gained selection in the State team for the Australian Track Championships in Adelaide in 1947 and after those events decided to try his luck in Victoria on the North Essendon Board track and in the many carnivals held throughout the State and in Tasmania.
He found the bikes he was given in Perth were useless on the steeply banked board track – he kept being bucked off on the last bend – but after being given another free frame he found he was much more competitive.
For the three years after the war, Bill had supported himself as a professional cyclist but knew at some stage he would need other career options and so, under the War Service Education Scheme, he completed a panel-beating qualification at the old Richmond Technical College. He had also been introduced to his future wife, Betty, through the Footscray Professional Cycling Club. Betty’s father, Fred Musicka, was President of the Club from 1947 to 1965. Every weekend Bill and Betty would travel all over the State, generally by train, to compete in country carnivals – places such as Coleraine, Mt. Gambier, Moe, Trafalgar, Wangaratta, Leongatha and Warragul. In Tasmania, over the Christmas holiday period, he did the rounds of the famous Tassie carnivals – Burnie, Devonport, Ulverstone, Launceston, Sheffield and Wynyard. Just before he was to begin his first job as a panel beater, he had a fall at the North Essendon track sustaining a broken collarbone and torn ligaments in his right knee, and was unable to start the job for three months! As Bill puts it, “Goodbye bike riding! I’ll never get on a bloody bike again! Got married, went back to Perth, no more pain, no more hills – beautiful!”
However, that was not the end of riding for Bill.
Betty and Bill relocated to Geelong in 1975. Betty was concerned about Bill’s weight increase due to a recumbent lifestyle and eating and drinking too much. So, she contacted George Underwood, Secretary of Geelong West Professional Cycling Club, as to when the next race would be. Bill then started his second career as a veteran cyclist.
One year at Warrnambool, while watching the finish of the Melbourne – Warrnambool race, his daughter asked what were the medallions every second person was wearing. Bill said they were Time Medals for finishing within an hour of the winner. When she asked where her father’s medal was, he said he had never had one but promised he would ride in the race the following year and get one. In 1980, at 56 years of age, he finished 56th, fourth in his group, and 14 minutes behind the overall winner.
Bill is a very unassuming, modest person and doesn’t like a fuss to be made of his achievements. However, he has also been a highly respected racer, a role model for younger riders and a mentor to many racing cyclists. In 2010, he was awarded life membership of the Geelong Veterans Cycling Club so some of his riding highlights deserve to be mentioned.
At the 1994 World Masters Games in Brisbane, Bill (70+ age group) won the Individual Road Time Trial, Criterium, Sprint/Derby and the Time Trial. At the National Cycling Awards he was nominated for Veteran Rider of the Year.
Even the handicapper has had trouble keeping up with Bill. In the tenth Stan Howard Memorial Race, riding off 14 mins, Bill won easily in a sprint finish. Four weeks later, this time riding from seven-and-a-half minutes, in the Western District Combine, Bill had another win.
Bill had taken up work as a meat inspector in Geelong and, in 1987, was awarded the Australia Day Medal for Achievement for, in the words of the Regional Director, “his high standing among his colleagues, his sporting achievements in the cycling field and his participation as team mechanic in the record breaking 1987 Perth to Sydney Tandem Bike Race”. (Sight impaired cyclist John O’Keefe and Bryan Scott crossed the continent in 11 days 6 hrs and 42 mins).
Bill is unique in another area. Along with numerous injuries (broken collarbones, broken ribs, dislocated shoulders and torn ligaments) Bill has suffered from what he says are ‘Big Deep Seated Lumps on the Crutch”. His surgeons in Geelong had never seen anything like them although the medical term is Perineural Cysts. After several operations Bill was able to manage the condition with more comfortable seats.
In 1995, Bill wrote an account of his life for Top Gear, the newsletter of the Northern Veteran Cycling Association, and his words at that time are an appropriate summary of his philosophy.
“Veteran cycling has prospered and in the main has achieved this by hard working and dedicated officials of Clubs and the VVCC and I thank them for having been given the opportunity to participate in the sport of my choice. I have exceeded my expectations by far, and while I’ll keep on trying I know that my best is far behind me. But to you younger people and newcomers, go for it while you can and Good Luck.”
Twenty years later, Bill still keeps a bike in the boot of his car just in case the opportunity for a leisurely trundle around the criterium track arises. You might see him down there watching the “younger people” go flying past.
Mantova, Bill “NVCA Veteran Racer Bill Mantova”, Top Gear (Newsletter of Northern Veteran Cycling Association) 1995 pp 9-13
Cronin, Brian “The Great Challenge”, the Meat Inspector, May 1988 pp 15-17
Moroney, Jennie “1994 World Masters Games” The Vets Gazette, October 1994 pp3-8