Tall, skinny and with tan-lines in all the right places, Reon Nolan was much like the other 80 riders in the peloton at the NZCT Cycle Classic in New Zealand last month. There were no telling signs to suggest that Nolan, who was racing for the New Zealand national team, only picked up a bike four years ago as a way to escape an undesirable past.
My best result is getting up in the morning and being free. Eating breakfast, wearing my own clothes, and not being a drug addict.
Nolan, now 31, was born into a destructive family with gang connections, where drugs, alcohol and stealing was their way of life.
“When my father was murdered when I was 11 I really started going bad,” Nolan told Cycling Central.
“My attitude was:‘stuff the world, someone’s killed my Dad.’ I was left alone with no family support because they were all crazy just like I was.
“I found some new friends that made me feel good about myself, and they stole to get money, and I joined the club, lived my life like that.”
Nolan’s antics didn’t go unpunished. He was arrested and put into boys homes before eventually being sent to ‘baby jail’.
Over the next decade Nolan racked up the crimes; illegal possession of explosives and firearms, armed robbery, possession of A, B and C class drugs, as well as money laundering. As a result, the prison sentences began to lengthen.
“I was never out of jail very long. I would go to jail for years and then come out for six to eight months and then go back, for years.”
In retrospect, Nolan can make sense of that period of his life.
“I had issues with my father being murdered, I had been molested when I was in a boys home.I hadn’t dealt with any feelings. I pretty much hated myself, I didn’t even know who I was.
“I was just this little kid running around with all of these feelings that I didn't know how to deal with because I was taking drugs and alcohol to make myself feel better, feel normal. That’s why I just kept doing it.”
While many people attempted to help him, the watershed moment came when he was let down by the people he was closest to.
“The last time I was in prison there was a big gang fight, and as a result, the wing I was in got shut down and all of my mates got shipped out. So there was only me about four others left in that crew - and there were about 40 other gang members that we didn’t get along with. It was them vs us.
“I got taken out pretty bad in a fight and they tried to chuck me over the top landing and kill me. That’s just what happens in there. I was more disappointed in my so-called associates, my friends. They dropped their nuts and were scared. They didn’t help me when I needed them. That was the key spark - I was quite let down by these people.
“I was over it, and had been in there for years and years and years. I started to think this isn’t the place to be.”
Nolan was eventually paroled to the Sailsbury Street Foundation, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for men who have been in prison. It was here that he was introduced to cycling.
“I found sports which was like a natural high. I felt good about myself without doing drugs or bad stuff. It made me feel better and better about myself.”
What started as small mountain bike rides soon gained momentum. Nolan’s first triumph on the bike was completing a 480km charity ride over five days from Queenstown to Christchurch to raise money for Victim Support.
The seed for Nolan’s love for cycling had been planted. Once he graduated from the rehabilitation program he bought a mountain bike.
“I was riding one day and this old guy came past me on his road bike and told me to hold his wheel. I tried to for 10, 20 metres uphill, and then he dropped me and was gone. I was really impressed with the way he was riding, and how old he was, and how he was wasting me.”
With new inspiration Nolan purchased his first road bike for $1,800 and joined a local Christchurch bunch.
“They were older guys, doctors, lawyers, just normal people. I was amazed at how fast they were going and how they accepted me into their bunch. They got my number and text me, saying come back. I thought maybe I could fit in.”
Four months after buying his road bike Nolan had his first race experience at the Festival of Cycling in Christchurch.
“Before that race I was doing intervals up the hill thinking that it was going to get me stronger for the race the next day. That didn’t work!”
Nolan sought the help of Christchurch coach Hamish Ferguson who has guided his continual improvement.
An opportunity presented by his local bike shop owner Scotty Brown saw Nolan join the Scotty Browns Vision Systems team for the South Island teams-racing Benchmark Homes series.
“I was like ‘Oh my God I’m racing the Benchmark Series.’ For someone like me, that was pretty epic. I wasn’t sleeping before it, this was the big shit!”
Fast forward through thousands of kilometres of training and racing over the last two years, and this unlikely character is representing New Zealand at New Zealand’s only international race.
As Nolan puts it: “it’s (expletive) unbelievable.”
“I go alright in a Benchmark Race, or in a club race, but this stuff is next level,” Nolan said midway through the five day tour.
“My goal is to just be able to hang onto these guys. I want to help them as much as possible.”
Almost overawed by being part of the race, Nolan’s biggest goal was just to help his team-mates.
His attitude and willingness to work carried the team throughout the week as he ferried bottles and food and sheltered his team.
Despite wanting to pursue cycling for as long as possible, Nolan knows that his past may limit his aspirations. Due to his criminal convictions he has issues gaining entry to other countries, quelling any chances of racing internationally.
“That’s my past coming back and haunting me - and that’s fair enough because I have done some pretty bad stuff.”
While Nolan is notching up successes on the bike, no cycling success will ever outshine his personal struggle.
“My best result is getting up in the morning and being free. Eating breakfast, wearing my own clothes, and not being a drug addict!”
Nolan now works at the Salisbury Street Foundation, the place where his rehabilitation lead him to a bike. He is continuing the cycle, introducing others to the addiction that saved him.
“People say to me, you were addicted to drugs and alcohol and crime, but now you are addicted to cycling. I think you have to be addicted to cycling to do it so much to be any bloody good at it. I love it.”