When Ernie Old told his story about the Australia he loved and his experience on a gruelling overland bicycle trek, Ernie wrote
“The bush is so old, that one loves to come here to lounge and dream. The soft-toned Australian bushland with it’s grey-green smokey-tinted foliage …. misty rustling woods and pale sky …. Time means nothing here.”
Ernie’s time began in 1874 as a twin born into a pioneering family in country Victoria, Australia. Ernie Old’s life long passion was the bicycle. He also ran a business as a blacksmith, was a Boer War veteran and survivor of the World War 1 Gallipoli trenches. During the Great Depression he invented a successful car part which he could easily manufacture in his blacksmith’s shop. Enduring the hardships of the depression years Ernie never relied on handouts for his family to survive, thanks to his patented steering stabiliser. Ernie was in his late 60’s when World War Two began and his request to join the Australian army for a third war, was rejected. Aged seventy three in 1947, Ernie entered for an eleventh start in the Warrnambool to Melbourne cycling road race, his first start in that race was in 1901. The sponsors rejected Ernie’s entry to the 165 mile Warrnambool road race, citing that Ernie was too old. Ernie being a public cycling figure would attract too much attention and detract from the main aim of running a road race. Earlier in 1945 at the age of seventy one, Ernie began a series of solo trans continental bicycle rides, imprinting his love of the bicycle into the rough bush tracks and roads of Australia. With daily averages totalling more than one hundred miles, Ernie was still riding bicycles across Australia, aged eighty when he undertook a six thousand four hundred mile ride with minimum daily miles of eighty for eighty days. This is the spirit which made Ernie Old a favourite Australian adventurer of the twentieth century.
Hardman Brisbane cyclist Arthur Dows was an Ernie Old fan. Arthur Dows’ crumbling brown paperback copy of Ernie Old’s book “By Bread Alone”, has been handed around the Australian cycling fraternity for decades. Arthur’s well read book came to me with Arthur’s warning still inscribed inside the back cover, “LENT . OUT BY COMBACK.” Sic. Knowing Arthur’s reputation for violence no Australian cyclist was going to keep Arthur’s copy of the book detailing Ernie Old’s life story. You can understand a steely old school bike rider like Arthur enjoying a taste of what it was like to begin bike racing where previously there was no bike racing, just decades of hardship building a new nation.
Arthur Dows’ copy of Ernie Old’s book makes the reading all the more special. Arthur himself is pictured in one of the photographs as an admiring fan in the back row of Ernie’s 1947 visit to Brisbane, the first time that Ernie rode from Melbourne to Brisbane and back to Melbourne. Arthur’s unmistakable head has an “X” struck through it with the initials above .. A.D. Nine other bike riders were in the crowd who’ve also been “initialled on the head” by Arthur.
Arthur Dows’ collection of cycling memorabilia (now in Joe Cosgrove's care) has just about every page of every document defaced by Arthur’s pen. Two pages of Ernie’s book, singled out by Arthur told how Ernie trained for riding and which type of gearing Ernie used in the Warrnambool to Melbourne road race (block chain, one inch pitch). Then there were passages which would appeal to the hard bike rider mentality, one about weak minded men who were slow at binding sheaves of wheat, and another about boarding a ship for the Boer War where Ernie seemed pleased that there were no women present to weap on his shoulder.
“So if the binder was lazy, slow, or unskilled, a large number of unbound sheaves would brand him for what he was, a poor weakling, unfit as a mate for a real man.” Ernie Old on contracted farm workers.
“No broken hearted girlfriends were there to weap on my shoulder, so I had no worries of that kind, having been too busy bike racing to have spare time for society.” Ernie Old upon leaving on a troop ship for the Boer War.
Cycling in Australia when Arthur began racing in the 1930’s was a different place to the Australian cycling scene we know today. The 30’s was an era of long distance records over hundreds and thousands of miles, along roads which today would be considered bush tracks. When Arthur Dows began riding there were two tracks you could choose, the left or right wheel track, or even a fully paved road. Back in Ernie Old’s first days of cycling there were three tracks, two wheel tracks and the middle track made by the hooves of horses.
Ernie Old’s story is a first hand account of what it was like to become a cycling enthusiast in a time when cycling was at the beginning. Ernie was born into a pioneering family, living in an isolated Victorian rural community, when he was eleven years old he’d never seen a bicycle before … then one came rolling along the road, Ernie’s destiny had arrived.
“One memorable day I was on the road in front of our house when I saw a bright flash of sunlight on something new and strange coming along the road. Soon a man appeared in the road about half a mile away, with no visible support under him. As he turned a little this way and that, there came the same bright flashes which I had first noticed. He came swiftly nearer and soon I was able to see that he was riding on a tall, graceful wheel with a little one trailing behind. Soon the rider reached the house, swung down from his high seat and asked me for a drink of water which I hastened to get.
We all gathered round and saw the first bicycle to come into our district. We had only seen pictures of men riding these strange machines hitherto, but now there was one right at our door. We all admired it’s light rubber tyres and the glittering frame of nickel-plated steel. …. Here were wheels with bright steel rims, thin wire spokes and soft rubber tyres. They turned silently on ball bearings with undreamed of ease.”
Ernie’s next experience with bicycles came when he was fifteen in 1889. A farm worker employed on the Old family farm at Dingee taught Ernie to ride on a penny farthing, Ernie badgered his father until Ernie had his very own bike to ride. The same year Ernie was given his first gun, a muzzle loader. By the time Ernie was twenty two in 1896, the family owned some land near Swan Hill and he’d moved there to work the new farm with his brother Frank. Together the brothers built a four lap to the mile cycle track to train on. This was the other type of Australian country cycle track, the home made version, John Bange had one on his farm too, at Aviadell in Queensland. Ernie put the new wave of enthusiasm for bicycles down to improvements made with the pneumatic tyre. Next, Ernie and Frank together bought a brand new Humber to share whenever they raced at Swan Hill or other country cycling tracks. Ernie quickly became proficient at winning two mile handicap races, employing his favourite tactic in the last lap of every race. “I specialised in this by practising a long rush, starting about 50 yards before the bell on the last lap. Thus I always got the lead at the bell so had a clear track and inside running for the last lap. The other riders usually thought I would not sustain that pace for the whole lap, so did not go after me quite soon enough.”
In 1901, aged 27 Ernie thought he’d get into road road racing and entered for his first 165 mile (265 km) Warrnambool to Melbourne road race. Note : (If you’re familiar with the course being Melbourne to Warrnambool, it was run in the opposite direction from 1895 until 1938. The first edition from Melbourne to Warrnambool was run in 1939 “Held for the first time in the opposite direction i:e from Melbourne to Warrnambool, as a compliment to the citizens of Warrnambool, who, this year, are celebrating their city’s centenary. The first Warrnambool dates back to 1895.”Huon and Derwent Times (Tas. : 1933 - 1942), Thursday 5 October 1939, page 2. Times recorded in the late 1930’s when roads had been improved were around seven hours and forty minutes for the 265 km, back in 1901 the time to complete the course was around nine hours and twenty minutes.
Ernie didn’t just front up at the start line at Warrnambool in a motor car, like many he rode from his home, in Ernie's case from near Swan Hill. First to Melbourne, he stayed there for a couple of nights then rode to Warrnambool ready for the return journey wearing a race number. The field back then consisted of all types, there was even a pipe smoking shearer who’d entered. Ernie wrote “One of our party was an elderly shearer, who rode his cycle from shed to shed. He liked to sit down and smoke a pipe every 40 miles or so, and said ‘I’ll have to sit down to smoke two or three pipes in the race’.” This was right in the middle of the bicycle riding shearer boom. Shearers who rode the entire length and breadth of the continent on purpose built shearer bicycles, following remote camel tracks, traversing deserts and plains, along dusty stony roads looking for back breaking work in Australia’s shearing sheds. Ernie’s first hand account confirming the shearer’s love of sports and bicycle racing in particular.
The experience of the early Australian road racer is a far cry from the tarmac surfaced roads and team car scene we know today, Ernie recalled his Warrnambool experience, “I was riding over a stony patch when a sharp stone cut through my back tyre and tube. I had to repair it at the roadside in the rain, which took some time….. This was in 1901 when the roads were not at all like the race track surfaces we have now…….Light rain was falling for the first 50 miles, so I adjusted my chain a little slack to allow for mud … the weather cleared, my chain now dried out and was too slack. Presently it jumped off, so I had to get out my tool kit and re-adjust it …. Near Werribee the cranks worked loose, I had to stop and re adjust them, a ten minute job …… I got going again just as Jack Arnst and two other scratch men came along … but only three could pace one another as there were no bitumen roads then, but only three tracks, the two wheel lines and the horse path in the centre. The fourth rider has to ride out in the wind, so is soon left behind.”
Ernie reached his mid fifties when the Great Depression began, during these hard times he didn’t just sit about. He’d been a digger in the Gallipoli trenches so got his old Light Horse mates together again. “I still had my horse, and set about recruiting our Light Horse troop, which the war had broken up. We soon had another good troop, and in a few weeks were fully equipped and enjoying our drills and camps again.” At the same time Ernie invented his patented steering stabiliser and rode up to a hundred miles on his bicycle fitting two or three stabilisers per day. Not one for getting things done in half measures, as well as organising the light horse reunion and delivering his blacksmiths shop production from his bicycle, Ernie decided to enter the Warrnambool to Melbourne road race, in his late fifties he was still riding the race within a nine hour time limit for the 265 km distance and repeated this feat a total of ten times the last when he was in his early 70’s. In his last start Ernie was also one of only 76 to finish within the time limit, out of 320 starters.
To prove to the organisers of the Warrnambool to Melbourne, who had rejected his entry money, that Ernie still had what it took to compete in the race aged 73, he took up an offer from his first cycling club, Swan Hill. The Swan Hill club invited Ernie to ride the same distance of 165 miles as the Warrnambool, Ernie’s ride was to be timed. He took up the club’s offer but instead rode 225 miles (362 kilometres) in fifteen and a half hours. Proving that a seventy three year old “would have come through the ‘Warrnambool’ without injury.”
Ernie’s usual routine for training when not on his long distance rides was to cover about twenty miles per day (32km), preferring to ride himself into fitness while covering thousands of kilometres.
In 1945 aged seventy one Ernie “lit out” for Sydney and nine days later returned to his job in a Melbourne ordinance factory, where his co-workers took some time off for speeches and a cake cutting to celebrate Ernie’s 1,828 km adventure. Ernie soon became a national celebrity. When Ernie completed his 9,656 km ride to Adelaide, Darwin, Brisbane and return to Melbourne in 62 days, there were 75,000 people waiting to greet him at the Melbourne Showgrounds.
At the end of his record rides many of Australia’s great long distance riders would meet Ernie and ride into town with him. Riders like HubertOpperman, Ossie Nicholson and Elsa Barbour.
There was nothing new about riding bicycles across Australia’s boundless inland roads, the shearers had traversed every country trail, decades before Ernie. What Ernie added was a public face and the ethos that anyone who was getting on in their years could still get out and enjoy the benefits of the outdoors.
One of Ernie’s tricks for covering vast distances was borrowed from riders like Ossie Nicholson. Back in the 1930’s when record breaking cycling, over vast distances was a favoured aspect of cycle sport, riders like cyclist Valda Unthank discovered that little or no sleep equalled more miles. Ernie’s rides began at the break of dawn and always ended sometime between 9.00 and 11.00 pm. Riding into the night on rough country roads relying on just the light from a dynamo powered headlight. One of Ernie’s rides that stood out to me was when he rode from Sydney to Brisbane aged 71, he covered the distance of 428 km from Scone in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, over the hilly ranges of the New England Tablelands to Tenterfield, in one day. His story begins the night before, “Made up my couch under a spreading pepper tree on the roadside … woke up as dawn was faintly glowing in the east and went on my way. I went on to Tenterfield that day. I enjoyed the ride past the green hills with thick timber right up to the tops. Stayed the night at Tenterfield.”Anyone who knows the road from Scone to Tenterfield will know it would make you tired driving that road in a modern car!
Ernie’s life, first as a child in a pioneer family and then as a veteran of the Gallipoli trenches, afforded him the necessary experience to deal life in the unending open spaces of the Australian outdoors. A place where Ernie for days at a time had only his bicycle for company. He enjoyed camping out under the stars in a bed of leaves. One night upon arriving in Ballarat at 11 p.m, Ernie passed on the offer of a room and slept the night in a car, remarking that it “was better than a stuffy room.” A few days later Ernie slept outdoors on a friends lawn, “I had arranged with my friends that I could sleep on the lawn as the weather was very hot….I woke up in the cool dawn and was soon on my way.”
Luggage carried on Ernie’s bicycle weighed between fifteen to twenty kilograms, depending on which bike ride he was undertaking.
He’d strap two army ground sheets to his bike and carry about 8kg in his back pack, with one change of clothing, a rain cape, shaving gear and a bike repair kit. At times he’d carry a spare tyre and tubes. Later on Ernie carried copies of By Bread Alone in the bags to give away to admirers. When Ernie was asked about trouser clips to hold his trousers to his ankles to stop them from getting caught in his chain, he answered “Don’t wear ‘em, no unnecessary luggage.”
Ernie was described as being “As strong as a whipcord, the Peter Pan of Cycling, and a tall wiry, sun tanned man.” One time he told a reporter that, “Life has been one big laugh and a man is as old as he feels.” Wearing a hat, long trousers, long socks, a long sleeved button up shirt and a Malvern Star wool pullover, cycling for entire days and into the night would have been a sweaty affair under the Australian sun. In his later years Ernie had a job as assistant green keeper at Box Hill Golf Club, when he returned home from his marathon rides he’d be back at work the next morning. He was still riding until a couple of years before his 88th birthday, when in 1962 he passed away suffering a heart attack.
The bicycle which Ernie rode is now held in the National Museum. Ernie’s family had donated his Malvern Star to the Bicycle Museum in Canberra. When the Bicycle Museum closed, Ernie’s bike was acquired by the National Museum. Ernie’s Malvern Star bicycle was seen as being the only significant bicycle from the Bicycle Museum collection, with the owner’s story worthy of continued national recognition. Ernie’s Malvern Star two star Semi Racer, now has 3 speed Sturmey Archer gears fitted. When Ernie completed his long distance rides his Malvern Star was fitted with Cyclo three or four speed gears. Additionally the bike is kitted out with white mudguards, a dynamo powered light, painted in traditional indian red with a blue head tube, has a rear rack, and “Sid Patterson” engraved into the head badge. Ernie was sponsored by Bruce Small and Co, whenever he visited capital cities the local Malvern Star representatives were there to greet him. On Ernie’s 1946 ride from Melbourne to Adelaide he was on a Malvern Star selected by Hubert “Oppy” Opperman. “Oppy himself selected the Malvern Start bicycle used, which has three variable gears.”
Ernie Old's feats on a bicycle over Australia's unrelenting land, at an advanced age, makes rides like L'Eroica look easy by comparison. Completed at a time of life when others would have been relegated to a nursing home. Enduring blazing heat, windstorms, floods, road blocks, rain and storms, repairing stone ripped tyres and tubes, with up to forty punctures on one stretch of the Nullarbor. Ernie even went without food and water for two days on his way to Perth on the western edge of the Nullarbor. None of this deterred Ernie Old from enjoying his journey through Australia …. “old, (bush) that one loves to come here to lounge and dream. The soft-toned Australian bushland with it’s grey-green smokey-tinted foliage …. misty rustling woods and pale sky.” ……….. Reading Ernie’s book you get a sense that he’d rather be nowhere else than camping out with his bicycle, lost in the middle of nowhere, in a country where he imagined that … Time means nothing here.