I had a wonderful time at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last week with Emma Ayres, Tom Doig and Greg Foyster, notably all long distance touring aficionados. Coincidentally, so is the MWF’s director, Lisa Dempster, who rode across the Nullarbor on her Surly. Whilst I’ve done long rides, I’ve never done so without ending back at my house, with my shower, comfortable bed and fridge stocked with carbohydrates. I can’t imagine hammering through a full century with no consolation at the end, other than a sunburnt Tom Doig and a can of catfood.
If you’ve read Emma, Tom and Greg’s book, something to keep an eagle eye out for is Ernie Old’s By Bread Alone. It’s been out of print for several decades now, but it’s worth the reward if you can track it down. In his youth, Old had been a reasonably successful competitive cyclists, finishing fourth and eighth in Warrnambool-Melbourne. His autobiography, published in 1950, captured a rather different portion of his career.
After enlisting for both the Boer War and the First World War, he tried to sign up when World War Two broke out, but was rejected on the grounds that he was too old. To be fair, he was in his mid-Sixties. As a consolation, at the age of 71, he made a 1828km ride from Melbourne to Sydney in a mere nine days. The next year he did a round trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, followed by a 4025km trip from Melbourne to Brisbane. Next, he rode a 9650km circle from Melbourne to Darwin and back, via Adelaide, Mount Isa, Brisbane and Sydney. In 1948, aged seventy, he rode from Melbourne to Perth and back, unsupported and sleeping by the roadside each night.
His autobiography was published in 1950 when he was 76 and had just returned from Perth. He recalls being paced back in to Melbourne by Russell Mockridge:
In the morning it was arranged that Olympic cyclist Rus Mockridge, a fine Geelong boy, pilot me a few miles out of Geelong. I was then to ride to Werribee, where another escort would meet me to pilot me to the finish. Unfortunately, a cold, steady rain set in as we were leaving Geelong. So I sent Mockridge back, not wanting to see him take any risks on a severe cold before leaving for the Games.
He concludes the book by declaring, “I resolve to visit the wonderland of America (whilst still young and strong enough to ride from San Francisco to New York), as I cannot expect to cover the ground more than another 30 or 40 years.”
Unfortunately he never made it to the US. Instead, aged 85, he rode from Melbourne to Uluru, and then did a trip across Tasmania. He died in 1962, and was still riding up until 1960.
His autobiography is an interesting piece of Australian history unto itself, but also a rare first hand account of the development of the bike. He reminisces about 1896, “when pneumatic cycle tyres had come into general use”. My favourite part of the book is his first memory of seeing a bicycle, at the age of twelve in 1886:
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 sudden bright flashes which I had first noticed. He came swiftly nearer and soon I was able to see that he was riding 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.
I saw at once its possibilities, the races we could have, the speeds we would attain. Boy-like I at once began to see visions and dream dreams…
It’s a wonderful book, albeit hard to track down. My copy, picked up in a secondhand store in Adelaide, is signed by Ernie Old himself, aged 83.