This story was first published in The Big Issue, in July 2010. Back then it was titled My Father’s Bicycle.
Dad’s leather bike helmet hung in the garage, along with his boxing gloves, above the table-tennis table, the paint-tins, the jars of nails and all the other bits and pieces that accumulate in a garage.
It was a light brown helmet, with tufts of grey stuffing poking from the splits in the sausage-like tubes of old leather. There was a thin strap to go under the chin and a small, rusted buckle. By the time I noticed the helmet in the garage, in the early 1970s, it probably hadn’t been used for more than 20 years.
I can recall my father’s helmet, but not his racing bike. That was before my time. Before any of the six children, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s; when bikes were heavy and slow and you needed muscles more than gears to really get moving. No fancy lightweight frames then. No bikes with more gears than you could ever use.
My father, I have come to learn, was an amateur racing cyclist, on track and on road. Family lore had it that he might once have ridden the Melbourne to Warrnambool bike race, a journey of 260 kilometres. Not so, a mate of Dad’s told me recently.
“Ron rode the Hamilton to Cavendish and return race,” says Reg Hockey, who first met my father in 1949 when they were young bank clerks in the western Victoria town of Hamilton. “The race started at the Caledonian Hotel and finished at Cavendish, about 14 miles away.” As Reg reminisces, I calculate 14 miles to be around 24 kilometres. So Cavendish and back would be close to 50km. Not quite the Melbourne to Warrnambool.
“Your dad also rode the two-day Hamilton to Portland return race, which included intermediate sprints,” Reg continues. A round trip of 164km along the Henty Highway. ‘The race started at the Commercial Hotel and some cyclists, if they were getting too tired before Portland, would stop at the Green Hill Hotel for an ale or two, in Condah.” Did Dad stop at Condah? Reg grins.
So Dad was just a plodder on the bike, not a bit of a gun? Reg chooses his words playfully. “He always had a liberal handicap, you could say. And he had a few gravel rash scars from time to time. On his backside and on his arms.”
How liberal was the handicap? I ask. “Oh, well,” says Reg, smiling again. “It might have been up to 45 minutes head-start.”
Evidently Dad was no Cadel Evans. Or Lance Armstrong. Not that he ever claimed to be anything of the sort. I don’t recall him ever talking about his cycling. Some things matter more to the sons than to their fathers.
Reg also tells me that my dad did some track-racing. “There was a gravel track around the footy ground at the Friendly Society Oval in Hamilton. If the football was on, there would be races in between the quarters. In horse-racing terms, your father never left the rails. He always finished in the pack.”
Dad’s life-long passion was horse-racing. His father had been a horse trainer and Dad part-owned a few horses that galloped around country tracks, never leaving the rails. By day, Dad earned a living running a TAB. (“I’ve raised a family of six on the weaknesses of others,” he once said, with neither pride nor pity.)
He came back to cycling much later in life. Not on the modest scale of his youth, but cycling nevertheless. In the late 1980s my parents retired to a beach-house at Moggs Creek, between Anglesea and Lorne on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. There, Dad used an old knockabout re-built bike to get him 600 metres down to the beach and around to the neighbours in local streets. The bike was called a ‘Commuter 2200’ – a very futuristic name, given that it was probably made in the 1970s.
“I think your dad might have got that bike from the Anglesea tip,” says John Dangerfield, a Moggs Creek mate. The Moggs Creek neighbours knew my father for many things – his friendliness, his garden, his alone-ness after Mum died. And they knew him for his bike and helmets. (The old brown leather helmet had long disappeared – probably in the big shift from family home to beach-house.)
“He seemed to have had that bike forever, though it might have only been for 10 years,” says John. “It had no suspension, no gears, no hand-brakes… And your dad wore the worst helmets. They were like buckets, those noggin-protectors. They were shockers.”
Dad fashioned a seat stem of quite some height, even though he was not a tall man. He would sit up high in the saddle, his arms easily reaching the ‘angel-wing’ handle-bars, and then roll down the gravel road; perhaps recalling much longer rides from the distant past, perhaps remembering a youthful life of sport and energy before the responsibilities of family and work; perhaps remembering Reg and his other Hamilton mates.
“We always knew when your dad was down at the beach because he always left his bike in the same place, leaning up against a pole near the ocean road,” John recalls. “That bike made us laugh. It makes me laugh now, just thinking about it.”
When the bike was stolen my father was more puzzled than upset. “He’d left it in its usual spot,” remembers Robert Haines, another mate, “and when he came back from the beach it was gone. He wondered who would bother to take it. A few weeks later he saw the bike leaning up against the fish-and-chip shop in Aireys Inlet. The shop owner reckoned he’d only borrowed the bike. Borrowed, my arse,” Robert concludes.
The bike was almost stolen again last summer, in as much as something mistaken for rubbish can be stolen. My 12-year-old son, Reuben, and I had ridden down to the beach and left our two bikes by some bushes, near where Dad used to leave the bike. Packing up our towels and boogie boards after an hour or two in the sunshine we walked across the sand towards the Great Ocean Road. And there were two young blokes in their early 20s, riding our bikes across the road and onto the beach.
My son and I intercepted the duo on the narrow path beside the creek. “The bikes,” I said. “They’re ours, thank you.” The two men were a bit abashed. “We thought they’d been abandoned,” one said.
The bikes at the beach-house have multiplied since Dad died, 10 years ago. There’s a pink women’s metro bike with one good derailleur (at the back), a kid’s foot-brake bike from the early 1980s and a purple mountain bike with plenty of gears – it’s great for taking the back roads to Aireys Inlet. A mate of Dad’s saw me on this bike once and joked that my father would not have been impressed by such a fancy machine.
There was no coffin at my father’s funeral. He had been cremated in the morning, so, at the afternoon service, we had a display – family photographs, a few golf balls, some horse-racing memorabilia, several bottle of home-brew. Just some of the bits and pieces that a life accumulates over 70 years.
And there, leaning up against the trestle-table of memories, was the blue Commuter 2200.