Ernie Old, aged 73, at the Melbourne showgrounds in 1947, finishing a 4000-kilometre ride to Brisbane and back.
On a recent trip up to our nation’s capital, we visited the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. One of the wonderful displays that caught my attention was a 1946 ‘Sid Patterson’ Malvern Star. I love old bicycles and have a few in my own shed gathering cobwebs and dust, but nothing that compares to the story behind this bicycle. In 1956, a gentleman by the name of Ernie Old, was given the bicycle by the Malvern Star bicycle company, to assist him in his bicycling adventures across Australia. Ernie in his latter years had become a celebrity, who successfully crisscrossed the continent on bicycles, making his last long-distance ride in 1960 from Melbourne to Bendigo, on this actual bike at the age of 86.
What on earth is an 86-year-old man riding bicycles for around Australia ? I am half his age now and I am exhausted at the thought of riding down the street. As a bicycle enthusiast, I love all the grand tours especially the Tour De France and it was in my youth that I experienced something similar; what it would be like to ride a long distances over a period of days. As part of a high school cycling camp, we rode from Melbourne to Canberra, some 700 kilometres in 7 days. It was an amazing, yet awful experience, as we all battled fatigue, bad weather and never-ending roads. Decades later as I stood in the National Museum, reading Ernie Old’s accomplishments of his epic rides in the mid 1940’s and 50’s and as all those mixed feelings came back to me about my ‘epic’ ride; I became awe-struck by what Ernie had achieved. He rode distances of nearly 2,000 kilometres from Melbourne-Sydney-Melbourne in nine days in 1945 and Melbourne-Perth-Melbourne in a little over 7,000 kilometres in 62 days. These epic rides are only but two I have named here. He challenged himself to ride many more from Melbourne to every state capital, an amazing feat he succeeded in doing before his seventy-sixth birthday. Some may argue otherwise, but this was no silly old man, but an inspirational individual who taught us about the thrill of adventure and passion for a healthy lifestyle. He also championed bicycle in Australia and inspired others to believe in their abilities and succeed. (Although, not related to bicycling, an Australian potato farmer, Cliff Young, in 1983 won the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon at the age of 61. Surely, the thrill and proof of adventure and that age is no barrier, is no better evident than in both Ernie Old and Cliff Young.)
Ernie’s love for cycling first came to him in around 1896, after a memorable day when he witnessed a strange man race down the road and stop in front of him to ask for a drink of water. The young Ernie obliged the stranger and immediately fell in love with his machine. Old would later in life comment that “I saw at once its possibilities, the race we could have, the speed we would attain. Boy-like I at once began to see visions and dreams…” Ernie would have some various success as a competitive cyclists in the 1890’s in local races in Victoria, but these dreams would have to wait as Old would enlist as a soldier in the Boer War. On his return back to Australia, Ernie Old competed in the Warnambool to Melbourne road race in 1901 and 1904. His competitive nature and skill as a road racer saw him finish eighth and fourth respectively. However once again, Ernie’s racing days were put on hold as he enlisted into the Australian armed forces during the First World War.
Ernie Old in his Australian 13th Lighthorse uniform in the Anzac march of 1956.
Later in life, Ernie Old tried to re-enlist during the Second World War but was told he was too old. He used this as motivation to reacquaint himself with his bicycle to prove that you are never too old for anything. It was in 1945, that we first hear of Old’s fame as a long distance cyclist as he completed the Melbourne to Sydney and back to Melbourne ride in 9 days.
Some ten years later in 1956, Old offered his services to Prime Minister Robert Menzies to help promote the Melbourne Olympic Games, but was turned down because Menzies felt that to ride across the country on a bicycle would surely kill the aging veteran. Once again, Ernie Old took to his cycling to prove everyone wrong yet again. His personal crusade as an elder statesman to promote healthy exercise and living was nothing short of inspiration as cheering crowds often greeted him along the finish line of many of his last rides.
Ernie’s last great ride would be in 1960 and the end of an incredible life would close two years later in 1962 at the age of 88. His legacy would live on through the many stories told by community members across the country, who had witnessed his deeds on two wheels. His amazing two-wheeled machine would be donated to the Canberra Bicycle Museum in 1996. Later it would be relocated to the National Museum of Australia in 2010.
Ernie Old’s Malvern Star at the National Museum of Australia in Canberrra.