Cycling History

Never tell a gentleman he is too old: Ernie Old and his Malvern Star, by Robert Horvat

Today’s post comes courtesy of my friend Robert Horvat, a fellow cycling enthusiast, wine lover, and history buff from Melbourne, Australia. Robert writes two very interesting blogs, the eclectic and thoroughly enjoyable If It Happened Yesterday It’s History, and his site dedicated to The History of the Byzantine Empire. Here he tells us about the inspirational life of Ernie Old, veteran of the Boer War, Gallipoli and the Western Front, and marathon endurance cyclist. Over to you Robert.

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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.

Ernie Old, aged 73, at the Melbourne showgrounds in 1947, finishing a 4000-kilometre ride to Brisbane and back.

Ernie Old, aged 73, at the Melbourne showgrounds in 1947, finishing a 4000-kilometre ride to Brisbane and back.

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.

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.

ErnieOldMalvernStar

Ernie Old’s Malvern Star at the National Museum of Australia in Canberrra. Photograph Robert Horvat , January 8th 2015

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Photo credits: The photograph of Ernie Old’s Malvern Star was taken by Robert Horvat at the National Museum of Australia in Canberrra, January 8th 2015. The image of Ernie Old in his Australian 13th Lighthorse uniform in the Anzac march of 1956 is by flickr user State Library Victoria Collections and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. The image of Ernie Old riding his Malvern Star is courtesy of the National Museum of Australia. I make use of this photograph under their terms of use for non-commercial educational purposes.

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8 comments on “Never tell a gentleman he is too old: Ernie Old and his Malvern Star, by Robert Horvat

  1. roberthorvat
    February 26, 2015
    • Jenny Newcastle (facebook)
      April 25, 2015

      Thanks Robert,,, I have followed this tale of Ernie. He was related to me… I am uncertain, but he referred to my grandfather as ” brother” in the autographed biography I have. They had different surnames, but I think the mother was widowed and remarried.
      He was a remarkable man, considering the nation in the era.
      I would love to learn more if you find it. . Particularly the personal side of him. As I read the biography, it raised many questions in that respect…
      I do hope to go to the Bendigo district some day and see if there is anything extra I can find.
      I can’t help but wonder whether “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” – Mulga BIll from Eaglehawk (Bendigo and Blackwood district) written in 1896 was any influence. Ernie was 22 when that poem was written.
      We see the movie Forrest Gump, a man who depicted all manner of historic changes in life is USA… Well, Ernie Old ( coincidentally had a relative also called Forrest ) must be Australia’s Forrest Gump. He was there for all manner of monumental events in Australia’s history.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Louisa May Alcatt
    February 26, 2015

    loved this piece, Robert, MAD bought me a bicycle for Christmas and we are going to do long distance rides together, once the snow clears, xo LMA

    Like

  3. Louisa May Alcatt
    February 26, 2015

    I especially liked how Ernie would not allow himself to be too old. loved it in fact, xo, LMA

    Like

  4. aaroncripps
    February 26, 2015

    Thanks again to Robert for an enjoyable read. Ernie is a reminder to us all that cycling is a fantastic way of staying fit and active in later life. I’ll hit 46 later this year and Ernie has got me thinking what bike I’d like to be riding when I retire. A modern steel framed, beautifully lugged machine with a Sturmey-Archer triple speed hub much like his Malvern Star would be just the ticket.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. historywithatwist
    February 27, 2015

    Great piece Rob. What a man Ernie was – a true inspiration to us all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gregoryno6
    June 3, 2016

    Ernie’s ride from Melbourne to Perth took place in 1948. We barely had a road across the country then! Most of the way it was just dirt track.
    An incredible achievement.

    Like

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