Arthur Dows, old school lessons on a fixed wheel.
Every cycling community has tucked away, in it’s collective memory, overblown stories of iconic characters who’ve made their own peculiar and indelible impression.
Tailor made for the Brisbane cycling scene and forever imbued with the living spirit of 1930’s Australian bicycle racing was Arthur Dows. Arthur was well known as a “trainer and masseur”, he wasn’t shy of backing himself in a brawl, had a keen focus on sports including boxing, running and his favourite, bicycle sports. This was part of the Australian sporting style throughout the twentieth century, before television, sports were all. Arthur was the quintessential old school teller of tall tales, especially when it came to the exploits of Australian cycling icons and races remembered from his era.
Held in Arthur’s possession for most of his life, was a collection of cycling ephemera including multiple issues of 1930’s British cycling magazines. Each of these British cycling magazines contains Arthur’s hand written scrawls, including comments like “hard-man”, and critiques of many of the British riders positions on the bike. Arthur extended his enthusiasm to studying the English nutrition, training, racing, tactics you name it, these magazines were like Arthur’s encyclopaedia of the bike. They remain complete with authentic hand written words like “Sidney” for Sydney and “Buney” for Bundaberg.
The classic quote, written here with Arthur’s own unique spelling, is from a note that Arthur wrote in 1931 at his home in Ross Street Paddington, Queensland. The last line, BOC . CH = Block Chain the old one inch pitch, on the dirt this would have been a gruelling affair. I found one of Arthur’s old gear charts that he’d held onto, from “Master Sports Cycles” and 50 x 16 is a correct match. (Thanks to Whip for clarifying that one.)
“A. DOW – ROSS.ST PADDINGTON. 1931. X THE . GOOD . OLD . DAYS . WHEN . MEN . WEHR . MEN .
BUNEY + BACK
ROCKEY + BACK
MOREY + BACK
NSW SIDNEY + BACK
MOSTLEY . DIRT RODES .
FIX . WHEELS .
BOC . CH” Sic.
Obviously Arthur saw himself as a hard-man modelled on the heroes of his era, who included not only Australian cycling legends but the best of the British.
Arthur Dows started racing in about 1928, so Arthur had written this account of his 1931 epic rides when he was nineteen years of age. Put this in perspective, most of these rides are in the realm of a thousand kilometres each way, on a fixed wheel on rough dirt roads. That was the way back then, it was the era of the Australian record breakers, legends like Hubert Opperman, Ossie Nicholson and Valda Unthank were creating long distance records nearly every other week. The everyman cyclist like Arthur was up for a bit of long distance dirt action himself.
On Saturday the second of December 1939, Arthur attended a huge race meet at Lang Park cycling track, the same venue that is today more well known as a football arena. The history of Lang Park as a cycling venue began in 1932 when it was mooted by the Brisbane city council to demolish Brisbane’s international board track. The new board track that’s planned for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and to be built at Chandler in Brisbane is not the first one ever built in this city, it will actually be the second Brisbane board track. The original “Brisbane Velodrome“ board track was opened at Alexandra Park in Fortitude Valley on September the fifteenth 1929 and closed due to high operating costs in 1933. The Great Depression of the 1930’s had hit hard. In 1934 grass track racing was held at Lang Park and by February 1937 the Australian championships were held there. “The Australian amateur cycling championships will begin in Brisbane tonight …… Brisbane has no first-class track, and the races will be contested on grass at Lang Park.” By the late 1940’s Lang Park cycling track had finally been completed as a dirt track, just the way it had been planned as a 1933 replacement for the Brisbane board track Velodrome.
Arthur’s dog eared programme of the 1939 grass track race meet gives us a snapshot of cycling life in Brisbane during that period and provides this little gem.
“A well-known cyclist has suggested that when Q.A.C.U (Queensland Amateur Cyclists Union) handicappers make appearances in public they should wear bullet proof vests.”
Kangaroo Point cycling club conducted the meeting, there was a grand parade and racers won sashes as part of their prizes. For the main event, a one mile handicap you could win “A canteen of cutlery.” Arthur was off a 100 yard handicap and finished second in his heat. The back page has an advertisement for Austral cycles and Valda Unthank’s world record for one week of continuous cycling, then there’s adverts there for Bob Todd’s “Local Cycles“, Tom Wallace Cycles and Arrow Cycle Works, plus Jack Pesch of Rocket Cycles was racing that day.
Lang Park of that era was surrounded by a few gum trees, a traditional picket fence which was almost swallowed by swathes of tall weeds and some dirt track access points. It was more like a country cricket pitch in remote outback Australia than the mega 52,500 seating capacity, “Suncorp” stadium that we know today. Arthur’s mates who became local legends included names like Steve Pye, Tiny Pye, Mick Wilkinson, Geoff Rinn, Ray Meredith, Bob Todd the owner of Local Cycles and Harry Clayton the Australian road champion.
Later in life Arthur mentored young cyclists like Joe Cosgrove and Mark Brink. When Arthur passed away Joe became the holder of Arthur’s 1930’s British magazines, some race sashes which Arthur had kept and had originally been won by Harry Clayton. Plus Joe has Arthur’s really neat programme of the Lang Park Velodrome race meet.
There are many stories circulating about Arthur Dows and his ninety seven years of life, he passed away in 2009. If you have a story about Arthur, please leave a comment below. Here’s Joe Cosgrove’s impressions of a life lived, hard! Read on to see how hard Arthur really was.
Joe how did you get to know Arthur?
The first time I met Arthur I was riding out to Pinkenba on my own, about 1968. I was riding a bike that I’d inherited from my brother. Two bike riders came past me and it was Arthur and another local club racer. I just hooked in behind them and rode along. We got to the Pinkenba Hotel and this guy got a slow leak, so we stopped to change it, the old single (tubular) got chucked up into a tree. Next we’ve headed back and they were off to Caboolture, I was only a kid and had never ridden that far in my life. There was Arthur riding his Dellamatra and this other guy with a beautiful old road racing bike. This first meeting made an impression on me. The next time I met Arthur was at Hawthorne Park velodrome one Sunday after, at an open carnival bike race.
Arthur mentored you in bike racing, by all accounts he was a very generous man, full of advice.
Arthur would usually go training on his own or train with his other racing mates, he’d always ride with a musette draped over his back and sometimes rode in a pair of bermuda shorts. When Arthur got to the velodrome he’d stick his normal pants over his knicks and sit there and watch all the bike races. Arthur knew everyone at Hawthorne Park velodrome, just because we knew Arthur was how we got to know everyone else who raced. The seating back then was very rudimentary, just a lot of heavy timber planks. There were a couple of other young blokes who I got to know from hanging about Tom Wallace’s bike shop. So we’d always gravitate over to wherever Arthur sat, he was like a story teller of tall tales and true about everything to do with bike racing, and as kids we couldn’t get enough of it. Track racing was always conducted in the summer, whenever my mates and myself went to Hawthorne Park for an open carnival we’d be looking for Arthur and we’d get really disappointed if he wasn’t there. It was an impressive thing to know Arthur, for a bunch of young bike riders who were interested in bicycles, bike riding and racing. I used to go there to watch the bikes go round, the races and to listen to Arthur, it was a great entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.
You said that Arthur had started bike racing in about 1929?
It was 1928 I think, he was born in 1912.
So Arthur was a dirt road riding hard-man, did he ever talk about his road racing days?
He competed in races like the Dunlop 100 miler, different open road races, place to place races some on dirt roads. He was a competitive type of person. Arthur was usually a middle marker in handicaps, he never won any championship titles or anything. He was always maintaining an interest in cycle sport, he also spent a lot of time around foot runners and Arthur talked a lot about the railway institution. He had a style all of his own, if anyone went up to Arthur and said, “what are you training for”, he’d typically reply .. “training for sex”.
What was the railway institution?
It was a boxing gymnasium in the city, I think it was near central railway station. Arthur hung out a lot there. They must have trained in boxing, but Arthur had more to do with runners, but his heart was in bikes.
He was a street fighter then, I’d heard he’d sit about a pub until it was on?
Yep he was a street fighter. He’d be out riding and drop into a pub for a beer say on a Saturday afternoon, dressed in his cycling gear. He wasn’t exactly looking for a fight, but if anyone challenged him, say because he was dressed that way, he’d certainly back himself. You know what old school pubs were like with wharfies and the weekend punters. Arthur had the scars to prove it to the would be punter, that he’d been a street fighter …. apparently one punter got a broken arm out of a fight with Arthur. The guy had some complications with his arm and it got back to Arthur that the guy had been whinging about it while he was in hospital, so when this bloke got out of hospital Arthur was there waiting and made sure he touched him up again.
Arthur used to come back to my place after a bike race and he’d talk to my father, they’d talk about the old days. My dad had nothing to do with bikes, but they’d talk about rugby league matches where spectators were very involved in the outcomes of a game. If the match didn’t result in a win for their side they’d be very upset about it and they’d fight. There was mention of pulling palings off fences and guns, both were used. Arthur always talked about the different Brisbane suburbs being different territories. If you came from Paddington and a known local female went out with a male from the wrong suburb, the local males wouldn’t like it.
Arthur came from a big family, the place I knew they lived in was on the corner of Ottis Lane and View Street Paddington. Apparently his dad had hands equal to the size of two hands of a normal person. Once his dad picked up a police vehicle and rolled it over on his own. The Telegraph newspaper in it’s last years published an article on the different Brisbane territories of suburbs like Paddington, the Dows family were mentioned in this article. It wasn’t bullshit!
So there was always potential for conflict and Brisbane wasn’t the sort of town as we know it today? For example I found an article from the 1930’s where Arthur’s brother Stephen was involved in a brawl and charged with having created a disturbance.
I’d never observed Arthur involved in this sort of activity, but I’d heard it from other people. If something went wrong in a relationship they’d go the biff and someone would get a clout. Pubs were a more social sort of focal point, mix in a bit of alcohol with a bit of misunderstanding and it was on.
John Whip spoke about when he was a teenager at Hawthorne Park velodrome in the 1950’s and he used to be a runner for the bookies.
I remember at Hawthorne Park on a Sunday afternoon, even in the early seventies the bookies were there. They were on the other side of the press box behind the finish line. They were taxi drivers, they’d show up when the taxis were quiet, if anyone wanted to place a bet, the taxi drivers would give you odds. It was a bit amateur there was no bookie bag, it was highly illegal and on the quiet. Ten years earlier, my brother raced in the scene, back then there were a lot more riders and spectators so the betting scene was much larger. You had to be in the know though, if someone wanted to bet on cockroaches or a bike race it didn’t matter.
That was Australia throughout the twentieth century, especially up to the advent of television, entertainment.
Well the big thing was no tax got paid. It was accessible back then, it contributed to the atmosphere at sporting events like bike races. Arthur knew all the established bike riders and people who knew him knew that he was a good masseur.
I’d heard about Arthur’s prowess as a masseur, it’s become legendary in Brisbane racing circles.
There’s always been a high turnover of competitors. So Arthur was known to be the go to man, racers would come up to him and say hey I’ve got a sore back or that sort of thing. Arthur would be out in the centre of the track at Hawthorne Park, he’d loosen them up, give them a massage. He’d give you a rub and then you’d be off in a race.
The keen bit that everyone remembers about Arthur is that he never advertised that he was a masseur. Yet riders would gravitate over to his house on a Wednesday night. That’s what we ultimately did through his encouragement.
A few people have told me that Arthur’s massage room had an atmosphere like no other.
To set the scene for you, Arthur had this rubbing board which was just suspended on two old worn saw horses, the floor was dirt and it was under his house. It was a rough bit of a makeshift room. Arthur had a board plastered with old black and white photographs of bike riders and bike races. The photo’s were aged from years of dirty fingerprints and the enthusiastic discussions that surrounded them. Arthur would pull them down and talk about the riders in them, then pin them back on the board. He had old Dunlop tyre advertisements, Malvern star adverts, and adverts with Oppy in them, they were probably forty years old even then. The room was legendary, it was as rough as guts. There was just one bare bulb hanging down for light, on one side was the rubbing board with an old vinyl cloth laid over it, a towel and an old pillow. Then there was this wooden bench, about a six inch wide hardwood plank. There might be two, three or four riders waiting on the bench for a rub. It was just like being at the barber shop, he’d give you a good thirty, forty minute rub. You’d be getting the same massage over and over, he was like a machine, for years it never changed, the exact same routine from start to finish. The thing was, the traditional nature of Aussie bike racing, it was in the family a family sport, so Arthur maintained that he’d learnt to rub because his mother had taught him, but not the way you’d think not from the bike riding tradition. Arthur’s family had owned greyhounds and his mother used to massage the dogs, they were where she learnt the tricks and passed them onto Arthur, massaging greyhounds.
So Joe did you sit up and bark after Arthur had finished his massage?
Ha, yeah sure, Arthur had very strong hands, it was just learnt from observation. He’d do this after a hard days work. You need strong hands and fingers to dig in and pull the muscle right off the bone and roll the muscle, knead it up, he’d rub to a defined rhythm.
You spoke about Arthur’s bikes and his very old school application of geometry and how bikes worked.
Arthur’s bikes were a Dellamatra and I even built him a bike when I first started out in the early 80’s. He was a funny guy when it came to bikes, he had all of these witch doctor type perceptions about racing bikes. I’d attempted to appease Arthur’s concerns. You’d put a bike in front of him and say Arthur, ‘whadya reckon would a bike with a lower bracket climb better and we’d discuss different angles etc?’ The frame that I built Arthur was made out of the cheapest Columbus tubes you could lay your hands on at the time. I’d built it in good faith and I reckon it was the one that replaced the Dellamatra.
It sounds like Arthur didn’t take too well to the bike you built him, that would leave him the odd man out with a Frezoni. Everyone else liked them.
Arthur never made any sort of discussion about this frame I’d built him, no ultimate yay or nay, he didn’t mention anything about how it had been built by this young bloke who he’d trained and who he’d taken to races and stuff and been built just the way he wanted it. ….. (Editors note : Joe shows me a photo of Arthur, taken in the 80’s, with a bike, it wasn’t the one Joe had built for Arthur) ……. As you can see in this photo that’s not the one I’d built him, he bought that from god knows who.
That photo there of his old FB holden, in the early 70’s that was the prime time when we were juniors, Arthur would take us to races down the coast, two day tours, the Hinterland Tour, that was the real Arthur a genuine guy, he’d run us about everywhere, without question. In 1972 as a run up to the national championships where the Olympic team was selected. We were trained by Arthur, like demons, to get into the Queensland team.
What sort of special techniques did Arthur use to “train you up like demons” techniques from the olden days?
Arthur’s attitude was hours in the saddle and miles in the legs. His underlying attitude to bike racing was to be a hard rider and an honest rider. If you won a bike race, it was much better to win it in a honest manner. What Arthur meant was that if you sat on the back and waited for a sprint, bludged off the back, that wasn’t an honest bike rider. We used to call ’em blokes who’d “suck on”. An honest bike rider was one who worked hard and say broke away and won from hard work at the front. Arthur had experienced blokes who’d suck on, that’s been the way of the history of bike riding, sprinters who’d just say well that’s just part of the tactics. This was opposed to hard bike riders who possibly didn’t have the ability to sprint at the finish because they rode hard all the way. This comes from the old handicap system where you had to ride hard to get to the finish and if there were people sitting on the back and they got carted up to the finish and thought it was within their right to contest the sprint, well in Arthur’s mind that was just not on! Arthur and his racing mates would run you straight into a guide post or right off the road if you were a wheel suck. That was just the tactics in general used during their day. So that’s where that comes from.
Back in 1931 at Ross Street Paddington, Arthur wrote an account of some major rides from Brisbane to Bundaberg, Sydney, Rockhampton and Moree on an 84 inch fixed gear and mostly as he wrote, on dirt roads. Some of these rides are more than a thousand kilometres each way. Now that’s a hardman! He also wrote “WHEN MEN WERE MEN!”
We’d marvel at the old articles in the cycling magazines that Arthur had collected, the magazines were all English bicycle magazines that Arthur had collected. Arthur studied the captions and the wide ranging racing activities in the UK back then, like the individual time trial scene. Australian cycling literature at the time would have been like an outback backwater bush scene, not the fast paced and highly attended British scene of the day. These British cycling magazines were special to Arthur, he kept them together as bound volumes until his final days.
It does look like Arthur was drawing some form of inspiration from these magazines, they are filled with Arthur’s hand written notes which appear to have been laid down even decades after the 1930’s. Stuff like, “real hardmen”.
Cycling was popular in Australia because it was a cheap form of transport. An indication for me was a neighbour who once lived nearby at Annerley, this guy wasn’t a bike racer but he lived in the same era as Arthur. My neighbour used to talk about a course that started at the Rocklea Pub, it ran around Sherwood Road, Oxley Road and Ipswich Road, they called it “The Boneyard Course”, …. a place where the bones of wild animals accumulate …. Arthur mentioned it too. They called it The Boneyard probably because it was really rough dirt and they used to race on it on a Saturday afternoon. This neighbour mentioned about Saturday afternoons, there’d be bikes parked up at the Rocklea Pub for the Boneyard Races and they’d be stacked ten deep, must have been a couple of hundred riders there. After the races they’d have a social gathering there at the pub, because races were conducted you know under a tree somewhere for a start and finish line.
That was a big field, the interest in cycling was so huge.
There could have been pro’s and amatuers, all and sundry in there. It was the 1930’s and it was the golden age of cycling, it was the Great Depression so cheap entertainment combined with low cost bicycles got you places. The scale and level of interest in the sport then was so huge, maybe if you were a middle marker didn’t mean that you weren’t a handy bike rider because the competition was really fierce.
This old programme of Arthur’s that we are looking at, from the 1939 Lang Park open carnival, held on the second of December, states that there’s a Grand Parade to be held before the race.
That was traditional for a race carnival. What they used to do, they had their club banner. After the warm up session, the clubs would congregate on the track and do a couple of laps all in their club colours and together with their club flag. It was just a standard programme for the day. It’s just like boxing tournaments used to be, the boxers would enter the ring, they’d have flags and then they’d be off. Society and the culture as primitive as it was, was very conservative and rather formal. These days you just turn up and race. Back then it was encouraged, the concept of a club was cultivated, it was huge. In Brisbane it wasn’t as strong as down south. Take clubs like Blackburn and Brunswick clubs in Melbourne and St George in Sydney, this related to which suburb you came from and your social standing in society. Also if you were in some obscure unknown club it made it more difficult to gain representation in state teams, the smaller clubs had very little political persuasion.
In the later years did Arthur keep riding?
Arthur rode as much as he could. In the later days, he moved to Woody Point after Paddington. The thing that stands out was once back in the sixties there was this Peanut Tour around Kingaroy. Apparently Mike Victor and Arthur went out on a 200 kay plus ride with Arthur in training for the Peanut Tour, this was not insignificant because that’s an example of how they trained back then. On a Sunday it could be over three hundred kays in a day. The best example of this was a ride that Arthur did with Ray Meredith, another Brisbane hard nut. Ray was the type of guy who could have been charged with assault at the end of a bike race one time, that’s well known. So Arthur’s out with Ray Meredith on their marathon Sunday ride and they’re coming back in Ipswich Road and they get to Darra. Arthur looks back and Ray’s bloodywell collapsed on the side of the road. Arthur’s gone back and Ray says ‘ring my wife Joycie to come and get me‘. So Arthur slings Ray up against a gum tree then finds the local phone box and rings Joyce. Ray lived at Sandgate on the opposite side of town, miles away. Arthur’s left Ray there and continued on home and reckoned that he saw Joyce coming the other way to pick up Ray. Arthur always maintained that Ray was the Queensland champion of the day and that Arthur had exhausted and worn out Ray on their marathon bike ride, Arthur was about fifty when it happened. Arthur could always ride all day at eighteen miles an hour but if you’d ramp it up a notch you’d drop him. On this particular day Ray must have just had a bad one. In later years Arthur would always bring this story up, you couldn’t see Arthur without him talking about the day of the marathon bike ride with Ray Meredith. Everything about racing and being around bike riders was always about the bikes, however inevitably he’d bring up this story about him and Ray in this marathon incident and how he left Ray on the side of the road.
The boneyard, the brawls, dirt racing tracks, fixed geared bikes on bumpy dirt roads, Arthur’s primitive massage room, the old steel bikes like Arthur’s Dellamatra, and a canteen of cutlery if you won a bike race. It was a different world in Australian cycling back then. Now there’s carbon fibre and embrocation, instead of steel and a rub, yet after more than eighty years Brisbane riders might finally get to race on a board track, once more!
Many thanks to Joe Cosgrove for once again sharing part of his seemingly bottomless pit of cycling ephemera.
Okay so maybe you knew Arthur, please share your tall tales in the comments.