Four decades of cycling that's the number that ticked over for me this week. I’d never counted the few years before, when I'd ridden a burnt orange coloured Malvern Star dragster to school. Racing changed everything. Once I’d turned the pedals for nine miles in my first bicycle race there was no turning back, bikes have been part of my life ever since. The significant moment came on the fourth of January 1975. A race was organised for local kids and anyone in town with a bike could enter, from that race a new cycling club was formed and the Armidale Cycling Club is still going strong today.
For a couple of years before the race in January 1975 I had an idea that I wanted to buy a bicycle then head off on bicycle touring adventures through European mountains, how I came up with that concept I’ll never know. I worked holidays and weekends saving up the hundred and twenty dollars to buy a dark blue Malvern Star ten speed racer at Jock Bullen’s bicycle store. A racer, is what kids in our town used to call any bike that looked like it might go fast, and a bike like the Malvern Star that I’d bought had the latest gear for an Aussie country kid, double chainrings and five speed freewheel .. it was a “racer” for sure.
I was fourteen when I bought that bike, I never went touring because the day I picked up the bike, Jock from the Armidale Bicycle Centre said I should come to the bicycle race he’d organised for the following weekend. Within a couple of weeks of that race, I was competing in club races every Saturday and by March the “ten speed racer” had been stripped down and I was racing in road races all over northern New South Wales. Another few months went by and the Malvern Star was replaced first by a road frame that Jock built. The “Jock Bullen” bike doubled as a road racing and training bike, switching between a single speed freewheel and fixed gear. One bike for every purpose. For the track season, Jock built a track frame, probably from a Reynolds tubeset and I raced track using that frame for twenty years. I even used the same two wheel sets for many track seasons until 1995. One reason why the wheels lasted so long, I never crashed once on the track in two decades of training and racing.
City clubs in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane always had enough numbers to keep a continuous membership. In country towns of Australia things were different. For more than a hundred years many country cycling clubs were formed then disbanded then re-formed again. Armidale had it’s share of committees and wheelmen from the 1880’s onwards. Then came my club, in it’s first year known as the Armidale Police Citizens Boys’ Cycling Club. The club was headed by Jock Bullen, one of Australia’s great sprinters from the 1950’s and 60’s and Jock had previously won country cycling championships on the old Armidale racecourse cycling track. Jock also raced for the Newcastle Police Boys’ Amateur Cycling Club before he moved to Armidale in the early 1970’s. It was a logical step to involve our new cycling club with the Police Citizens Boys’ Club. Besides, that meant we had a van to travel to races and in the first year when we raced at the state road championships in Sydney, we stayed at a Police Citizens Boys Club and slept on the floor. On other occasions we’d be billeted out, a common practice back then. I remember at the Commonwealth Bank Classic in the 1980's, billeting was occasionally used as a form of accommodation, a novelty for the international riders and country town people alike.
Our fledgling rural Australian cycling club was unique. Almost everyone involved with the club, except for our coach Jock Bullen, was new to cycling, parents, the newly formed committee and the riders. There was no one left from the old 1960’s Armidale Cycling Club, some had moved on to other clubs or just left the sport. We had no velodrome. Like most previous generations of Armidale club riders we raced on out and back road courses. The bikes we began with were whatever we had at hand. Once club racing got under way in 1975, a few of the kids who were in that first race joined the newly formed cycling club and stayed. Anyone who was keen, soon became involved in regional and state level road and track racing. We were lucky to have Jock there to coach us and teach us how to race bikes.
When we raced track we would drive anywhere in New South Wales and into Queensland, racing on country and city tracks. Some flat bitumen tracks and others banked concrete velodromes. Armidale has a dirt track around the show grounds, which was used occasionally for racing throughout the twentieth century. The country tracks and velodromes of New South Wales were as varied as the road surfaces around Armidale. There had been a long history of track racing in Armidale, the town hadn’t always been without a track. In the early twentieth century racing was conducted around local sports grounds on the grass and gravel, the gravel surfaced show grounds and at a dedicated track at the racecourse which had a hard surface in the 1960’s. At least one carnival was organised around the dirt track at the show grounds in the late 1970’s.
At the beginning of 1975 Don Hudson gained notoriety amongst the other kids because he owned the only true racing bike in town, a semi racer bicycle equipped with a Campagnolo nuovo record groupset. Don knew more about racing bicycles than all the rest of us put together, he’d previously raced in Newcastle. The photographs of the start of the first race shows the assortment of kids bicycles that were getting around Armidale that year. Race categories were for dragsters, standards and ten speeds with a monster prize pool of $28.00, who could resist lining up. None of us could ever afford to buy complete Campagnolo groupsets like the one Don had.
Some of my early equipment included a set of Weinmann centre pull brakes, Sugino cranks, Fiamme rims, Zeus hubs and a special pair of track wheels were built with high flange Shimano Dura Ace hubs. For track racing in the juvenile category no singles / tubulars were allowed, so we raced on Australian made clincher tyres. Mitchell Sport tyres were manufactured by a dedicated tyre specialist who worked from his shed at home in Sydney, Mitchell Sport tyres had white walls, were lightweight and fast. You could order Mitchell Sports tyres by mail order.
Training around the New England tablelands of northern New South Wales is cycling paradise, that’s if you like the cold! A 1910 newspaper report in the Sydney Sunday Times, suggests that Armidale is "An ideal place for a cycling holiday". Elaborating that Armidale is situated in a "nest of hills". Cycling in a nest of hills can be challenging, anyone prepared to explore the formidable nest surrounding Armidale will be well rewarded with enough pain filled moments and bleak outlooks, that their New England cycling holiday will not be easily forgotten. Tourists travel there for the picturesque landscape, that’s one bonus, the other is the roads .. they’re as rough as guts and some are unpaved, corrugated, covered in sand drifts, “pick a plank” bridges and some remote roads are littered with cattle grids. When the pioneers gave some of these roads names like Long Swamp Road and Dog Trap Road, the road names described exactly what they saw or what the founding fathers experienced. One of my favourites is Platform road, it has corrugated gravel in sections and this unforgiving road dishes out liberal punishment to both bike and rider. Just the kind of roads that modern gravel grinding cyclists seek and ride. No need to head for the Tuscan sterrati or Belgian cobbles if you want a rough ride close to home. I periodically ride the roads around Armidale and nothing has changed. The same brutal road surfaces and picturesque countryside that I knew in the 1970’s. Then there’s the hills, it always seems like you’re riding uphill or along a false flat. The road surface isn’t that fast so downhills don’t have much appeal either. Add into the mix the out and back roads, if you can’t join up a loop over gravel or bitumen, there’s a chance on some days you’ll be riding into a headwind, strong enough to make it two hours out, one hour back! Notoriously on one gravel road near Armidale at the Tour of New England in the 1980’s, punctures claimed almost a hundred percent of the field. Some riders punctured twice or more and ran out of spares. That stage of the Tour of New England is still talked about today. You can take the local roads in two ways, use the easy undulating roads close to town. Alternatively mix it up and design training loops that take in difficult pavement sectors including plenty of elevation.
We trained after school, usually you’d ride about thirty or forty miles. In the freezing Armidale winter it was dark and sometimes pitch black, training along the rough bush roads. Later when I raced and trained in Switzerland, Armidale had prepared me well, though the Swiss cold occasionally revealed other freezing challenges. In Armidale the night training was well before we could access Wonder lights or anything more modern. Jock rigged up a piece of pipe for me that had two double sided pump clips to connect the pipe to the handlebar stem. On top of the pipe we mounted one of those huge dolphin torches, the type with a handle built in. The torch, pipe and pump clips were given extra holding power via a couple of toe straps. You’d spend most of the ride straightening up the torch after every bump in the road. Some nights my parents would drive out and find me on the homeward stretch and follow in the car, you could actually see the road then. There wasn’t a lot of money floating about to fund our racing, apart from Jock rigging up Dolphin torches as makeshift bicycle lights and building our bicycles he also made a roof rack system for our family car. In the spirit of the day it was just a set of off the shelf steel racks, with a few old bicycle forks and steel channel welded to the bars, it did the job.
A special feature of the home made aspect of 1970’s country bicycle racing was Jock’s liniment recipe from his days of racing in Newcastle. Forget mass produced modern embrocation, back then your home made liniment consisted of ingredients found at the local chemist and supermarket. Using Jock’s Thick and Creamy Liniment Recipe is a sure fire way to awaken your primordial werewolf. Depending on your disposition this liniment was so wild, it held the potential to either strip the hair off your legs or help it grow thick and fast. Thick and Creamy Prehistoric Style Liniment …… included in it’s mix a bottle of eucalyptus oil, a cake of camphor, methylated spirits, a beaten egg complete with it’s broken shell, a cup of vinegar plus three tablespoons of turps - turpentine. Once these ingredients are mixed together you’ll never forget the indelible impression embedded into your senses. Another aspect of the homemade Armidale cycling scene were the jerseys, my mother used the old Singer sewing machine to keep the costs low when kitting out two sons ready for training and racing.
Prize money came either in small cash amounts or items donated to country town race organisers by various local stores. After a couple of years racing, I’d won enough prizes to fill a room. Sets of cheap china, steak knives, plastic wares, pyrex dishes, stereo systems … the shop wares were building up and we had to move it on. With no internet opportunity to sell goods back then, my mum spread the word around the neighbourhood via the local ladies network. Within a couple of weeks the unwanted paraphernalia was converted into cash. Years later in Germany I was able to top this Australian country style of prize winning, when I won a prime at a criterium near Munich, the prize was a pig, after the race we found a buyer for the pig at the pub. Another prize of note was in Italy, Eddie Salas won a few rolls of toilet paper contained within a hamper of seemingly other useless prizes including random pairs of black leather gents shoes.
The bitter cold and unforgiving New England pavements around Armidale has spawned a few tough competitors since the new club began in 1975. Some riders from that fledgling club eventually went on to race at international level and today there are national level mountain bike and track champions who call Armidale their home.
New England road and scenery near Armidale.
A Brief History of the Cycling Scene in Armidale up to the 1970's The sheer novelty of riding a velocipede drew a crowd out the front of Jackes’ store in 1869. “Mr. Jackes last Saturday had a bicycle velocipede at work in front of his store. Very poor progress was made, no person present being used to them ; but no doubt 'practice will make perfect ' There were about one hundred persons present to witness it.”¹ In the 1880’s a touring club was formed and the local riders rode the latest in penny farthings, by the 1890’s the high wheelers had been replaced by safety bicycles.
An impromptu race was held on the 13th of June 1896, from Hillgrove to Armidale.
One of the first bicycle racing clubs in Armidale was formed in November 1897. Racing was held in Armidale earlier in 1897, under the auspices of other clubs and associations, the New England Football Union and the Armidale Half-Holiday Association. Later in the year the Armidale Cycling Club organised bicycle races within their own club structure, “The newly formed Cycling Club has issued a programme for a cycling gymkhana at Armidale on December 15.”² Track racing events and possibly road racing were held from 1897 onwards. “ARMIDALE, Sports under the Northern District Cycling Rules were held by the bicycle club yesterday, when very good racing was witnessed.” ³ From this account in 1905, the races were short handicaps of one and two minutes duration, an indication that racing was conducted around a local sports ground, either on grass or gravel surface.
Typically in country Australia, cycling cubs were formed, disbanded then re-formed many times over the decades of the twentieth century. In Armidale in 1921”A big bicycle speed contest is set down for the Uralla road on March 5 at 2.p.m. It is expected that there will be fully 100 competitors. The idea in view is to pave the way to the formation of a bicycle club in Armidale.”4
Night track racing under lights was held around the Armidale Sports Ground in 1929 with competitors travelling from nearby Uralla and as far away as Newcastle. “The second night carnival conducted by the Armidale Cycling Club was held in the sports ground in the presence of a large crowd.”5
Road racing in spirit of our 1970’s style handicap club racing was conducted in 1935. “The Armidale Cycling Club’s handicappers announced the following handicaps for the week-end road race to the Arding turn off and back.”6
A cycling track at the Armidale racecourse had been in use from the 1930’s. “Sunday Cycling, ARMIDALE Saturday. Large entries have been secured for the Armidale Cycle Club’s carnival on the racecourse to-morrow afternoon.”7 By the 1960’s the track was paved and country championships were held there. "In all 130 riders were nominated and probably not since the big cricket and football matches there more than 50 years ago, has the centre of the racecourse presented such and animated scene ……… The tents for refreshments and for housing of officials and trophies added to the tent-town appearance of the ground where the only permanent structure is the track itself."8 Only months after the Country Championships were held at the racecourse track there was a race meet at the Armidale Showground. “At the festival of sports on Saturday afternoon at the Showground, spectators will see some exciting and thrilling cycling.”9 The racecourse track fell into disuse by the late 1960’s. If you know where to look, the shadowed paved outline of the racecourse track still exists today. There were enough enthusiastic members of the 1960’s Armidale cycling club, who organised a reunion in 2014.
Newspaper articles from the Armidale Express.
Other black and white and colour cycling images by parents and sometimes Chris Pratt.
New England landscape images below, and video, Robert Cobcroft 2014.
Thanks to Jock Bullen for access to his cycling scrapbook archive and detailing the history of the racecourse cycling track.
1. 1869 'DISTRICT NEWS. THE NEW ENGLAND DISTRICT.', The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 - 1893), 21 August, p. 2, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18739294
2. 1897 'ARMIDALE NOTES.', Evening News 30 November http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article108874413
3. 1905 'CYCLING.', The Sydney Morning Herald 24 April http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14706333
4. 1921 'CYCLING.', The Northern Daily Leader 23 February http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article104823896
5. 1929 'NIGHT CARNIVAL AT ARMIDALE.', The Sydney Morning Herald 14 January http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16523394
6. 1935 'ARMIDALE.', The Maitland Daily Mercury 29 June http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126046440
7. 1936 'SUNDAY CYCLING.', The Maitland Daily Mercury 28 March http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127353989
8. 1961 ‘COUNTRY CYCLING CHAMPIONSHIPS.’, The Armidale Express January 31 Archive Jock Bullen
9. 1961 ’STATE’S CRACK CYCLISTS,’, The Armidale Express 19 April Archive Jock Bullen