This is the story of my father David, a man with a lifelong passion for cycling that was so strong, it actually led to him missing the birth of his first child.
This was before the times of mobile phones, of course, and he was squeezing in a few days’ cycle touring and camping somewhere along the Murray River. When I decided to make my appearance into the world a month early, it was several days before he could be found and informed that he was now a father, and that he should get back to Melbourne to face my mother, who had driven herself to hospital and spent several days trying to convince the nurses that she did actually have a husband.
I forgave him for missing my birth, but he can’t have been too repentant: I (much) later found out the old bastard missed my first birthday for the same reason. In fact many of my childhood birthdays involved driving to meet my Dad in country Victoria, where he’d be touring around the backroads with a bunch of schoolkids, showing them the beauty of the outdoors on two wheels. As a result, I had Great Victorian Bike Ride souvenir t-shirts for most years in the 1980s. He was a teacher, and along with some of his colleagues and parents he would take groups of kids on cycling expeditions a few times a year. When I was old enough, about 12, I was allowed to come on a few trips, fully loaded with a tent, sleeping bag and clothes in panniers on my heavy steel mountain bike.
David, universally known to his students as ‘Rowdy’, rode his Bob Jackson touring bike to work every day for 25 years, with students’ assignments for marking in his Carradice saddle bag (he’d order a new one every decade or so). This was a time when riding to work was a pretty weird thing to do, and he was regularly shouted at from passing cars, had bottles thrown at him, and even the occasional egg. His disdain for fashion and preference for utility over appearance probably contributed.
His other bike was a Jack Taylor tourer, in Reynolds 531. He didn’t ride it as often, preferring the cheaper Bob Jackson for reasons he never fully explained to me. He’d bought both bikes while living in England in 1976-77 after his parents had passed away. He lived in Cambridge, a paradise for the bicycle tourer, worked in a bike shop, and toured the countryside with the local touring club. At one point he did the John o’Groats to Land’s End (the length of Great Britain) ride.
In 1991 he introduced the family to the Tour de France. It was Indurain’s first Tour victory, and the 30 minute highlights package on SBS every night captivated me and my sister for the next decade. As you can see, I’m still captivated.
Never a racer, in his forties he discovered Audax, starting off with 100km rides and quickly building up to longer rides in pursuit of brevet cards. Audax clearly captured his imagination with its spirit of determination, independence and mental and physical challenge. A wiry man with a strong mind, he was well suited to long distance cycling. As his rides got longer he realised his old touring bikes were holding him back, and he finally treated himself to a new bike.
His Vetta road bike was a beautiful Italian machine made right at the zenith of steel framebuilding, just as carbon fibre was beginning to appear in the pro peloton. It was beautifully hand-painted in the Italian way, with ovalised tubing, plenty of chrome and Campagnolo components. The thing wasn’t just pretty, it was stiff and smooth and comfortable and fast. Once or twice he let me ride it, and I felt a million dollars, the impression of effortless speed and that intangible feeling of a quality steel frame left an impression on me that remains today.
By this time, I was old enough and strong enough to go on some big rides with him. We rode up Falls Creek together, my first big mountain climb. We did the Audax Alpine Classic (I did the 130km, he did the 200km) and I shot off at the start like the teenage idiot I was, virtually collapsed over the finish line in Bright, and saw him fly effortlessly past on his way to Mt Buffalo, looking as fresh as a daisy.
With his kids growing up, and a new bike to enjoy, Rowdy now had the time to really test himself. He finished the Audax Alpine Classic 200km several times (he wasn’t fast but he knew how to pace himself all day) and stepped up to really big rides, including the Fleche Opperman, a 24-hour team time trial where the team designs its own route covering at least 360km. His best attempt netted a 430km route.
In 2001, he decided to skip the Alpine Classic and stay home for the long weekend. On the Sunday morning, the 28th of January, he went out for a ride with two friends, the regular ride down Beach Rd to Frankston and then back to St Kilda, and home.
He never came home.
At 9:30am he was hit by a car in Brighton, and died instantly.
The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel on her way home from an all-night party, drifted across four lanes of traffic and collided head on with the three cyclists, killing my dad, putting his friend Hugh Lowy (the father of one of my closest friends) into intensive care for a few weeks, and barely touching the other rider.
That was 15 years ago today.
The driver of the car, Lynette Satalich, was charged with culpable driving and spent 18 months in prison. I bear her no ill will, I know she has suffered from her mistake ever since. In court it was clear to us that her life had been broken just as profoundly as ours had, or more. Over the years since she has gone out of her way to campaign for greater care from drivers, giving a number of interviews on TV and in print imploring others to take care on the roads. I respect her for that, it shows great courage.
I barely touched a bike for five years after Dad was killed. I just couldn’t really deal with it, the fun of cycling was gone. It was 2006 before it began to return, an impulsive purchase of a Fuji road bike rekindling my enjoyment. Carbon fibre! Dad would have marvelled!
I moved to London in 2007, following the footsteps of my parents who had both done the same in their 20’s, before they’d met, and the bike became my transport, my sport and my network of friends. Slowly my passion for the bike returned, through repetition as much as anything else.
Today, I am still reminded of David every time I step over a top tube, which is often. My own love for cycling came from him, but I express it in my own way.
I know that he affected others, too. I’ve met many of his former students over the years, who remember him fondly. My surname is not common, and he taught hundreds of people over the years. Several have told me they went on his bike trips. Two of them are fathers of kids at my cycling club. I am never sure if they know he is dead, or how he died.
I am still angry that he is gone, but thankful for what he taught me, and I know that paradoxically his death made me a better person.
I am angry that fifteen years later, cyclists are still killed unnecessarily on the roads, and that virtually nothing has been done about this. I am incensed by the cavalier attitude of too many drivers, who don’t give a moment’s thought to the responsibility they owe to others.
His loss still affects me, my sister and my mother profoundly. My daughter, who will be born any day now, will never know her grandfather. My sister is distraught that Dad will never meet her son, but is determined that her little boy will grow up knowing about his missing grandfather.
Of course his life was about much more than cycling, but I suppose it has become the most salient way I connect with his memory.
Today I hope that David would be proud that his bad luck has not destroyed the love for cycling he spent twenty years diligently building in me. I honour his memory every time I race, every time I push hard up a climb, and I give a silent nod of thanks every time I ride past the place on Beach Road where he fell.
Today, I honoured his memory in a simple way that he would love: I rode to work.