Ernie Old: a cycling legend

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Ernie Old
(1874– 1962)

Ernie Old had an amazing story to tell.  Aged in his 70’s they wouldn’t let him race bikes.  Ernie tried to enlist to fight in World War II and was told that he was too old.  Wanting to prove that age held no barriers.  Ernie challenged himself to ride from Melbourne to every state capital.  He accomplished this amazing feat before his 76th birthday, and became a celebrity.  He continually challenged himself to do more and more epic rides.  Over the next 10 years he continued to explore all around Australia.  Making his last marathon ride from Melbourne to Bendigo in 1960.  Aged 86.

Ernie is one of the pioneers of Australian cycling.  And proved that travelling the vast spaces of Australia by bike was possible and enjoyable at any age.

Ernie Old, age 84, cheered by crowds at the end of a marathon bicycle ride, 1961 (NAA: A1200, L38704)

The early years

Ernie Old was born in Blackwood (Victoria) in 1874.  At an early age fell in love with cycling and would race any chance he got.  At the age of 28 Ernie enlisted to join the Boer War in South Africa in February 1902.  His service lasted just three months before the war ended.  Ernie survived the war without seeing any action.  And was delighted to be home.

Ernie and his brother (Boer War)


In December 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I.  Ernie enlisted to join the great war.  Where he joined the 13th Light Horse Regiment.  He was sent to Gallipoli.  One of the Wars most bloody battles on 4 September 1915 where he was stationed on the front.  Ernie reflected; “I had a good look over no man’s land.  The scene was strangely lifeless, no sign of moving at all.  Here and there huddled forms of poor soldiers from either side who had fallen there”.

No one was able to retrieve the bodies of the dead.  “Anything moving out in no man’s land at once came under deadly fire”.  Ernie was lucky to survive numerous near death experiences.  “If you raised your head above the sand bags your ‘expectation of life’ would be about 1 ½ minutes.  I got used to the close and deadly hiss as the bullets passed overhead”.

Ernie survived Gallipoli where over 100,000 from both sides perished during the bloody battle.  Gallipoli was lost and the Allies retreated and Ernie evacuated with the rest of the Allies.  After a brief spell of rest Ernie was sent to France to fight.  Ernie was severely wounded on November 14th 1916 at Flers.  This was a pivotal battle against the German 1st Army.  Where Tanks were introduced for the first time. Ernie was evacuated and spent over a year at various hospitals recuperating.

The return home

Ernie arrived home and found a large number of friends very glad to see him safely home.  He reflected that “There are no words which could tell how absolutely lovely it was to come home safely back out of the senseless turmoil of the war years and find my family all well” – Ernie Old

Whilst none of us could possibly imagine the horrors that Ernie endured.  You have to respect his priorities upon returning home: “I found to great joy that my wounds did not trouble me so much in cycling as in walking.  I soon cycled quite a lot, and was soon back in reasonably good form” – Ernie Old

Once a cyclist, always a cyclist.

World War 2

With the outbreak of World War 2.  Having valuable war experience Ernie put his hand up to enlist to fight in World War 2.  At 65 years of age was told he was too old to fight. He wasn’t happy.  Ernie wasn’t allowed to fight in the war but helped in other ways.  His experience as a blacksmith landed him a job on munitions work.  In a Government ordnance Factory at Maribyrnong.  Ernie would help develop the weapons to fight the Axis. He was as fit as a fiddle and wasn’t happy that people considered him too old.  Ernie felt that he had a point to prove that age was no barrier to maintaining a high level of fitness.

I had in mind for some years the project of taking a cycle ride to Sydney and back.  Having stood up to the long rides so well that I had no doubt that I could average 160km for long periods.  I felt sure that by riding a good part of each night I could do this, as I had never in all my life been so exhausted that I had to stop” – Ernie Old

The start of something big

At age 72.  Ernie Old completed his ride from Melbourne to Sydney return a in little under seven days.  He proved that age held no barrier when you set your mind to a dream.  His ride received much publicity, and he gave numerous interviews.  This was just the beginning and became famous for his amazing cycling adventures. Between 1945 and 1952. Ernie completed eight marathon bike rides around Australia.  Across some very rough & dangerous countryside.  Back in the late 1940’s.  Australia was a much different place than it is today.  Much of Australia was isolated.  There was large distances to travel in-between towns which also made his journey perilous at times.

Malvern Star advertisment

The Nullarbor Desert

Ernie almost perished on his journey across the Nullarbor Desert.  He hit a bad stretch of road.

many sharp flints cut through my tyres and tubes several times per day.  I had a busy time fixing them.  This delayed me so much that I was on the road for four days and nights without seeing anyone at all.  Having lost so much time to repairing tyres that I had to ride late at night.  I lost so much time that I pass Balledonia station in the dark without seeing it.  To add to my troubles I ran out of food and had to ride nearly 320km to Noresman with nothing at all to eat, and only billy tea with one tin of condensed milk and some sugar to drink.  Two long days against a strong wind with no solid food whatever.  Luckily I had plenty of water” – Ernie Old

Life of the bike

Ernie Old spent 10 years exploring much of Australia.  For years he was told what he couldn’t do.  He was told that he was too old.  Ernie showed the world what he could by riding all the way up to the ripe age of 86.  With his last big ride from Melbourne to Bendigo in 1960. Ernie gave up much leaving friends and family for long periods at a time. Luckily he didn’t have any regrets.  He had the time of his life.

“One man asked. ‘don’t you get lonely on all these long rides all by yourself?”.  “Oh, no” I replied.  “There is always something interesting to see. After my ride I was at liberty to go home and join my own family, which I was very glad to do.  I had not seemed to be really absent while away, as news of my progress came cross the air at frequent intervals assuring people at home that all was well” – Ernie Old

Ernie Old passed away on 11 August 1962 in his home at Murrumbeena, Melbourne.  He was buried in the New Cheltenham cemetery.

If you ever faced with a barrier which stops you from achieving a goal.  Remember that good ole Ernie Old has put you to shame.  You should take a leaf out of his book that you’re never too old to chase a dream.

Here is but a short list of just some of the amazing adventures that Ernie did:

    1. A 1,828 km return journey from Melbourne to Sydney in nine days
    2. A 1,831 km return journey from Melbourne to Adelaide in eight days (1946)
    3. In 1946 Ernie rode 412 km in 24 hours to raise funds for the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne
    4. A 4,025 km return journey to Brisbane in twenty-three days in 1947
    5. Ernie rode 9,650 km in 56 days, through Adelaide on the way to Darwin, then returning to Melbourne via Mount Isa, Brisbane and Sydney in 1947
    6. A 7,250 km return journey from Melbourne to Perth in 1948
    7. Ernie published his Autobiography“By Bread Alone” (Melbourne, 1950).
    8. In 1951-52 Ernie rode 9,650 km in 102 days. He first rode to Fremantle and back, and then continued to Sydney via Canberra and then back to Melbourne
    9. Ernie completed an outback ride in 1957. At the young age of 83 climbed Ayers Rock (Uluru)
    10. In 1959 Ernie cycled across Tasmania
By Bread Alone


Ernie Old Image State Library of Victoria
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