Riding a cycle of our history

Andrew Mathieson
ROD Charles has never been busier than in retirement.
Once Geelong West town mayor, the 69-year-old is spending most of his days now uncovering Geelong’s rich, hidden cycling history.
A book or two, or probably three, is on the cards.
Sitting in his cluttered study, he picks up a stack of random files before flicking through the finished 500-page first draft.
“You can see all these filing cabinets are just full of notes,” Rod says, pointing down the shelves.
“All these notes, though, have got to be cut down because you can’t have a book of 50,000 pages.
“But it still might be two or three volumes at this stage.
“The first volume is up and the second is well on its way to being done.”
At the moment cycling from the 1930s is occupying his time.
His research dates back to 1869 when the city started building boneshakers a year after they were first introduced in Australia.
Rod has the actual bike restored in his Manifold Heights home.
An old Geelong collegian, WC Kernot, who was the first professor of engineering at Melbourne Uni, was first to ride the boneshaker between Melbourne and Geelong.
But that’s only part of the story.
“That’s the thing that got me going,” Rod explains.
“There’s not that many of them around and I’ve also got a penny-farthing.
“I have a few bikes also from the 1890s but I’m not really a bike collector – it’s the stories that I’m much more interested in.”
Rod has spent countless hours indexing papers from Geelong Historic Records Centre about anything to do with the sport.
He has also sourced material far and wide, literally speaking to hundreds of Geelong cyclists and their families.
One meeting seems to lead to another.
“There are a few people in this town who have been reticent but, of the rest of them, their generosity has been magnificent,” Rod acknowledges.
“I mean, this is not my work, it’s theirs – all I am is just a conduit.
“I shouldn’t put my name to this.”
A lot of the focus on Geelong cycling history has highlighted champions Sir Hubert Opperman and Russell Mockridge.
Rod, especially, knows everything about Mockridge.
He tells how the two-time Olympic gold medallist was a former Geelong journalist, who wrote his own autobiography before he died in a collision with a bus during a cycling race in 1958.
Rod spoke to Mockridge’s widow, Irene, before she died but missed out on his brother, Graham, sharing his own personal experiences after he was killed in an aircraft accident just a few years ago.
Another was historian Maurie Saunders, who collected unwanted memorabilia and priceless photos from Geelong West Cycling Club.
“We should know more about these people,” Rod cries out.
“We need to build on from Mockridge and Opperman and plug in all these other people.
“Mockridge had to beat people – who were these other people that he was beating?”
Rod can rattle off a list of Geelong’s top cyclists: Ray Duff, Jack Carpenter, Allan Oram, Ray McKay among them.
Rod describes Jack Griffin as a “giant of a man” in local cycling circles, riding several times against Mockridge and later around Australia in 80 days at the age of 80.
Rod was first was an educator at Deakin University and then later was drawn into the former Geelong West council.
During his term as mayor in 1982-1983 he was influential in getting Pako Fest off the ground.
“I remember the very first time (councillor) Frank De Stefano and I got out on the street on the day and thought we better have a parade,” Rod laughs.
“We walked down the end of the street, got the band and we marched up the street with a couple of kids.
“The way it started was very low-key.”
But it’s the researching, interviewing and writing that has unleashed a new life in him.
“To fall into this in retirement, you think what a bonus,” Rod smiles.
“You think you are going to be thrown out onto the scrapheap but this is something else.”

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