Bikers Are Born

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

I LIKE to write about all the funny stuff involving motorcycles and shit like that, but this time, I’m going to delve further back into the brain-safe of memories to a time when I didn’t own a motorbike.

Well before I was old enough to ride motorbikes I was already on Two Wheels — just pushbikes. It was good training for a future life of motorbikes and besides, what else is a young bloke to do? Growing up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, we had it good for excitement, because, unlike the sprawling, flat wastelands of Western Sydney, we had hills — plenty of them and plenty big enough. 

My family lived halfway up Allambie Heights and Allambie Road was just one big hill going from nearly sea level at North Manly, to near the highest point in Sydney, which was Beacon Hill, just one suburb to the north.

Pretty well all my mates rode pushies every single day. Being surrounded by thick bushland, with ever-present fire trails, we had no shortage of trails and tracks to hack about on. There was me, Buster Richardson (who these days is some captain of some industry). Tommy McColl (the fittest and strongest bugger I knew back then, who sadly chucked a massive hearty and died a few years back), Peter White and Mookie Lewis (both of whom I’d lost track of many years ago). We usually had two bikes each, a rough ‘track bike’ for thrashing down the fire trails and another ‘road’ bike for longer forays to Manly Beach, Terrey Hills or even the Narrabeen Ice Skating rink. 

For the road, it was usually a 27-inch racing bike (or in my case, a Malvern Star Dragstar (thanks Mum and Dad and thank you Santa). 

The track bike was usually a 26-inch Speedwell or Malvern Star because the tyres were a bit chunkier and the frame and forks sturdier to take the battering. 

We’d cycle up to Allambie Heights Oval and then hit the fire trail which started at the back end of the Oval and meandered through the Manly War Memorial Park. We’d be flying like psychopaths along that trail, and although we didn’t realise it at the time, we were doing Mountain Biking before it was called Mountain Biking. While the trail mostly skirted along the ridges behind Allambie Heights, it took a sudden left turn and headed down a hugely steep hill, right down into the creek which feeds Manly Dam. Big Balls Downhill, that section was.

Or we could head down to Paul Jacko’s place which was the start of another fast downhill trail that went straight to the ‘Bikie’ side, or Northern shore of Manly Dam. We were there one day when three blokes were thrashing around on Short Circuit race bikes. The noise from the straight-through pipes was just a certain kind of magic for me. When they propped for a beer and a chat at their bike trailer, we went over to annoy them as only young blokes can. There were two 500 cc Matchless singles and one AJS 500 cc single, and I suspect that while ogling at this beautiful metallic green Ajay, it instilled and cemented my life-long love of AJS singles.

Being young and crazy for mechanical stuff, we were always changing our bikes around, especially the sacrificial track bikes. Another mate Col Booth, had obtained a custom frame from his cousin; it was cut down from a 28-inch Gents’s Bike (that’s what they used to call them) and Cuzzy had done a fine job of cutting the seat tube down by about six inches, then bent the top frame tube and rear chain-stays down to meet the shortened seat tube. Of course, they’d done it just so they could reach the pedals so they could ride the bloody thing, as a 28-inch bike was a tall bastard for a short kid to ride. But to us, it looked so cool, like a Harley rigid frame looked. 

I had to have some of that custom action, so my track bike got cut with a hacksaw and wheeled/wobbled up the road to Mr Crouch’s place. He had Oxy and Stick welders and seemed to be unperturbed by the constant stream of his son’s new friends with pushbikes needing modification. 

I designed it a bit different to Col’s Custom; I had Mr Crouch heat and bend the front down tube, giving it a massive rake job. I’d wheeled it up the footpath of Allambie Road for about the 30-odd houses to the weldatorium, and once welded, had to wheel it all the way back home again because the pedals were dragging on the ground. 

“You’ve made a good bike unrideable.” Col opined when he saw it in my workshop.

“No,” I explained. “Wait until THESE get welded up and fitted,” and I held aloft my fully chromed, extended front end. It wasn’t so much a front end, more a forked device that had once been part of one of those tubular, chromed double bunk sets — you know, the ones with the one-and-a-half-inch legs, a curved arch on top and a pair of four-foot-long, one-inch diameter cross bars. Cut one leg off, cut the curved section off, squash and drill the ends for the front axle and voila — one set of custom, extended forks for a raked chopper pushie!

I cut off most of the legs from a standard pushie fork, the profiled the stubs to fit the ex-bedstead and harassed Mr Crouch again. He had his reservations about being involved in such a fiendish aberration, but welded them up anyway.

Man, that chopper pushie was the coolest looking cycle a young hoon could own! Raked and yellow hand-painted frame, long chromed forks, a fat, American Schwinn back wheel and the obligatory Dragstar Apeys and Banana Seat. 

I even re-bent the handlebars, placing a tube from a set of surfboard racks over the end of the bars and cold-bending the ends outwards, to look more like motorcycle Apeys rather than pushie bars. (Don’t do it, kids — not unless you want a fatigued handlebar to fall off in your hand while you’re riding along)

That chopper rode fine, even if it was a bit ‘sproingy’, flexing dramatically as you pedalled like fury and contorted the body to hold onto the controls.

That wild machine lasted exactly three weeks, when — as confidence grew — I decided to test its off-road ability by hitting the first jump that leads to the fire trail near Jacko’s place. Whump! The cycle never went anywhere near following the profile of the jump, rather ploughing straight ahead as the long front end collapsed, leaving me to face-plant in the gravel. It wasn’t Mr Crouch’s welding that failed, but the original welds on the bedstead. Who’d have thought a component designed to support a child or two in slumber would not stand up to the rigours of the road?

That wasn’t the end of the chopper, though — Col had already engineered his own extended forks for his chopper; he’d cut the full length of legs of one set of forks and grafted them onto the bottom of another set which had the little ends lopped off. The same design ended up on my chopper.

This new, stronger front fork was good enough to chuck maddies around the Nirvana of pushbikin’ — the Brickpits. Up to the end of the 1960s when the clay in the quarry was drying up and the Frenchs Forest Brickworks was running down, it was a viable local business. By the time we louts and larrikins were pedalling along on pushies, it was just ticking over, run by a skeleton staff. That left the entire quarry vacant, and was Pushbike Heaven for those who wanted to get big air over jumps. And there was a huge selection, big and small, mild and wild; we were riding BMX, before it was called BMX. 

For the very brave, there was the hugely steep slag heap next to the kilns. Near the slag heap and the crusher was the manager’s residence, and the manager had two sons, Johnny and Jimmy, who virtually had free rein over the joint. We imagined we were fairly wild for young blokes, but we had nothing on Jimmy and Johnny. These Pommie brothers were both M.A.D. Total psychopaths they were. They would have slug gun duels, standing out in the open, ten feet apart and no hiding or protection; crack the barrel, reload, “OUCH!” Aim, fire. Crack the barrel, “OUCH” reload, aim, fire! A few of us, Me, Whitey and Mookie had older brothers, so we knew what slug gun pellets felt like and man — they hurt!

Sometimes, Tommy, Mookie, Buster, Whitey. Jimmy, Johnny and Me would have wars, marauding through the Brickies buildings and pitching boulders at each other. These were no ordinary boulders, though, they were made from compacted and dried clay and could be found lying everywhere around the kilns and crusher. If you copped a direct hit, it would hurt like buggery, but the boulder would mostly disintegrate and the energy dissipate when it hit your ribcage or skull or some other unimportant body part. Sorta like beanbag bullets, I suppose.

Once again, we were setting trends, playing Skirmish well before Skirmish was invented and became popular. 

There was one particular time when I had the tripe frightened out of me: I used to use guerrilla tactics rather than get exposed on the bloody battlefield. This time, I had a haversack and had loaded up with ammo, then climbed the steel ladder to the top rim of the crusher. Propped in my tiny platform some 30 feet about the battlefield, I was safe from those on the ground, but I could rain down my clods of death on the poor fools as they crossed No Man’s Land. The Crusher was still operating; one of the few parts of the plant that was; the giant blades whirring away at the base of the hopper didn’t just mash the clay clods, it also created a massive amount of the finest clay dust you could imagine; finer than talcum powder and it sat undisturbed on every horizontal surface, every rail and girder of the crusher house.

There I was, totally protected by the height and by the only access point, the steel ladder below me. I was lining up for a perfect shot on Tommy when WHUMP! Got hit in middle of the back with a huge amount of fine dust, hurled at me by Jimmy. 

“Shhhheeeee-itt!” I yelled. “Where did you come from?” 

The mad bastard had climbed up the framework of the gnarly, asbestos-ridden crusher house, then walked across a four-inch SHS (Square Hollow Section) steel beam that kept the sides of the hopper apart. He had walked across the beam, complete with piled-high dust, carrying armfuls of more dust. His approach was masked by the sound of the Crusher grinding away 10 meters below and I completely disbelieved it until I saw his footprints in the dust on the beam. Wow, talk about going that extra mile for a tactical advantage!

But the best part of the brickworks was the giant pool in the deepest hole in the quarry; it was bigger than most of the ocean pools on the Northern Beaches, but a bit colder, a bit deeper and much steeper sides. I got to Tommy’s place one sunny Saturday, and the lads were strapping Coolite surfboards with Ockky Straps to the rear racks on their track bikes. 

“We’re going to paddle around the Brickies pond on these foam surfboards ’coz it’s so hot,” Buster explained. “Grab one and strap it to your rack.” 

I was an ‘Ideas Man’ even back then and suggested, “Hey, you know how you can fit racks to the front of the bike as well? Why don’t we scare up some more racks and more surfboards and have one at each end? We could have Aquabikes.”

It was an ungainly looking convoy of four lunatics, four pushbike, eight Coolite surfboards on eight bicycle racks; what a sight it must have been. And there was no close formation riding, either. Imagine two Coolite surfboards strapped sideways onto a pushie; fair dinkum, each one took up the roadspace of a small car; bigger than a Mini Minor which the small car of the day. We revelled in joy of just barrelling straight down the ramp and into the chilly waters of the Brickies quarry pool. We were doing exactly what Davy Jones did at the start of every Monkees episode (Look it up on the Interwhizzer, you Young’ns).

Even though we’d invented our own Personal Water Craft decades before PWCs in the form of Jetskis, we fully believed we were onto something. But two foam surfboards strapped to a bicycle and reliance on pedal power does not a Jetski make: Once our wheels had left solid ground and were now floating on the pond, that’s about all it did. You could pedal as hard as you wanted, but forward movement was limited to about 0.02 of a knot, with hand paddling being a greater propulsion system. I think the only forward motion imparted came when the hollow cupping of the back of the knee came out, then plunged back into the water — just like a paddle wheel, but a piss-poor one at that!

Still, we had some fun, we did, being young lunatics on Two-Wheelers. If only we could’ve ‘workshopped’ our brilliant and innovative ideas, then worked hard and ‘followed the dream’; we would’ve all been Billionaires.

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

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