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Mulga Bill alive and well


11 September 2007

The Mulga Bill Festival at Cumnock and Yeoval on the weekend of saturday 28th and Sunday 29th of July, attracted many people from the Central west and further afield.

Pictured, Stewart Downes of Gunnedah, waits with his Penny Farthing bike as in the background 340 other riders sign on before the start of the Sunday 24 km, Cumnock to Yeoval "Mulga Bill" fun bike ride.

Stewart is the father of the late Keegan Downes, the 17 years old Gunnedah Cycling Club rider who was tragically killed in a car crash.

Every year for the last 31 years the Keegan Downes memorial cycle race from Coonabarabran to Gunnedah, takes place in July starting from Crane Street in the industrial area north of Coonabarabran. This fitting tribute to a promising young rider is a 111 km handicap event starting at 10 am on a Saturday in July and attracts around 130 top riders in the various divisions.

The Mulga Bill Festival however, celebrates the fact that Banjo Patterson spent his childhood in that area. In 1897 banjo wrote the "Mulga Bill's Bicycle" poem. The poem was a spoof on the 1890's cycling craze when approximately 200,000 were in use in Australia and 150 different makes of bike, both locally and imported were on sale.

Mulga Bill was William Henry Lewis (1880-1968), who knew Banjo around the Bourke area during his time there. Mulga Bill did not ride a Penny Farthing, they had been superseded by the "Safety" design of bicycle for about 10 years. Those old high wheel bikes could be very dangerous and the term "Taking a Header" probably comes from these times because people frequently did and some even died as a result. Banjo cultivated the Squatters and was very much a horseman.

The poem was originally published in several cycling magazines to much amusement. Whilst called a "Safety", the bike that Mulga Bill rode had no brakes and as the freewheel device had not yet been invented, sported a single speed fixed wheel and if you wanted to stop you tried to pedal backwards or stepped back off the bike via a special step brazed onto the rear of the frame. Collins, the famous book publishers, produced a beautifully illustrated book of the poem which won prizes.

Unfortunately, the artist considered the ubiquitous safety bike too tame, remember there were thousands of them about and also women were riding them, so Mulga Bill was depicted on a Penny Farthing and thus started the historical inaccuracy that persists to this day.

William H. Lewis bought his bike as a result of the big drought and there was no feed for horses. He reckoned that he covered about 7,000 miles travelling between jobs, it was bright red and he called it the "Bird" as it flitted from place to place. Some years ago, a person of some local note, demonstrated his lack of knowledge by emphatically stating tat it would be impossible to ride through the Pilliga Forest on a bike. Little did he know that from the 1890s up to about the 1920s, when motor vehicles became more available, the humble bicycle was the preferred form of personal transport for workers in the bush. I suggest that anyone who is interested in this, should get the book The Bicycle and the Bush by Jim Fitzpatrick out of the local library.

The Cumnock/ Yeoval Festival was a good experience and a great success despite some unkind cold wind. Cumnock has only 280 people none of whom are regular bike riders, but their energy and hospitality was an inspiration.

There was a 30 km ride on Saturday from Cumnock to Eurambing Hall at 15 km out of town. There we were given an amazing afternoon tea before riding back up long hills against the cold head wind. Around 20 to 30 riders from Parkes, Mudgee, Lithgow and Wellington took part.

That evening there was to be a camp oven meal at the Showground but due to the cold wind it was moved to the hotel. Once again for a nominal fee, this was another good example of country cooking by the local ladies.

On Sunday, 340 riders set out from Cumnock, onwards to Yeoval. The wind thankfully had died down. Riders ranged from elite racers to mums on the shopping-type bike down to youngsters on their bikes. The finish was at the Yeoval Sportsground where there were refreshments, many displays and various forms of entertainment for young and old.

The money made from the rides in Cumnock goes towards building a Community Centre and Library, while Yeoval Historical Society benefits at their end, putting the funds towards tourist infrastructure. A great weekend for a good cause.

Pedal Crank

Stewart Downes of Gunnedah, waits with his Penny Farthing

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