Article orginally published in the Western Australian Bar Association magazine

On each weekend day groups of colourful lycra clad cyclists now ride one after the other in continuing streams along the roads and streets that circle the Swan River. Many start and finish the journey in Fremantle. This cycling spectacle, that has something to do with the formation of a cycling charity about which I say more later, had it origins in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States of America.

In 1977 Fremantle local John Longley AM was in Newport preparing for that year’s America’s Cup Challenge. He had been there in 1974 as a crew member of Southern Cross representing the first Royal Perth Yacht Club challenge for the Cup. In 1977 most of the crew drove large American cars around Newport. In the height of the summer the historic town became clogged with tourist traffic and negotiating its narrow streets in a large car was virtually impossible.

Visible on the streets of Newport was a new phenomenon not then seen in Australia – adults in numbers riding 10 speed bicycles. Traditional road racing bikes had been marketed to the general public as an alternative to cars. Their popularity may have been a response to the inflationary oil shocks of 1974. The climate of rising oil prices decades later brings to mind Rex Mossop’s pensive “It’s deja vu, all over again”.

John realised that a bicycle was the solution to the Newport traffic problem and promptly bought his first bike, a red Fuji Sports 10. When he took it proudly back to the crew house he was greeted with hails of laughter. “Chink (John’s nickname), haven’t you grown up? We are men. Men drive cars. Boys ride bikes”. After the derision and humour settled the wisdom of cycling struck home. By the end of the summer most of the crew were flashing around Newport on 10 speeds. By the time the famous 1983 Australia II Challenge came around America’s Cup crew members riding bikes (by then 12 speeds) was the norm.

After the America’s Cup was won John returned to Fremantle with his latest Shogun 12 speed 27” frame machine. With a group of friends he made a habit of cycling regularly. One day John and his group conceived the idea of riding together around the Swan River, along the streets and roads that line its foreshore, from Fremantle to Perth and back to Fremantle. They set out one weekend day stopping once at a public telephone in Dalkeith to call spouses to let them know where they were.

That one group ride in the 1980s led John’s group to form the “Royal South Beach Cycling Association” (or RSBCA – named after the Royal South Beach Cricket Association, an indoor cricket team). It became a growing collective of cyclists who at around 6am each Sunday morning set off from the road outside John’s Fremantle home on the 50 plus km “around the river” ride.

When the early morning noise became too much for residents the group moved its start (and its finish) point to what was then the “Old Papa’s” Café on what became the café strip of South Terrace Fremantle. Every year or so the group produced a cycling jersey that prominently displayed the “Old Papa’s” logo as the principal “sponsor”. They became known to other cyclists as “Old Papa’s riders”. Among themselves they were members of the RSBCA.

The original small group expanded over time and more adults were attracted to the idea of group cycling from Fremantle. The RSBCA cyclists developed what became Western Australia’s largest cycling club. In the late 1990s more than 400 cyclists claimed to be “Old Papa’s riders”. Although in the main they were recreational cyclists the group also included A Grade cyclists who regularly competed in top level cycling races conducted by the Western Australian Cycling Federation and its clubs.

In the 1990s riders set off in four groups from Fremantle – a fast group at 6am, a faster group at 6.15, an even faster group at 6.30 and a splinter group of older cyclists at 6.35. Many cyclists came to prefer riding in the “Old Papa’s” rides over competitive cycling races. Vast numbers of colourful cyclists returning to Fremantle by 8 to 8.30 for post-ride coffee added to the colour and ambience of the Fremantle café strip.

The Old Papa’s group was not a formal club. It was an informal collective of cyclists with a limited number of rules. The rules included that the qualification for membership was to ride once around the river with an Old Papa’s peloton (“peloton” being once defined by an Old Papa’s rider as “a French word that means ‘peloton’”). Secondly, membership was for life. Thirdly, there were no office bearers and no list was to be kept of members. It held an “Annual General Meeting”, but not more often than once every 18 months, and possibly longer. Indeed an AGM has not been held for some years now.

The Old Papa’s collective of riders, although not a formal cycling club, developed into a significant network of individuals. Its membership reflected a vast reserve of financial and skills resources. Members came from most trades, professions and business. Its members occupied positions in the clubs that made up the components of the WA Cycling Federation as well as occupying positions on the Board and Disciplinary Committee of that Federation. Some members now live in other States or overseas. Some have unusual vocations. One member was the principal private secretary to two English Prime Ministers and eventually the link between the British spy services and Cabinet.

Members were mostly middle aged men but many were talented athletes when they possessed the greater vitality of youth. One lady once commented to my wife that as she sat in a Fremantle café sipping her coffee on a Sunday morning she watched a group arrive back at Fremantle dismount and park their bikes after a ride. She said they looked like superbly fit young men, until they removed their bicycle helmets to reveal the evidence of age – the changed shapes and lines of aged faces, and greying or balding heads.

This brings me to the Henk Vogels Cycling Foundation, of which Henk Vogels OAM is a committee member. Henk was the most accomplished of the Old Papa’s riders. Born in Holland, he grew up in Perth and represented Australia in cycling at the Tokyo Olympics. He spent five years racing as a professional cyclist in Europe. Henk is a life member and was a board commissioner of the Western Australian Cycling Federation and over a 20 year period he acted as State coach, team manager, selector and commissaire. His son, also Henk Vogels (and known to all but his family as Henk Jr), has raced in the Tour de France and is currently a member of a professional cycling team in the USA.

I was the inaugural chairman and remain a committee member and vice-chairman of the Foundation. At one of the “Old Papas” annual general meetings in the early 2000s John Longley, as nominal but unelected and unofficial head of the RSBCA (there were no official members or officials), invited members present to give thought to using the resources of the RSBCA to put something back into the community.

A group of Old Papa’s riders, including me, met in 2001 and decided to form a body that would try to tap into the resources of cyclists to achieve community and charitable aims. Our initial goal was to raise money to help aspiring junior cyclists, who may not otherwise have the means, to travel to and compete in national and international cycling competitions. We had in mind the experience of one junior cyclist who through personal and economic circumstances almost didn’t make it out of the State to show his talents on a broader stage. When he was given the chance to show his talents outside the State doors opened for him, his development as a cyclist continued and eventually he won two Olympic gold medals. However, through lack of money at the outset, he almost did not make it.

Using the name of two of Western Australia’s most famous cyclists, the Henk Vogels Cycling Foundation was formed as the vehicle to tap into the resources of the Old Papa’s riders and other cyclists and use those resources for community purposes. As a first step the Foundation established a cyclist assistance program, through the Australian Sports Foundation (a Commonwealth Government body), to raise funds for promising junior cyclists. By that means funds could be paid to the ASF and through Cycling Australia returned to reimburse junior cyclists for the expenses of travelling to and competing in national and international competitions.

We later incorporated the Foundation and embarked on other fundraising ventures, including an annual dinner and auction, and the production and sale of cycling gear. We have invited prominent Australian professional cyclists based in Europe to these dinners as guest speakers.

Since 2001 our achievements have been modest, but we have assisted many young cyclists, some of whom have become World junior champions. One of our assisted cyclists is now training with the Australian Institute of Sport and is knocking on the door of future Olympic selection. We also provide funding for Cycling WA’s Western Australian Junior Elite Talent Squad (JETS) a group of exceptionally talented junior cyclists who are given the opportunity through the squad to feed into programs with the Western Australian Institute of Sport and, beyond that, the Australian Institute of Sport.

We run the Foundation as volunteers. All money we receive we pay out. Our aims are not limited to helping junior elite cyclists who, without our help, might not have the means of achieving their dreams in cycling. We aim to apply financial and skills resources of cyclists for community benefit, but preferably in ways linked with cycling. Our broader and longer term community aims include providing funding and resources for programs that help disadvantaged youth, disabled persons, youths in the juvenile criminal justice system and cycling education programs.

All of our funds have not been used to pay for cycling related programs or ends. We have donated money to St Patricks Community Support Centre in Fremantle which provides aid and support for homeless men. We have also provided cycling gear to a former junior cycling champion who, through family breakdown, was unable to continue cycling.

Perth is blessed with the exceptional beauty of the Swan River and environs and a warm climate. It is an ideal city for recreational cycling, particularly along the paths, streets and roads that line the river foreshore. Today thousands of cyclists cycle “around the river”, emulating the group example set about a quarter century ago by John and his friends and the original “Old Papa’s riders”. In addition many groups now ride from and to locations that are dotted all over the metropolitan area. The Western Australian subculture of cycling by middle aged men and (now) women has spawned in the western suburbs of Perth groups that mimic the “Old Papa’s” precedent by having their own tribal identifiers such as the “Captain Stirling group”, the “Silvertails” and (unsurprisingly) the “Café Racers”.

The “Old Papa’s” collective changed dramatically the landscape of recreational and competitive cycling in Western Australia. The work of “Old Papa’s riders” led to the creation of what is now Australia’s largest cycling club, Cyclo Sportif. It is a club for recreational cyclists that holds monthly team participation events in Perth and satellite towns. Through this innovation and other public cycling events there is now a substantial “corporate” component among cycling groups. Numerous public companies have their own teams that participate in Cyclo Sportif and other public cycling events. Innovations in Western Australia are potential models for other States.

The Henk Vogels Cycling Foundation provides a vehicle to enable the financial and skills resources of cyclists and the corporate world to contribute back to the community. For more information about the Foundation visit our website www.hvcf.com.au and for information about recreational cycling in Western Australia go to www.wa.cycling.org.au and www.cyclosportif.com.au.

– Geoff Hancy, 8 July 2008