‘Two Of Yesteryear’s Heroes…….’ by KB Hill

 

 

The banner headlines of the metropolitan newspapers told the tale: ‘IRENE PYLE’S AMAZING RIDE FROM SYDNEY….’

 

It’s early-November 1938, and endurance cycling, which had captivated the sporting public during this post-Depression era, is toasting a new champion. A diminutive Wangaratta girl tackles the gruelling journey from Sydney to Melbourne, and shatters a long-standing record.

 

Fans clamour for more information on this unlikely hero……………

 

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Irene Pyle’s inspiration for cycling came some years earlier when she attended a ‘Welcome’ for ‘Billie’ Samuel, who was passing through Wangaratta on a successful Sydney-Melbourne record attempt.

 

It became her ambition to replicate the feat. In the meantime, though, she had to learn the rudiments of riding a bike.

 

Irene operated a frock shop and reckoned that cycling would help her lose weight and enable her to keep fit.

 

So began an intensive training regime which she would undertake without fail every day. Closing her shop each night, she would set off on an 80km ride.

 

On Friday evenings it would extend to 230km, as she’d begin a 10-hour trip to Melbourne.

The week-end would be spent roaming the city, purchasing dress material. She’d then jump on her fixed-wheel bike ( nicknamed ‘Ironside’) loaded with as much fabric as she could strap onto the frame, and return to Wangaratta on Sunday.

 

Her devotion to her new sport attracted the attention of Harry Arnall, a local bike dealer, who suggested she had the necessary talent and determination to fulfil her dream of one day becoming a successful endurance rider.

 

Firstly, Irene set an 80km record of 2 hours 44.3 minutes despite incurring a rear tyre puncture on her Malvern Star.

 

Eighteen months after she commenced her rigorous training, Arnall decided that she was ready to make an assault on the Sydney-Melbourne record.

 

Standing a little more than 5 foot and weighing just 8st 3lb, she was an unlikely sporting figure clad in shorts she’d sewn and a Masters Sport cycling top.

 

The 1700 foot climb over the Razorback mountain was the first obstacle and even a nasty fall in loose road metal near Goulburn failed to deter the ‘Mighty Midget’.

 

By the time she reached the official half-way mark – Tarcutta – Irene was seven minutes ahead of the men’s record time set by the legendary Hubert Opperman.

 

However, at Albury, she lost more than 45 minutes owing to complications with the time-keeper’s car which put her well behind ‘Oppy’s’ time.

 

But once she reached the familiar sights of Wangaratta she began to pick up speed and was spurred on by a large crowd which applauded generously as she passed through her home town.

 

As Irene rode into Melbourne, she was greeted by more than 40,000 people who had gathered for the Globe Sporting Carnival. Her time broke the previous record, set by Joyce Barry, by 10 hours 23 minutes, and was just 41 minutes short of Opperman’s record.

She clocked 40 hours 23 minutes which was achieved with just two hours sleep on a diet of honey sandwiches, raw eggs ( which she cracked on her handlebars ) and washed down with gallons of milk.

 

The record time remained intact until 1966, when Margaret McLaughlin sliced off a further four hours……

 

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A week after reaching the heights of Endurance Cycling, Irene gave her bike to her niece and announced her retirement. She married Charles Plowman, went on to raise a family of six kids and opened a Bridal Shop in Melbourne.

 

When she passed away in 1999, her memory was perpetuated by the ‘Irene Plowman Award’ which honours Australian Cycling Club members who are able to complete five 200km rides in a season…………….

 

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Just as Irene Plowman faded from the sporting landscape after achieving the pinnacle of her career, so did Des Shelley, who flashed across the athletics scene like a kaleidoscope in the early fifties.

 

Shelley was born at Indigo and did his early schooling at Cornishtown before moving on to Chiltern.

 

A smart footballer, the pacy Shelley played more than 100 games in the Red and White but it was his ability as a sprinter that brought him under the wing of legendary Rutherglen trainer Jack King.

 

Shrewd old King, who had guided his brother Chris to the 1908 Stawell Gift  almost half a century earlier, had a quality stable. He and his sidekick, Lewis Jackson, had a reputation for turning out beautifully-prepared runners.

 

They were also former footy team-mates in those near-unbeatable Redleg sides of the early 20th century and were both firm believers in the philosophy that ‘a shut-mouth catches no flies’.

 

Rarely did anyone in athletics circles get an inkling from the tight-lipped King as to how any of his ‘boys’ would perform. But he did privately divulge that the 22 year-old Shelley was ‘ a bit of a chance’ to win the Wangaratta Gift of 1954.

 

And why not ? He had a good mark, was in peak form and would have the backing of the crowd, being ‘almost’ a local.

 

The weather had been miserable in the week leading up to the Carnival and the rain continued to tumble down on the Saturday.

 

For the first time in history, the Gift heats were postponed from Saturday to Monday. With the track still damp and spongy, the out-markers held quite an advantage. It certainly lessened the prospects of the Athletic Club’s main draw-card, ‘The Jamaican Express’, Herb McKenley.

 

A glance at McKenley’s record indicates why he was all the rage at Wangaratta. He was a Gold Medallist at the Helsinki Olympics, a triple Olympic Silver Medallist and still in hot form at the age of 31.

 

He had cut a swathe through the field in his heat and semi-final but he was off scratch in the Final and conceding big margins to the limit-markers.

 

He ran brilliantly but he and Shelley hit the tape together. The pair simply could not be separated by the judges.

 

Shelley, interviewed by the Sporting Globe representative said, “I just had the feeling that I broke the tape first.”

 

The accompanying ‘Globe’ photograph appeared to indicate this but the judges declared it a ‘Dead-Heat’.

 

“It would have been murder had McKenley been Award the race,” said the ‘Globe’.

 

McKenley was all for splitting the prize-money but Shelley opted for a re-run.

 

No-one had left the Showgrounds in the 40 minutes that elapsed before the re-run. This time Shelley was a clear winner, not by a big margin, mind you, but enough to send the crowd into raptures.

 

Shelley was dragged a yard for the Wodonga Gift the following week and was worried by an injured thigh. But, again, he was to take out the prize-money. The second place-getter ? Herb McKenley.

 

The Benalla Gift Meeting was held the next week and Shelley broke down in his heat. He never fully recovered from the injury and his career drew to a close.

 

But he had a role to play back at Rutherglen as the training partner for John Hayes who was being ‘set’ for the Stawell Gift that year.

 

Hayes duly took out Stawell, making it a big couple of months for the King stable.

 

Des Shelley moved his family to Cobram in the seventies and kept busy in his post-athletics days milking 400 cows with the help of his five sons.

 

But he never forgot that fabulous fortnight in 1954 when he had the ‘wood’ on the Jamaican Express’……..

 

You can read more of KB Hill’s wonderful stories about local sporting identities here.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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