Retro Review – Malvern Star (RIDE #35)
Since 2004, every issue of RIDE Cycling Review has included a ‘Retro Review’: featuring a bike from the past, usually one that had been ridden by a famous cyclist, which also includes commentary about the evolution of cycling products over the years. There have been several contributors over the years but Warren Meade is the man who has been responsible for most of these popular stories; he is the owner of Bicycle Passion – a shop in Bairnsdale, Victoria – and an avid collector of all things relating to cycling. A summary of all the ‘Retro Reviews’ can be found at the bottom of this article.
This page features the ‘Retro Review’ from RIDE #35 (Volume 01, 2007). It’s about the Malvern Star that Les Einsiedel rode in 1926…
By Warren Meade
Photos Andrew McDowell
Les Einsiedel’s 1926 Malvern Star
When Les Einsiedel lined up for the 1926 Warrnambool to Melbourne road race, he had little idea of what a life changing day it would turn out to be. Riding the Malvern Star bicycle featured here, he was just one of a couple of hundred optimists who were hoping that their fitness – combined with a bit of luck – would see them hold off the backmarkers and take out the event.
If Einsiedel was alive today to see the gleaming machine featured here he would surely be wearing a wry smile. The race was run in atrocious conditions after 48 hours of persistent rain had turned the roads into a quagmire. The perfect paint and polished nickel you see here would be a far cry from its appearance when he dismounted to receive the plaudits of the thousands who gathered to watch the finish.
The prize for first place on that day, a brand new Indian Motorcycle, awaited him at the presentation. The Indian was worth at least six months’ wages in 1926; not a bad day out for a 20-year-old ‘unknown’ from Kooweerup.
Like many of the competitors, Les had ridden to the start of the race in the preceding days, just for a bit of a warm-up and to familiarise himself with the course. Groups of riders would get together for the journey and further amalgamate along the way, sussing out each other’s form, checking out equipment and discussing tactics and the all important handicap marks with their mates. Kooweerup is 70km on the other side of Melbourne, making his warm-up ride about 340km, spread over two days.
Two of Einsiedel’s mates from Kooweerup accompanied him on his trip. They were the well established professional rider Percy Osborne, with a string of big race performances behind him, and 36-year-old Oliver Colvin with four previous Warrnambool finishes and a win in the prestigious Scottsdale Wheel Race in Tasmania way back in 1909 to his credit.
The latter part of their journey was completed in the rain, the road a series of mud-filled ruts carved out by the horse drawn vehicles still quite common in rural areas. When it was wet cycling was done on the ridges between the wheel ruts. Working turns of pace as we know it now was not a simple matter. Crosswinds were a boon for the stronger riders as there was nowhere to hide for all but the first few in each group.
The Kooweerup boys must have expected the rain to ease and the conditions to improve by the Saturday; they lined up for the start in Warrnambool at first light, in the rain. From all reports, it rained all day. Photos of the race show a soaked crowd and bedraggled, waterlogged cyclists.
Einsiedel and Colvin were handicapped on the 48 minute mark, which would prove to be generous. Osborne lined up on scratch with a rising young star, the 22-year-old Hubert Opperman, well credentialed Ken Ross from NSW and the Australian champion Harold Smith from Western Australia.
Just over eight hours later, Les Einsiedel won the big race by the narrowest of margins from Colvin, while Percy Osborne gained third fastest time behind Hubert Opperman and Harold Smith. Osborne was unlucky to lose contact with Opperman and Smith when he punctured at half distance.
Kooweerup would have been proud of their cycling representatives that day. Einsiedel’s time for the 260km journey to Melbourne was eight hours and 16 minutes. This represents an average speed of 31.5kph. Not bad for a bloke on a single gear fixed wheeled bike with no brakes riding through mud and dirt. Opperman’s time for the trip, aboard a Malvern Star bicycle similar to Einsiedel’s, was an even more remarkable seven hours and 36 minutes, an average speed of 34.2kph. Opperman failed to catch the leaders by a mere eight minutes.
Oliver Colvin won a bicycle and a radio set for his second place. He proudly used this bicycle as transport for nearly 40 years after his placing in the Warrnambool. A sad footnote to this story is that he was knocked down and killed by a motorist in 1962, at the age of 72, whilst riding the prize bike on his daily journey from his home to his boat at Tooradin.
Einsiedel was friendly with the Colvin family that owned the bike shop in Kooweerup. Oliver’s brother Andrew ‘AC’ Colvin had won Australia’s richest handicap, the Austral Wheel Race, in 1907 and established the shop with his prize money. He went on to become the local Ford dealer and was also the captain and coach of the town’s football team.
‘AC’ had won the Austral at the age of 20 and in 1926 he made a cycling comeback. He proved his Austral win was no flash in the pan and that he wasn’t “just a trackie” by winning the gruelling Melbourne-Ballarat-Melbourne race in 1928, from the 13 minute mark. He did this at the age of 40.
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Einsiedel’s Malvern Star bike was the best money could buy in 1926. It features a racing tubeset with all one inch diameter tubes, BSA lugs, BSA ‘narrow’ double plate fork crown and brazed-in BSA fork ends. The nickel plated lugs and ends are true to the original finish. In fact, the whole frame is nickel plated under the paint.
The top end Malvern Star bikes in this era could be ordered with BSA parts or, at extra cost, Chater Lea components. This machine has the Chater Lea option, with a special oversized bottom bracket shell to accommodate the Chater Lea axle and cups, which ran 5/16” balls instead of the English standard 1/4” balls. The bottom bracket was also only 63mm wide, lopping five millimetres off the all important ‘Q’ factor, giving one of the narrowest of all time.
This crankset offered a distinct advantage over the BSA pattern and other cranksets available at the time. The Chater Lea item had a large three pin spider, enabling the swapping of chainwheels in a few minutes to suit race conditions.
To swap chainwheels with the more common BSA pattern five pin arrangement meant first removing the pedal from the crank, then removing the cotter pin, then the crank from the axle, before swapping the chainwheel. This was a time consuming and exacting job, involving a large spanner and hammer and punch, not to be tackled lightly just before the start of a race. In the days of single speed road bikes, having the correct gear ratio on board was extremely important.
The other thing to note with the Chater Lea option is that one of the spider arms is incorporated in the crankarm, predating Campagnolo’s adoption of this idea with their 1985 C-Record cranks by some 65 years.
In addition to the single fixed gear on Einsiedel’s machine, you may have noticed the lack of brakes. Freewheels and brakes were not permitted in professional road races until 1922, however not all riders elected to use them. As late as 1928, Malvern Star showed its top road racing bikes in its catalogues with no brakes at all.
It was only after the Australian team returned from competing in the 1928 Tour de France that brakes were deemed a good idea. A ‘Tour de France’ model with two rudimentary hand brakes and two different sized freewheels appeared in the catalogues for the 1929 season.
Derailleur gears were not permitted in professional races in Australia until 1937, but appeared in catalogues on the ‘touring’ models from 1933 onwards.
If you think the pros had it tough, consider that the amateur governing bodies did not permit the use of freewheels and brakes until 1933. It was widely believed that a fixed wheel and plenty of pedalling made for fitter cyclists, but accidents while training and racing were a far too regular part of the scene, particularly on hilly courses. One wag reported at the time that it was only the riders who were not convalescing in hospital who were getting fitter through not having brakes and freewheels.
A famous accident happened at the finish of the 1922 Warrnambool. The race concluded on the Ascot Race Course and, just before the entry, there was a downhill run to a sharp right hander. A large group sprinted towards the corner. With no brakes on their bikes and a brand new T Model Ford offered as first prize, the motivation to get through the corner first was enormous and the inevitable happened. A mass pile up ensued and the winner, Peter Hill of New Zealand, who was cautiously bringing up the rear, managed to avoid falling off and went on to win with ease. It was shortly after this that the League Of Victorian Wheelmen relented and allowed the use of brakes and freewheels for the 1923 season.
This Malvern Star is equipped with 28 inch wooden clincher rims. Riders could choose between these and three different widths of steel rims. As they got narrower, the steel rims weighed 1,050, 950 and 890g, while the wood rims weighed 750g each. One had to be careful when inflating the tyres on the wood rims as over inflation would blow the sides out of the rim with disastrous results.
Extra skill was involved when building wheels with wood rims. The wood was affected by varying moisture content, meaning that if you tensioned the spokes when the rim had a high moisture content, you were likely to find the spokes felt slightly loose after a prolonged dry spell. The tyres were also slightly easier to mount during a drought, as the bead seat diameter decreased slightly. The wheels required constant vigilance and attention from the spoke key to keep them in tiptop running order.
Regardless of whether you used wood or steel rims, there was no choice of spoke drillings. All the rear wheels had 40 spokes, while all the front had 32. Spokes were purchased in packets of 144 (one gross), providing enough spokes for two pairs of wheels. The rear wheel was laced over three, under one (four cross), and the front was laced over two, under one (three cross). The front and rear hub flanges were of different sizes, but provided the correct dimensions so that if you used the above lacing pattern, the same length spoke would be correct for the rear and the front. All this was thought out for the earliest safety bicycles in the 1880s and the principle continued unaltered well into the 1960s.
Cyclists carried a spare spoke or two with them and only one size was required. A popular place for transporting the spokes was within the seat tube of the frame. A cork was fitted into the bottom of the seatpost and the spokes speared into this. The post was reinserted into the frame and the spokes remained there until needed. It gives bicycle restorers a thrill to dismantle an ancient racing bike and find the spokes still intact in their secret hiding place, sometimes after many decades.
The fittings on the early racing bikes allowed for a wide range of adjustment. Most riders coped with a frame of about 22 inches, adapting it to suit themselves with the L-shaped seatpost and the Major Taylor diamond stem. This design could be utilised with the clip above or below the extension, and it came standard at 150mm long. It is difficult to find a diamond stem with its full length intact, as most riders cut them off once they had found their length. The extension beyond the handlebar clip was considered dangerous. It became a weapon in the event of a pileup and as we have seen, these were common in the era before brakes!
Einsiedel’s bike as you see it on these pages has been completely restored. The rims, made in England by the Constrictor company, are New Old Stock items from the 1920s. All the cones and bearings have been replaced with the correct ‘new’ items. Even the spokes are the correct 15/17 gauge double-butted ‘rustless’ items.
The grips were commonly called ‘gas mask grips’ and were the most comfortable option for the rough roads of the time. These were simply the tubes that connected the face masks to the chest mounted canisters on World War One gas masks, and were available after the war from army surplus stores.
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This bike is a pleasure to ride and apart from the fact that it has no brakes, it has no vices. It handles perfectly, can be ridden ‘no hands’ forever and, due largely to its 1,115mm wheelbase, it soaks up the bumps like no modern bike.
The cranks are only 165mm long. This was quite common for the time and it is particularly useful for the high cadences required with the fixed gear. It makes you appreciate how riders from this era were not just fit but also efficient.
For the weight watchers out there, the bike as you see it on these pages tips the scales at 12.2kg.
Les Einsiedel went on to take fourth place in the Dunlop Grand Prix in 1927, as well as second place in the ‘teams’ section with his mate from Kooweerup, Percy Osborne. The perceived gap in their abilities of 48 minutes from the Warrnambool the year before must have narrowed somewhat in the intervening 12 months!
The Dunlop Grand Prix was the first European style stage race held in Australia. Einsiedel and Osborne were sponsored by Malvern Star. Einsiedel’s Warrnambool win the year before must have been no fluke, as the field for the Dunlop Grand Prix was reported to be the finest ever assembled for a road race in Australia. Hubert Opperman, also riding a Malvern Star, won the event outright in resounding fashion.
In a portent of things to come, Malvern Star riders filled five out of the first eight places. For the next 35 years many of the best performances by Australian cyclists were recorded on Malvern Star bikes. And as the list of victories advertised by the company grew ever longer, at the top remained the words: “1926, Warrnambool to Melbourne, 1st Place, L. Einsiedel.”
– By Warren Meade (owner of Bicycle Passion)
The ‘Retro Review’ series started with Fausto Coppi’s 1949 Bianchi (RIDE #24). Click here for a full list of all ‘Retro Reviews’ to have featured in RIDE.
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