It was only the other day. I eased up the volume on Alex’s stereo, having just moved the stylus on to his Sgt. Pepper’s LP. I wasn’t sure how loud I should mix the music with the hum of conversation from the mostly 50 and 60-something party. ‘No, right up!’ said Alex. Here, at his 64th birthday party, Alex’s enthusiasm was as strong as ever.
He’d just recounted the experience of listening to the newly released LP in 1967 – a teenage boy in the suburbs of Sydney. Maybe a hint of the bitter-sweet as he found himself reflecting on his age and the Lennon-McCartney classic which referred to it. Would we still need Alex at 64? You bet. A man of such infectious vitality, of empathic kindness, of youthful optimism and of downright good politics. Everyone he touched needed him. To that I might add everything, as I think of how much he loved the landscape he cycled across and how keenly he could advocate for it.
But now Alex is gone. Unexpected and shockingly sudden. Like so many others I am struggling to process this fact. Now writing is itself a way of trying to make sense of this change to my world.
I took up road cycling at the end of 2012; a delayed reaction to elements which had begun to coalesce over at least a few years. One of those ingredients was a sheer love of my local hills. Getting on the road bike opened up the landscape for me in ways which intensified this identification. It was such a joy to get out there and discover new roads – new for me at least – feeling both free spirited and at one with nature. Part of the joy was a certain solitudinal aspect. But I wasn’t alone.
I was uploading my rides to the website Strava and enjoying analysing that data with spin-off apps. One of these apps could tell me who had ridden over the same stretches of road on a given day, and at what time. As I looked at this data, I kept seeing the same name cropping up – Alex McCallum. I was riding out from Eltham, Alex was coming from North Warrandyte, and we were both enjoying the undulating rural roads of Kangaroo Ground and Christmas Hills. I don’t know if we had crossed paths, but we were covering the same ground, sometimes only minutes apart.
So I had a look at Alex’s profile. I looked at the rides he was doing and copied some of them. I discovered that Clintons Rd, which I’d assumed was unsealed, was in fact the most beautiful sealed climb in the area. We still hadn’t met and Alex was already changing my life.
Not long after I first looked at his Strava profile, in early 2013, I noticed Alex was organising a cycling event as part of the Warrandyte Festival. He and his wife Mary Ann were actively involved in the local community, contributing a huge creative influence to what makes the area so special. Here Alex was bringing his passion for cycling and for the local area together, in the form of a 40km time trial through North Warrandyte, Kangaroo Ground and St Andrews. After a couple of months on the bike I was beginning to find my cycling legs and intrigued to know how I might go in this informal competition. So I finally made my introduction to Alex, on Strava, and asked if I could come along. Of course he was warmly encouraging and so our meeting was set.
That day was special. It was my first foray into the social world of my local cycling community. I made friends there with many cyclists who are still around me today, and I made friends with Alex. We gelled straight away. His excitement for the event, for the local hills, for cycling and for all of us – his old friends and his new friends – was welcoming and inspiring.
Out of this local community we began to build a Strava group, Green Wedge Cycling. This was an aknowledgment of Melbourne’s north-east hills, known as the ‘Green Wedge’ and a play on ‘Green Edge’ the place-holder cosponsor title given to the Australian professional cycling team sponsored by the munitions company Orica. I think we were both excited at the prospect that a lawyer for the team might object, but that never happened (although one of the riders said something informally to Alex which made him laugh!).
For a long time there was only a tiny handful of us in the Strava club, but as Alex began to organise social rides under its banner the numbers grew. The last time I looked the club had more than 100 members. Some of these riders regularly attended the events Alex would organise. Others have joined simply to acknowledge the importance of the area to their riding – and I know Alex was thrilled with this.
In an email exchange Alex once said:
“My aim in this is to have other riders to do rides with us and hope that they can see the value of Melbourne’s Green Wedge which is too precious to lose to development.”
He said this in 2013, and as usual his enthusiasm was matched by his perspicacity and his solid political instincts. Last year Nillumbik Council was won by a right-wing pro-development group. You may have cycled past the anti-c101/c81 placards and wondered what that was all about. Those two articles were legislation to protect landscape character and wildlife habitat in the area. Shocking huh! At best, the opposition to this environment protection is simply landowners saying, ‘don’t tell me what to do with my land.’ At worst it’s a trajectory towards developers making squillions whilst turning Kangaroo Ground into Doreen and destroying the Green Wedge.
Don’t think it can’t happen. Alex once took me on a ride to the back streets behind Nicholas Lane in Kangaroo Ground. Look there and you’ll see some quasi-suburban sub-division has already taken place. After the anti-environment group took the council last year hubristic stickers went over the anti c101/c81 placards shouting ‘both gone!’ I was heartened to see someone recently went down Clintons Rd and spray-painted over these. I meant to tell Alex but I never got to.
Alex also had a keen appreciation for the land’s real owners. They’d been enjoying the hills for thousands of years before we came along. Alex was inspired by local history. I know he enjoyed the work of Mick Woiwod and recently read his history of the area’s indigenous communities. As he read the book he recounted details to me about indigenous hunting techniques and how this relates to just why there are so many kangaroos in Kangaroo Ground.
Sometimes Alex had an academic’s forensic instincts. He’d accumulate knowledge and that knowledge would be consolidated by curiosity to explore and wonder and understand more. When late last year scientists announced an Aboriginal formation near Little River might be the world’s oldest astronomical observatory Alex was quick to contact me and suggest Garden Hill (the highest point of Kangaroo Ground) might have served a similar purpose. As he said, “There’s some stuff written about the “out of place” stones up there already”
As a rider Alex was tenacious. He had too much unbridled passion for the senses to restrict himself with a structured training regime. But if he locked his sights on a goal there was no stopping him. Before the 2013 Rapha Rising climbing challenge he had a little fall in Warrandyte. He was sore and was frustrated to miss a ridiculous adventure three of us had climbing four ways to Kinglake in freezing and driving rain. After a short recovery he plugged on and of course he completed the challenge. I shared some of his riding through the challenge – he was a little slower than usual and complained a bit of pain, but was pretty stoic and upbeat as ever. Only after the challenge we found he was riding with a fractured rib!
So when Alex complained about losing feeling in his ankle the other day on Instagram I wasn’t sure how to respond. I knew he could be resilient even through considerable suffering (perhaps the definition of a real rider). Now I wish I called to talk to him about it.
Our friendship was rare and special. We were bound by common interests and our discussion was wide-ranging. We realised this was going to be the case early-on. I might trace it to the day Alex met some of us opposite the KG General store at the start of a ride. He was playing with his keys and I noticed his Electrical Trades Union (ETU) keyring. Almost 15 years earlier, in what was essentially another life for me, I’d visited Melbourne from Sydney and drunk at the ‘Comrades Bar.’ This was a pub next to the old ETU headquarters on Swanston Street. I loved it and felt right at home in a union-run pub! The thought entered my head and I said to Alex, “Hey, did you ever go to the Comrades Bar?’. “Yeah, he said, I was the publican!”
Something had come full circle for me. We realised we were on the same side of the barricades and could speak freely about our political ideas. From my point of view his instincts were impeccable. Just as often as we’d excoriate the right together, we’d spare nothing for the phonies on our own side.
He was a living reminder to me of how many good class-conscious activists are getting older. It’s a huge challenge to people my age and younger who often have good instincts for social issues but weak class-consciousness and economic knowledge. I might add that class-consciousness was a part of our joining the Coburg Cycling Club too – a club with a rich working class history. There have probably been a few jokes made about those clubs, ‘on the other side of the river!’
Alex was ready too, to take an activist approach to his retirement. Recently Vic Roads began a project to erect steel barriers alongside roads throughout the Green Wedge. In some places there is a case for barriers as a safety measure – a bend in front of a precipice for example. There’s one like that as you descend past Dawson Rd heading back to Kangaroo Ground. But then there’s been a barrier at that spot forever too. Now they’re lining them up on straight sections where there’s no obvious hazard, but potentially creating one for cyclists by giving us less room to move in an emergency. There’s a petition against the barriers in the general stores, but Alex decided to contact Vic Roads and complain personally. They dismissed him, but when I said “Good on you anyway” he replied, “Alain, my retirement will be Hell for these bureaucrats!” Now I won’t get to see him raising hell.
Somewhere between the cycling and the politics we shared a common understanding, a common philosophy for the life we were leading. Every year for the last three years we met at the Tour Down Under in Adelaide. Over dinner at one of these tours, I think it was January 2016, we discussed this philosophy. We recognised we were two guys with no real interest in sports who were nevertheless quite obsessed with competitive cycling. It’s not so much of a contradiction when the bike itself can be a way of life and when competition offers the distilled expression of what is essential to the experience, with or without a dossard. There is something complete about road cycling that binds the rider to the environment (which for a professional might include their audience who may well be riders themselves etc.) in a unifying and egalitarian way. A way of life.
Now Alex is gone. I’m going to keep this empty space in my life where he used to be. I need that for the rest of my life, to remember what over fewer than five years has been one of the most important connections in my life.
I’ve lost friends and comrades before but there is something different about this. He gave so much. He gave so much to our community. He gave so much to me. My biological family are spread across the eastern seaboard with my nearest in Canberra. He was like next of kin to me here in Melbourne. When I needed someone to take me home from hospital in December 2015 he was there with bells on. Recently, he has been Claire’s number one fan. When she took the Kinglake QOM I know he was so proud. He was there on Mt Baw Baw to see her A Grade debut when he slipped in the snow.
It’s been a difficult few weeks, but his retirement, and the birth of his grandson, and the support of his extraordinary wife, were girding his irrepressible optimism. He’d even bought a vets racing licence. I was so looking forward to racing with him. He might have had to start from limit but he would have loved every moment and I know he would have brought all his energy to that community and made it stronger too. Next year I suspect Claire will be on the start-line at the national championships. I know he would have been there, proud and excited. Don’t bet against the woman inspired to race for his memory.
So where do we go from here? We keep riding and we do the things that need to be done. We face all sort of problems in the world. As someone educated in Critical Theory I’m always worried about the proto-fascistic traits I see in everyday life, sometimes in mundane forms like the passive anti-intellectualism and narcissism which runs though much of our current society. Alex was the kind of guy who cut against this threat just by being himself. So our tasks are harder without him but we can do them with his example.
Sometimes, when times are tough, I end up quoting the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci. As a motto he urged, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ I take this to mean, be realistic about the difficulties you face but don’t ever give up. I think Alex would have agreed this is pretty good advice. So now I say this to myself, and I know the gift of his friendship is a source of strength for all the struggles we face ahead, from our immediate grieving to making the world a better place in which to live and love and explore – a wellspring of positive energy.
And I know Alex had as much time for superstition as me, but the next time you’re out on the road pushing through those last tired pedal strokes of a long ride, and the tail-wind catches you … . Well, you never know.