At a windy, outdoor velodrome in the northern Melbourne working class suburb of Reservoir, a group of cyclists meet three mornings a week to cut some laps on the 410-meter almost flat circular track. They call themselves the ‘Golden Oldies,’ sharing their retirement mornings riding road bikes at a steady pace, followed by a cup of tea in the club rooms of the Preston Cycling Club. As the years have passed, group numbers have dwindled from a peak of 60-70 as cyclists have ‘fallen off the perch’. Nowadays, if the weather is good, you might get around 10-12 riders, mostly male.
As long as the forecast is less than 30oC by 9 a.m., and as long as it isn’t raining, 85–year-old Iris Dixon (née Bent) will be there. “I rust, you see,” is her tried-and-true excuse for staying home when it’s wet.
Whenever I catch up with Iris she says the same two things to me: “How are you?” and “How’s the racing?” Aside from the odd local criterium, I don’t race anymore, but I love getting the question. It’s something that my own northern suburban grandmother would have asked in the same direct way, and for a brief moment of time I transform back to a young grandchild, answering the questions about my interest in sport. “Good, thanks Nanna,” I would have politely replied. But Iris is not looking for a one word response. She is definitely not my Nanna.
I think about my last race, and recall how a woman had sat on the back all race and had slipped us all on the final lap. Iris processes the scenario. “You know how to make them work?” she asks me. “You drop back and have a chat to them. Give them a compliment. Tell them their bike looks good. Then, you say, ‘Do you think you can pull a turn?’” Iris’ eyes have lit up. They are sparkling.
“Really?” I ask.
“No. Don’t be silly,” she responds. “You say to them, ‘Do a turn or drop off. Don’t do a turn, and get knocked off.’”
She is in her element, discussing race tactics and working out ways to make the race, and the racers, work in your favour.
And she should know. A 16-time national champion, 35 titles all up, Iris certainly knows how to win. Her last big scalps were in 1992 when, as a masters rider, she won an open 66-kilometre Northern Veterans handicap race from Benalla to Yarrawonga, and in 2004 as a Veterans world champion in the criterium. But she was racing long before then.
In 1945, Iris lined up for her first race as a 14-year-old, following in the footsteps of her father, George ‘Buzzer’ Bent. A club champion for the Brunswick Cycling Club, Buzzer became coach, handler, and key tactician for the success-hungry Iris. It was the perfect combination, and Iris quickly amassed a stable of wins and records. Twelve of her national titles were on the track, the remainder on the road.
And she never knocked anyone off their bike.
Iris was stepping into the prime of her racing career when, in 1947, the amateur women in Victoria set up the Victorian Women’s Professional Cycling Union (VWPCU), a professional women’s league. The league ran successfully until 1954, when essentially all of women’s cycling in Victoria, and much of Australia, disappeared completely.
Cycling Victoria historian Ray Bowles was a junior at the time, beginning his racing days in 1955. “When I started racing, I had no idea that women had raced, and had done so in the recent months before I began. That’s how sudden their racing scene disappeared,” he said.
But until that decline, the women’s cycling scene had not only flourished, it had done against significant forces. Their biggest barrier was the League of Victorian Wheelman (LVW), who refused to affiliate the VWPCU, and further refused to issue racing licences to key female athletes such as Berenice Wise, who had applied to race some of the men’s Victorian classics. Unable to access support from the LVW, they would organise racing alongside local athletic carnivals. The Victorian Athletics League (VAL) officials would donate their time to oversee the women’s racing, and became an essential ally. “The VAL were truly wonderful,” recalls Iris.
During this time, races were often held in country locations, and the women would collaborate on transport by hiring a furniture van — “sometimes a flash bus,” adds Iris — to get themselves and their bikes to races. At these carnivals, the women’s fields would outnumber those of the men, with multiple grades on offer.
Iris had a local bike shop sponsor, Navy Cycles, who provided her with specialty bikes. In 1947, she set a motor-pace track record, the shop organising a special motor-pacing bike. Over a cuppa, Iris brings in a publicity image from the day of the record attempt, and the Golden Oldies review the pic. It is a great shot: Iris with her 16-year-old brown wavy locks under a thin leather helmet, her French-like silk jersey, fearless smile, and a classic purpose-built ‘Healing’ bike.
Leo, one of the Golden Oldies, reviews the image closely. “Your front forks are around the wrong way!” he exclaims. Iris explains how they deliberately reversed the forks and used a smaller front wheel to bring the rider closer to the motor bike, maximising the slipstream effect. “That must have been hard to handle!” he adds.
Iris doesn’t miss the opportunity to drop a zinger. Those eyes of hers are already on fire. “It might be hard to handle for some,” she says with a carefully planned pause, “but not for us special ones.” Her eyes are dancing as she winks. The room erupts in laughter. Sitting around, talking about racing and past glories. It doesn’t get any better, and Iris makes the most of the moment.
Every time I see Iris, I ask her more about this amazing racing period. There is so much to learn, including trying to understand the reason for its decline. “People don’t realise, but the women’s bikes were big,” says Iris. “Women were also racing before the war. And then it just sort of died.”
The impact of the collapse was felt for almost 30 years. That’s an entire generation that missed out on racing; women who would be Nannas today to our emerging stars, passing on their tips to their granddaughters. But Iris isn’t the one to ask about the politics.
“I was just there to race, I never got involved in the stuff off the bike,” she admits. What she did know was when to make her move, how to play the field, and how to win.
In 1951 she won all five titles at the Australian championships, and was described by Sir Hubert Opperman as “the most outstanding showing by a Victorian woman cyclist in history.” Col Caves wrote in the Brisbane Sunday Mail that “Iris Bent is the best women’s track cyclist in the world today.”
She retired from racing after the birth of her second child, and gave up cycling completely while raising her four children. She was “pushing 55” when husband Jim, a racer himself, made the suggestion for a comeback.
“He told me I was too fat and that I needed to exercise,” she recalls. “What a cheek! He was right though. I was fat.”
Together they raced the Veterans scene, taking them across Australia.
She lost her appetite for training on the road after being hit by a car, and gradually withdrew from the racing scene.
The Golden Oldies keep her motivated and engaged, and she shows no signs of retirement. Buzzer himself rode the rollers twice a day well into his 90s.
“He would put the TV on and watch a 30-minute show each morning and afternoon,” said Iris “When the program finished he knew it was time to get off.”
He passed away aged 94.
I ask her if she ever thought about the missed opportunities of her time. World Championships and Olympics were not on offer for women then. Even her amassed national title tally was overlooked in 2015 by Cycling Australia in the newly established Hall of Fame, something noted by one inaugural inductee, Anna Wilson, in her acceptance speech.
“If they had an international team back then I probably would have been on it, but if I had made it to the Olympics, well, we will never know. I could have won. But I can always say that I could have, can’t I? Who’s going to argue with that?” Iris throws her head back and laughs.
Special thanks to Iris and the Golden Oldies for their time and cuppas, to Ken Mansell for his dedicated research on Victorian women’s cycling, and to Ray Bowles for his insights.
The Golden Oldies are always on the lookout for new members. Anyone is welcome on road bikes, provided you stick to the speed limit (which I learned the hard way – no flying laps!). They meet at Preston velodrome in Reservoir on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 to 10 a.m.
Further resources on Iris:
- Uncovering the Past: Ken Mansell’s Quest to Record the History of Women’s Cycling
- Cycling Victoria Podcast (Episode Two: Iris Bent)
About the author:
Monique Hanley is a current board member of Cycling Victoria and chair of the Cycling Australia Women’s Commission. She met Iris in 2012 at a special women’s cycling history meeting, and is now responsible for ensuring Iris gets to the annual Cycling Victoria International Women’s Day Awards (an award recognising achievements in progressing women’s cycling is presented in Iris’ name).