More than a quarter of a century ago, Graham Woodrup’s life was cut short when a car crashed into a group of cyclists, but his legacy still lives on.
Next weekend as hundreds of cyclists pour into the streets of Port Fairy at the end of the 520km relay ride from the Murray River to the Moyne River, the memory of the man once dubbed ‘Port Fairy’s favourite son’ will not be far from the mind of his wife Hester and all those who knew him.
A hometown hero, Woody, as he was known to his friends, astounded the nation when he slept just 21 hours in 1988 to break the record for cycling from Perth to Sydney.
Similar feats endeared him to the region, but it was an idea he and Hester had in 1987 to start the Murray to Moyne event that ensured his hard work would not be forgotten.
That first ride with just three teams and 21 riders was a huge success and was the start of something bigger. But just five short years later he was gone. His death shocked the district and left a large void.
Graham had been out training for the Murray to Moyne with his daughter Kate and two other riders when a car hit the group as they were riding along Scenic Drive near Tower Hill about 6pm on February 17, 1992.
“There was a cyclist coming the other way to the cycling group and this man came along and more or less ran him off the road and he thought ‘Oh my God I hope he doesn’t hit the bunch’. Well of course he did. He hit Graham,” Hester said.
Graham, who was just 45, was thrown over the bonnet of the car and killed instantly. They tried CPR, but he was already gone.
“It was a massive shock. It should not have happened,” said Hester, who had been out riding that night too but had chosen a different route.
When Hester arrived home she got a phone call from a friend asking if Graham was alright because they heard there had been an accident near Koroit.
“All of a sudden I had this premonition it was not good news,” she said. “The next thing the policeman, who was our neighbour, came home with Kate in the car and said: ‘I’m sorry, Woody’s gone’. It was just...
“Even before I knew, I knew. I had this inner feeling. I had a sixth sense.
“I think for the first 10 years after it I was numb. You just go through the motions.
“He had so much to live for. It’s one of life’s really nasty turns.
“It was very sad because Graham was so safety conscious on the road because he lived on the roads. To be killed by misadventure really was pretty hard to swallow.”
Graham remained Hester’s source of inspiration, friends and family agreeing she channeled what she has been though by pouring her “heart and soul” into the community.
“He always used to say ‘you should be planning something, you should have something going on in your life the whole time. Never sit and watch the grass grow. Be thinking of a trip or a cycle event, just something. Always be positive’.
“I actually took a lot of strength from that myself personally and I think other people do too because life moves on. Day turns into night and it rolls on and on and you’ve got to go with it.
“He would have been very proud to think that the event has given so much back not just to Port Fairy but to lots of communities.”
If you had to put a dollar figure on what he’s given back it would be more than $1 million every year through the Murray to Moyne which is gearing up for its 32nd year. For the Port Fairy hospital alone it is as much as $70,000 a year.
Raising money for the hospital was the reason they started the bike ride in 1987.
As president of the hospital’s board of management, Graham floated the idea of a cycling event but it was rejected in favour of an old-fashioned hospital bed push through the streets of Port Fairy.
Hester and Graham held a race from Mildura to Port Fairy anyway. It was meant to be a showdown between a women’s team and the local Apex club, but it only lasted 100 kilometres.
“We called it quits because we were all tired. We called it a ride from then on,” Hester said. After the race they handed a cheque to the hospital for $10,000.
It was only meant to be a one-off event but when the next year Macarthur and Penshurst hospitals rang up and wanted in, they decided to run it again and in 1988 they had 10 south-west teams. “From there on it did have quite a rapid growth,” Hester said.
So rapid that they added Swan Hill and Echuca to the starting locations, and at its peak about 1800 riders were taking part.
Interest has waned in recent years with about 1000 riders set to compete when the relay starts on Saturday, so organisers are planning to ramp up the campaign to get more teams from across the state to boost numbers back up to about 1500 by next year.
“We’re going to be writing to every public hospital in the state,” Hester said. “A lot of them have been onboard in previous years, but we really want to get them back on board. We’ve got to rebadge ourselves and try and get the numbers up a bit.”
Funds raised through the Murray to Moyne have not just been for hospitals, but whichever medical-related charity the teams chose to ride for. “We were one of the original charity bike rides and since that time there have been spin offs,” Hester said.
Any day of the week you can find another charity bike ride to do that doesn’t require support vehicles, crew and being away for two nights, she said. “Ours is quite unique because it’s a relay and it is overnight.”
With teams starting in three different locations along the Murray River, they all converge on Hamilton for an overnight stay before they continue on to Port Fairy the next day. “I think the ride’s got faster as riders have got fitter and bikes have got better,” Hester said.
“We’ve spawned an Olympian, Michelle Ferris, who won two silver medals. She started her cycling career in the Murray to Moyne.”
Graham was enthusiastic about the Murray to Moyne and, if you were new to town, he would try and sign you up – famously convincing a nun who had just moved to Port Fairy to join a team. Retired doctor Peter Goy said he too was signed up within a week of coming to town, albiet not by Graham. “In a town like this, it’s actually surprising to have a hospital still,” Dr Goy said. “Officially we really shouldn’t have a hospital. You won’t find a town this size within 25 minutes of a base hospital with its own hospital. It’s largely because of the community effort.”
Hester said it was the volunteers that kept the riding event on track – from the SES and Lions Clubs that man major corners on the route to the medical teams and those in lead and support vehicles.
Each year the Graham Woodrup medal is awarded to someone for their volunteering efforts and Alice Birrell is one of those.
She will soon turn 80, but she has no plans to stop helping with the ride that she has been part of since day one. She drove the support vehicle for the women’s team back in 1987, but says her job now is “terribly important”. “I’m in charge of the rubbish bins,” she said with a laugh. But as Hester says: “with the Murray to Moyne when you were looking for volunteers we always knew we could count on Alice”.