It was early August 2021. Late in the night a phone rings in a quiet workshop in the wintery misty bush outside of Melbourne. The call is from Japan with news of a catastrophic bike crash at the Tokyo Olympics. An Australian cyclist escaped serious injury but the structural failure in his bike sent alarm bells ringing.
Ewen Gellie took that phone call. Such was his status in the cycling world, he, along with another colleague on the other side of the globe, were the ‘go to people’ to help understand (and resolve) the nature of the equipment failure. And Ewen was, as always, ready to share his knowledge and expertise.
Just 7 months later it was another late-night call that informed his family, and then the world, of a far greater catastrophe; Ewen had unexpectedly died at home.
Facebook followers will have seen the outpouring of tributes to Ewen, especially from the cycling community. Ewen’s achievements in that world are legend; Australian Mountain Bike Champion who dominated the scene from 1988 to 1993. Uphill, downhill, tricks; you name it, he could do it. His ingenuity and engineering skills then made him a leader in custom bicycle frame building. In his workshop in the bush, Ewen had created a ‘state of the art’ intellectual property cycling treasure trove.
Ewen’s contribution to the bike community cannot be overstated. Beyond his riding achievements, he mentored other riders, designed courses, communicated, collaborated, displayed and promoted the sport and the technology. He became a major force in the development of hand-built bikes, combining art with engineering.
Ewen was an early adopter of new technology and applied 3 D printing technology to building unique bike parts when many thought this technology was still in the realm of science fiction. Mercer Ellington, the son of the great Duke Ellington, was once asked “ if ‘the Duke’ had become a plumber, what would have plumbing looked like today? His answer was, “it would be very different”. So too it was with Ewen and bikes. He produced what had never been before. Anyone who saw his bespoke tandem bicycle that packed into a suitcase will attest to that.
Ewen’s peers in this bike world are better able to tell this chapter of Ewen’s story; but Ewen was more than bikes.
This chapter celebrates Ewen through the lens of his ‘family’ in the bush.
Ewen became a member of Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative in 2005.
He had a long-term love of the bush. From a toddler, he travelled extensively with his family (mum, dad and 3 older sisters) on rough bush camping expeditions targeting national parks around Australia.
Image: Ewen and family on a bush camping expedition c 1970 and practising bush skills, 1976
This continued through adolescence and progressed to the families bush block in Strath Creek (100km north of Melbourne) where he and his sisters were crucial parts of a well-oiled family machine that built a stone-walled holiday house. It was in this period that the young energetic Ewen was guided by the gentle hand of his father John from BMX into mountain bike riding (harnessing and re-directing the youthful exuberance from the ‘vroom-vroom’ thrill of trail bikes).
Beyond the thrill of the riding, Ewen’s natural curiosity got him thinking about how he could make his bike work better. Other kids disassemble watches to see how they work, and some even manage to re-assemble the watch. Ewen ‘disassembled’ his bike with a hacksaw and re-built it to improve its ergonomics. This was clearly a portent of what was to come; Ewen was to become the man that ‘built a better mouse-trap’.
Ewen’s secondary school years at Wesley College saw his sporting qualities blossom. Starting with BMX, he quickly added athletics, football, water polo, canoe polo, rock climbing, abseiling, sailing and skiing. He excelled at them all.
Images: Ewen sailing on New York Harbour c 1994 and with his father c 2010
Who of us could jump 6ft as a teenager? But it was in mountain bike riding that he realised his passion. At 14 he was winning competitions against adults. He had honed his skills to such an extent that he made the impossible look easy, and this probably psyched his older opponents. Anyone familiar with the sport will attest to how ‘scary’ some of the rides are, however Ewen’s approach was measured and controlled, loving the exhilaration while knowing his limits and managing the risks.
During these years sport was ‘king’ but it did not prevent Ewen from winning a scholarship that gained him entry to Melbourne University as a Mechanical Engineering student. At University (and beyond) he became a mountain bike champion winning the MTB National Championships in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1993, and in 1991 represented Australia in the World MTB Championship in Italy. (Becoming fluent in Italian was a by-product, and a forerunner to extensive world travel in years to come.)
Ewen’s engineering skills developed in parallel, and he graduated in 1990. Early achievements were being part of a team that designed and built Australia Post’s ‘red terror’ postie bikes. A suitable ‘quid pro quo’ was that his employer sponsored his riding.
After graduation, Ewen’s professional engineering life began in the motor industry where he became a globe-trotting trouble shooter and problem solver in GMH plants in South Africa, Japan and USA. Returning to Melbourne and local assembly line manufacturing, Ewen fell ‘out of love’ with this side of Engineering and in 2006 took the leap into full-time steel-frame bike building.
During this period, Ewen was not only re-examining what he wanted from his work, but how that could be shaped around how he wanted to live his life.
Through a business associate of Ewen’s father, he found an answer.
Ewen became a member of the Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative (henceforth ‘the Co-op’) in 2005. The Co-op’s residential, conservation and co-operative elements were a perfect fit.
Again, with the help of Dad, Ewen built his house and his now famous workshop. Anyone who had knowledge of Ewen’s development should not have been surprised.
He had realised his dream of living in his own national park.
Image: Ewen ‘living the dream’ on the Co-op. c 2010
Ewen’s entry into Co-op life was, like his personality, understated. But his technical skills and his interpersonal skills filled niches. Ewen was a working model of the synergies that come from co-operatives. While the Co-op has a history and abundance of high achievers, including many engineers, Ewen added a ‘variation on the theme’, quietly responding to challenges and needs.
Ewen designed and built a nest box camera that allows the monitoring of tree-mounted nest boxes, without leaving the ground. And he adapted ‘off-the-shelf’ technology that allows real-time monitoring in other inaccessible places. His input has greatly expanded the Co-op’s ability to monitor wildlife activity and to capture valuable visual images. He was also a valuable contributor to establishing the Co-op’s own wi-fi network, far superior to what Telstra and other providers could offer, and more recently offering a reliable voice on renewable energy systems.
A less heralded but arguably more valued quality was Ewen’s ability to inject balance, compassion and wisdom into the Co-op’s collective decision-making processes. The Co-op’s residential conservation model involves making decisions to help guide the Co-op in implementing its overarching conservation covenants and philosophy, and this involves the interaction across the diverse interests of all members. Ewen’s philosophy was to recognise the commitment to a common goal and accept that in collective decision-making, members may not always get the decisions exactly as they would hope. Where conflict arose, Ewen was thoughtful and listened to all views; offered humility and where possible sought compromise; careful in arriving at a concluded view; and resolute in committing to a decision. At a technical level he was an engineering perfectionist, at an interpersonal level, he was never afraid to acknowledge his frailties and uncertainties or seek advice. Some say he defied the ‘Engineer’ (pejorative) stereotype.
Ewen was a valued member of the Co-operative and the wider Bend of Islands community.
When asked how he had developed his humility, compassion and integrity, his stock answer was, “I grew up with 3 older sisters”.
Image: Ewen with some Co-op kindred souls c 2018.
In recent times Ewen had struggled with health issues. He was open about his battles and was unafraid to seek (and receive) counsel and help from friends and neighbours. And as always, it was with his sisters and father where he received much support, love and care during this time.
Ewen’s house wasn’t dominated by his many cycling awards or his many other achievements. It was a modest, functional, energy efficient house. His priorities were elsewhere.
One of few adornments on his walls was a quote:
“Scientists investigate that which is;
Engineers create that which has never been.”
Einstein foresaw many things that had never been seen before.
He may have foreseen a Ewen.
Vale Ewen Gellie. 15/10/1968-9/3/2022