I ALWAYS knew him as Dave Clarke, or Dave the Bike Man, but I see from his death notice that he was actually David Russell-Clarke. Then someone told me he was an old boy of Essendon Grammar. Typical of Dave to have a double-barrelled name and a posh school in his background and keep it quiet.
Born November 27 1957, died November 20 2020 … a week short of 63. Not great but not too bad for someone who lived pretty hard. It happened very quickly. He was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, checked himself out of hospital and came home to make the most of whatever time was left.
Dave was a boozer and a user of various other substances. Periodically he swore off everything but he was always seduced back, more or less. He remained cheerful, kind and clever. He was sometimes on a corrections order – he spent some time working at the Vietnam Vets Museum – but less so in the last few years. He was certainly familiar to local police but seemed to be on friendly terms with most of them.
I’d been warned not to trust Dave but I found the opposite to be true. He’d spend several hours fixing my bike then charge me $20. When I insisted on $50, he'd throw in two lawn mowings and a free bell and spray my weeds.
He set up poor people with free internet access by stealing mobile data from Telstra or Optus. All you had to do, he said, was connect this gizmo to that widget, use a fake password and a special code and somehow your data kept growing instead of diminishing. I wish I’d written down the instructions and now it’s too late.
But bikes were his main thing. He rescued bikes from the tip, constructed new ones using parts from many bikes. All his bikes were tailor-made for the rider. Dave would look at the size and weight of you then walk you round the yard and shed, show you the frame he had in mind, the bike he was going to get the wheels from, some good tyres on another, gears here, brakes there.
When I first became aware of Dave, he lived across the road from me in a house filled with hard cases. Some of his housemates were off their heads and the police visited regularly. In the midst of the chaos, Dave was the peace-maker. He was also the mower. Once he started the mower, he couldn’t stop; he would just keep going around the neighbourhood until he ran out of petrol.
When the household broke up, Dave rented the old house next to me. The house was too big and cold, so he lived in his caravan, using the house as an ablution block. On cold winter days, my dog spent most of the day in the caravan with him, curled up in bed watching TV.
His next move was to a one-bedroom house round the corner in Merrin Crescent. By that time people were bringing him old bikes to fix or for parts. Once he’d filled the shed, the bikes filled the back yard, then they started coming inside. They filled the bedroom, then the living room and eventually spilled over into the kitchen.
He was contemptuous of Big W bikes with their shiny frames and cheap Chinese parts that
wouldn’t last a year. He liked bikes with a few years and miles on them. He became fond of mine, a 1970s Peugeot Suntour that a friend of mine had retrieved from a hard rubbish collection. Dave kept the Suntour running against the odds. Over the years, he replaced the gears and the wheels several times and the brakes, the chain, the bell, the basket. Every few years he’d repaint the handlebars in black enamel paint. It still looks rather handsome.
When I collected my bike after a service, he told me about gear ratios, brake pads and paint qualities. You had to have an exit strategy when he got on to part numbers. I suspect that, like many other brilliant people, Dave was “on the spectrum”.
He didn’t talk much about himself but over the years he let slip that he had managed a hardware shop in Carlton. A couple of years ago he told me a big bicycle repair firm in Brisbane had offered him a job as a supervisor. Dave never big-noted himself so I reckon it was true. He played with the idea of a fresh start before deciding he was already where he belonged.
In the last 10 years he was captivated by electric bike technology. He could talk for hours on the subject. He built his own and on moonlit summer nights would ride the rail trail to Kilcunda, communing with kangaroos and wombats and enjoying a few tinnies and smokes along the way.
My last memory of him … perhaps March this year, before we went into isolation. My dog Matilda had wandered over to see Dave – all animals loved him – and I went to fetch her. He showed me the more interesting bikes he was working on, and his latest invention: salada crackers with vegemite and slices of cheese and tomato. He couldn’t have been prouder if he’d invented the pavlova.
Six or seven bikes were upended in the kitchen so there was no space for a table or chairs. The benches were covered in newspapers which were covered in bike sprockets and sprigs. There was a small space on top of a cupboard, just room for a plate and a tinny. Dave stood and ate his crackers and drank his tinny with a look of pure contentment on his face.
Dave’s neighbours, friends and family will gather at Dave’s place at 11.30am on Saturday.