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Bigger than Cadel: Australia’s century-old love affair with cycling

CYCLING IN AUSTRALIA: Forget about the wild scenes of public adulation for Cadel Evans following his Tour de France triumph. Forget about the widespread admiration for champion cyclist Anna Meares following…

The velocipede created one of several cycling booms in Australia. Harpers Weekly (Dec 18, 1868)

CYCLING IN AUSTRALIA: Forget about the wild scenes of public adulation for Cadel Evans following his Tour de France triumph. Forget about the widespread admiration for champion cyclist Anna Meares following her gritty comeback from debilitating injury.

Ignore the visible upsurge in cycling activity around annual Ride to Work days. And ignore the prevalence of lycra-clad, middle-aged cyclists clogging up the roads every weekend.

Australian society is unlikely to ever reach the heights of the bicycle craze that swept the nation more than a century ago.

A selection of velocipedes, circa 1887.

There were three boom periods for cycling in Australia during the nineteenth century, each of them varying in length and significance.

The initial cycling boom began in the 1860s with the invention of the velocipede, a machine constructed of iron and wood with pedal-cranks attached to the front wheel.

Women, as well as men, were captivated by the new machine, and just a few months after the first velocipede races were held for men at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in 1869, The Australasian newspaper recorded that a number of females had also participated in cycling contests, held as part of local athletic sports meetings.

But these early machines were cumbersome and uncomfortable to ride, and so their attraction as a means of transportation or physical activity soon diminished.

The next boom occurred in the late 1870s and early 1880s with the advent of the high wheeler, also known as the “ordinary”, or (later) the penny farthing.

As popular advertising posters for American firm the Pope Manufacturing Company show (see image below right) the heavy and expensive velocipede was quickly superseded by the sleek, superior high wheeler.

Pope Manufacturing Company

Crucially, the high wheeler’s giant front wheel allowed fast and comfortable self-propelled travel over rough roads. The “ordinary” was quickly adopted as a relatively cheap form of transport, marking a new way of life for some people. Young males in particular took to the bike, forming cycling clubs for mutual enjoyment and protection.

The first high wheeler was imported into Melbourne in 1875 and the Melbourne Bicycle Club was formed three years later, quickly becoming the centre for cycling in Australia.

Soon the Austral Wheel Race at the MCG became the Melbourne Cup of the cycling fraternity, and large amounts of prize money were offered to contestants at annual meetings from 1886 to 1910.

Many members of the Melbourne Cricket Club were horrified when the event began to attract not only professional cyclists from all around the world (which is still does to this day), but also a large number of bookmakers. The race created an atmosphere more akin to that of a racetrack than that of a stately cricket oval.

Even though the Austral was a summer event, cycling itself was a year-round leisure activity, patronised increasingly by a wide cross-section of society.

Long distance racing and touring also became popular, and in 1884 Alf Edward became the first person to cycle between Sydney and Melbourne, taking almost nine days to complete the trip. This was the first of a wave of arduous inter-capital rides, over sparsely inhabited countryside and crude bush tracks.

Bicycling, an 1997 color print featuring penny farthings. US Library of Congress

Although some women also took to the ordinary, and tricycle races were held for women in South Australia in 1885, many held longstanding objections about female involvement in cycling.

These objections were swept aside with the invention of the pneumatic tyre in 1888 and its application to what became known as the “safety” bicycle during the early 1890s.

The widespread popularity and availability of the safety bicycle, and the drop-frame model for women, thus created the third and biggest boom for cycling, not only in Australia, but throughout the industrialised world.

By 1895 the safety bicycle was fast approaching the peak of its popularity, as both males and females now realised the benefits that the relatively inexpensive new machine could bring to work, as well as to leisure.

In Melbourne especially, the appeal of the bicycle continued unabated. One journal, the Melbourne Punch, even suggested traffic was becoming so thick the city would eventually have to put special tracks underground for cyclists. The reason: new bicycles were so fast that cyclists were at risk of killing themselves and others.

But how deeply had bicycle mania permeated the nation during the 1890s?

In the lead up to Federation, one newspaper suggested it was cycling that unified the nation, hence the depiction of the bicycle on a proposed coat of arms. Melbourne Punch, August 13, 1896

One newspaper report suggested that the bicycle should be part of the “new” national coat of arms. In a rather striking design (see image above), the traditional faunal emblems of kangaroo and emu are depicted standing either side of a pneumatic tyre, while a safety bicycle is silhouetted against a rising sun.

The words “Advance Australia” are inscribed at the foot of the illustration. Other enthusiasts wanted to write songs about the marvellous new machine, including “My Bicycle”, a song written by Joseph Gee in 1896.

Specialist cycling magazines (such as The Australian Cyclist, on September 7 1893, it’s first edition) declared their faith in “the freemasonry of the wheel”, promoting all aspects of the activity with almost evangelical zeal.

An 1887 ad for the Cogent “safety bicycle”.

An increasing number of entrepreneurs realised there was money to be made from the popularity of the bicycle. It was common for existing businesses, many with no direct connection to cycling (such as booksellers or piano dealers), to become agents for particular brands. Such companies included Raleigh, Humber and Singer.

So while the initial impetus behind the formation of cycling clubs in Melbourne may have come from young men intent on seeing how fast and far they could ride, the wider uses of the bicycle for transport and recreation soon broadened the attraction of cycling for a significant cross-section of the community.

Indeed, for some women, cycling became a way into a largely male public domain. The way in which female cyclists were able to attain a new-found mobility and occupy public space worked to challenge, if not break down, the traditions of the dominant Victorian-era moral order.

Kathy Watt had a significant influence on women’s participation in Australian cycling. AAP/Ray Kennedy

In this way, it’s the multifaceted nature of cycling activity that has underpinned its essential appeal.

Of course, there was some opposition to cycling mania, and claims the attraction of the bicycle had an adverse impact on spectator and participant numbers in other sporting and leisure pursuits.

But the devotion to cycling remained deeply embedded in both urban and rural regions of Australia, even after the craze subsided at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is this innate, though often curiously sublimated, rich and diverse heritage, perhaps more than the high-profile international success of cyclists such as Hubert Opperman, Phil Anderson, Kathy Watt and Cadel Evans, that offers a better explanation of the continuing Australian love affair with cycling.

Read the rest of Cycling in Australia.

Further reading