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The Austral: World’s oldest track cycling race

First 5 winners of the Austral Wheel Race (1887-1891)

Cycling in Australia centres around the Austral Wheel Race, and no other wheeling event in the world is so rich in traditions. It is an oft-told tale now, this of the Austral, as it has been repeated each year since 1886. But repetition fails to dull the edge of its interest. (The Argus, 13 Dec 1897)

No better words have been written about the Austral Wheel Race since these, 117 or so years old this week. As the world’s oldest track race, the Austral is an important heritage cycling event.

It is fitting then that the biggest story so far of the 117th Austral (to be run on 20 December in Melbourne) has a strong historical theme – the planned return of Tasmanian track legend Danny Clark to the race he won in 1977, 1986 and 1990.

Clark has a tantalising handicap of 160m in a heat that many older cycling fans will be hoping he wins, just to see what happens in the final. Regardless of the outcome, the fact that Clark has set his sights on the Austral again, at the age of 63 no less, gives an indication of there being something very special about this track race.

Why is the Austral special?

Sure, having first started on the then young turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1887, the Austral is deserving of the respect that should come to things (and people) of a certain vintage.

The illustrious list of past winners and place getters of this great race is also cause to revere and celebrate it – riders of the caliber of Hubert Opperman, Sid Patterson, Gordon Johnson, Stephen Pate, Danny Clark, Phil Sawyer, Laurie Venn, Barry Waddell, David Allan, Zak Dempster, Shane Perkins.

Personally though, the Austral captures my attention and imagination because of the characters and controversial moments it has been associated with over the years.

I don’t know if there is a self-selection effect at play here, where ‘interesting’ personality types gravitate to track cycling. Or maybe it’s just that the velodrome acts as a crucible for energy, emotion, and pure speed to create the unexpected.

Perhaps the Austral is a little special simply because of the handicap format – making it possible, in theory at least, for the unknown underdog with a generous handicap to take on and beat the scratch markers.

Whatever the reasons behind the appeal of the Austral, one thing for certain is the controversies and characters have never been far away from this race. At least that’s how it used to be.

Sid Patterson’s second Austral win in 1964. The Australian Cyclist, April 1964

Controversy and character

Over the years, just some of the Austral Wheel Race controversies have included:

  • Allegations of a rider being drugged to stop him from winning in 1894 (Launceston Examiner, 14 Dec, 1894, p7)
  • Race fixing, rider collusion, and race official betting in the early 1900s
  • Air-balloon and airplane crashes as pre-race ‘entertainment’ in 1910
  • Curious handicapper marks (e.g. Gary Neiwand’s comfortable win in 2000 after the gift of 70m)
  • The presence of bookmakers and betting on the race (“Patto was backed for a small cycling fortune. He firmed from 10/1 in pre-post betting, prior to his heat win, at which price he started 5/4 on. On the night of the final, the bookmakers opened Patto favourite at 5/2.” - The Australian Cyclist, Mar 1967)
  • The unknown internationals that take everyone, including the handicapper, by surprise (e.g. the 116th Austral won by Japan’s Minori Shimmura in his first trip to Australia)

And the Austral has also seen its share of interesting characters too, such as:

  • ‘Major’ Taylor, the first African-American World Champion, who was paid an enormous sum by promoters to ride exhibition races as part of the 1904 Austral carnival
  • 43 year old Irish-American ‘Plugger’ Bill Martin’s bribing of other riders in the 1901 final to ensure his win (“Plugger gave the crowd its money’s worth because he was never out of trouble” – Dunstan, Confessions of a Bicycle Nut, 1999).
  • Two time Austral winner Sid Patterson (1962, 1964), a giant of the sport and a major track drawcard and crowd favorite through the 50s and 60s.
  • Past Austral riders who have had their own personal troubles (Stephen Pate, Gary Neiwand, Jobie Dajka, Mark French), some of whom have made steps back to cycling
  • LA Olympian and track showman Max ‘Hollywood’ Rainsford’s attempt to win the Austral at aged 44
  • Azizul Awang’s finish line wheelies

Sentimental or something really missing?

No doubt some readers will recall other memorable Austral moments and personalities of their own. But my guess is these wont necessarily be from recent years.

With no disrespect intended to current track riders and officials, to me track cycling just somehow seems different these days.

Arguably, it’s the characters and controversy that are a big part of the appeal of any sporting contest. These were in large part the things that drew the biggest crowds to the cycling tracks of yesteryear.

These are the factors that make track racing most exciting in my view.

The interesting characters and controversial moments are appealing in any sport because these lend a sense of unpredictability to the event, and the contest outcome. Such things humanise the contest, and present us with an alternative experience to watching displays of skill, speed, strength, and athleticism which can seem at times decidedly inhuman, or robot like.

While some might disagree with this thinking, I believe there is a case to be made for recreating some of the excitement and interest that existed back in track racing’s halcyon days. One way to do this is to allow a bit more space for the ‘interesting’ characters and personalities to emerge in the sport.

Australia’s elite track cyclists are arguably more successful on the world stage these days than our riders from past eras. But despite this, the public appeal of this cycling discipline doesn’t seem to match the success, compared to past crowds in the many tens of thousands and in periods where multiple cycling tracks operated.

Perhaps this is partly to do with the relative lack of characters and controversies in modern track cycling. Has this discipline become too sanitised, clinical and run ‘by the numbers’?

At Hisense Arena on Saturday night, I for one am hoping to see some big characters and a bit of passion, presence, and emotion on the boards.

I’ll take finish line wheelies, aggressive riding, flashy victory salutes, and human unpredictability any day over boring clinical robot riding by the numbers.

An edited version of this piece first appeared on Cycling Tips

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