For most people, riding a bike is one of their first childhood memories. That first memory is the key to their relationship with the sport. It is a defining moment that determines whether the relationship is short or everlasting.
While sorting through my mother Daphne’s affairs after she died in May 2017, I discovered photographs of me in 1965, aged three, riding a tricycle in Hyde Park, London, where I was born. But my first real memory of riding a bike was five years later, after my parents and I had moved to Sydney. It is as clear now as it was almost 50 years ago: my father, Perry, running alongside me in Centennial Park, as I enjoyed the speed I had reached on my new red Bennett bicycle he had bought for me.
I also recall the sudden shock and pain as I rode directly into an empty water canal and crashed, and the realisation that Dad’s earlier emotions were not so much enthusiasm and encouragement but his fear of my impending doom. After he helped me up and brushed me down, checking for any obvious injuries and my general wellbeing, he told me that he had been imploring me to use the brakes.
I had no way of knowing then how significant cycling would be in my life. I would fall in love with the sport and later get to live in Belgium and France for nine years writing about cycling, and then continue to be a cycling journalist after returning to Australia in 1996. I did not know then that it would help me to forge a life that, while also covering others sports, has allowed me to report on every major bike race in the world—including the Tour de France for 30 years.
In retrospect, there was a clue. Like most children, after that fateful ride on the red Bennett, I was soon back on the saddle, riding from our family home in Woollahra and around the streets of the eastern suburbs of Sydney and beyond. I recall not long after Dad muttering how the bike shop owner from whom he bought my Bennett had suggested I join a cycling club and consider racing.
The suggestion interested me, although it was quite some time before that happened. While cycling always continued to be enjoyable, my mostly inglorious competitive sporting years were spent in high school playing rugby union and rowing, before competitive cycling finally drew me in. That shift started with triathlons, the swim–bike–run sport, which I began on a $350 Cecil Walker bike made of steel blue Reynolds 531 tubing, bought off the shelf at the now closed Cecil Walker bike shop in
Melbourne’s Central Business District, followed by club road racing and training with the Eastern Suburbs Cycling Club in Sydney.
Throughout my childhood, cycling was more a source of adventure than competition, especially after hitting ten, when my interest turned towards riding a purple Chopper Dragster. Lower to the ground, the Dragster was far easier to control when riding and to dismount and, in the misfortune of a crash, it was a shorter distance to fall.
For me, there was something more to the Dragster than to the Bennett. The Bennett inadvertently planted the seed of my love for cycling through that early feeling of exhilaration from human-powered speed as I rode around Centennial Park and on other protected roadways. But, with its easier control, the Dragster opened the door to my first real sense of independence, making it a thrill to discover local back alleys and streets. It even aroused my first naïve sense of rebellion, with the Dragster being styled (or so I thought at the time) after the Chopper motorbike that was so popular with the bikie clubs I had seen on American television shows.
Freedom came with riding my Dragster. It allowed me to be adventurous, to learn and to develop strength from such independence. I would leave home and not come back for hours, and often not until dusk, believing at the time that I was covering a vast amount of territory. Today, the memory reflects innocence.
People’s simple and pure recollections of their formative days on the bike are often similar, whether riders are knock-about weekenders or world-class champions like Sir Hubert Opperman and Cadel Evans—two of Australia’s greatest cyclists, whose feats made them superstars of the sport, but generations far apart.
Opperman’s lifelong love affair with the bike and cycling began during his years being raised by his grandmother in the town of Melton in the western outskirts of Melbourne:
From bare-kneed boyhood days I was drawn magnetically to cycling. I can recollect gazing at the village lads of Melton as they rode down the wide main street with similar feelings to those which stirred me years later when I saw Nicholas Frantz and Leducq in the Tour de France.
After Evans became the first Australian to win the Tour de France, in 2011, he was asked about the thrill of riding a bike. His answer smacked of the youthful innocence he had when he first took up cycling on a BMX bike while living in the Aboriginal community of Barrunga, near Katherine in the Northern Territory, where he was born. ‘Feeling good going fast,’ Evans answered. ‘The noise, the wind in your hair, the freedom of it.’
My sentiment and that of Opperman and Evans would not be dissimilar to those of the millions who ride bikes around the world today—or those who rode when the bicycle was invented and first came to Australia—even if the reason to continue riding a bike varies between being a form of transport, a recreational activity or a competitive sport.
The bicycle boom in Australia came after it began in Europe and the United States. But it is a misconception that Australia has long been a minnow in the cycling world. Cycling has been as much a part of Australian society as it has been in any other country, even though much more focus has fallen in recent years on road racing, and despite the fact that it took over 100 years for the world’s biggest race, the Tour de France, to be won by Australian Cadel Evans in 2011.
Cycling is not just about the Tour, nor is it just about road racing or competition. Looking back to its origins in Australia, cycling is reflected in the development of Australia’s social make-up, history and culture. That a country of around 24 million people has seen such widespread use of the bicycle is testimony to its success.
Uptake of the first ‘velocipedes’ in Australia in the early 1800s was slow. Although the later ‘penny farthings’ became quite popular, they cost a relatively princely sum and were dangerous to ride, with their large front wheel and small rear wheel leaving the rider seated high above ground. It was not until the 1890s that there was a cycling boom, triggered by the advent of the more affordable, lightweight but sturdy ‘safety bicycle’. The bicycle rapidly became a useful form of transport for workers in the expanding and industrialised cities and towns of Australia. And workers in the country, such as shearers, farmhands, clergymen, explorers and prospectors, saw the bicycle as a faster form of transport for long-distance travel than horses or camels, which were high maintenance, needing feed, water and health care, unlike the bicycle.
In the early 1900s, bicycles were also the preferred option to camels for those who patrolled the Western Australian rabbit fence—a 3,275-kilometre network of fences erected to stem the incursion of rabbits into the west from Victoria.
In Western Australia, in the early 1890s, the gold rush meant that the population exploded from about 50,000 to 160,000. The vast distances between towns and mines made communication difficult, but the creation of bicycle messenger services such as the Coolgardie Cycle Express Company resolved the problem, facilitating the delivery of messages, mail, newspapers and supplies until the late 1890s when telegraph and regular postal services began, although bicycle message services remained until the 1920s.
Soon, the anecdotes from such two-wheeled travellers became folklore and the country developed a patchwork of bicycle routes leading to towns where, increasingly, centres would be characterised by the sight of parked bicycles, alongside the buggies, teamsters, horses and camels that were the common forms of transport then.
Individuals started to plan to make and break records of cycling between towns, and even to circumnavigate Australia by bike. In time, mass bicycle races also started, cycling associations formed and cycling journals were published, with tips on bicycle
maintenance, how to cycle and riding etiquette.
Many hotels even began catering for travellers on bicycles. The New South Wales Cycling Gazette, the official publication of the New South Wales Cyclists’ Touring Union, recognised the trend. On 19 November 1896, it cited The Prospect Inn as providing cyclists with a special bathroom, a bench with tools and a selection of articles on bicycle repair tips.
Fast forward to today estimates are that more than one million bicycles are sold a year. But, between the bookends of cycling’s beginning in Australia and now, there exists a rich history that has been reflected in many avenues of Australian life.
Cycling has produced a litany of colourful Australian characters whose feats at events in Australia and overseas—from various overland crossings, to track and road races—have inspired and entertained many. It is interesting to hear people refer to cycling in Australia as the ‘new golf ’ when, in reality, the bicycle has always been of interest. Its popularity as a form of transport, competition and recreation has continued. A look out the window often provides evidence of cycling’s popularity—the sight of cyclists riding in large pelotons on the roads, or commuters pedalling to work.
Edited extract from Power of the Pedal: The Story of Australian Cycling (NLA Publishing, $39.99) by Rupert Guinness, now available at all book stores and online at bookshop.nla.gov.au