History of cycling in Australia

By Phil Jarratt 24 May 2016
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Bicycles have a long and colourful history in Australia, stemming from the rudimentary machines of the late 19th century to the sleek, streamlined pushies of today.

IT’S A CHILLY Sunday morning, just before dawn. Our car is filled with clothes and cushions, and the roof-rack is groaning with display stands and benches as I edge along empty streets, taking my wife to set up her stall at the market. I drive carefully, not just because the car is so full, but because I know I will encounter the silent lycra-clad pack at any moment. They will be four- or six-wide across the road, lost in yellow jersey dreamland, and if I get really unlucky, there will be a matching pack coming the other way.

I don’t mind sitting behind them for a while, watching them glide as one, because a part of me longs to be with them, feeling the refreshing sting of the morning air as you become a blur in the landscape. But my reverie is disturbed as the cyclists single file it up a hill, allowing me to pass. As I crest the rise, I catch the sun popping up over the ocean, before I focus back on the road and new waves of cyclists approach.

On mornings like this you could conclude that cycling is growing faster than roads and paths can accommodate, but you would be wrong. Despite increasing awareness about health and environmental benefits, a National Cycling Participation Survey in 2015 indicated that numbers are declining as the population ages. There are other factors, such as urban development that isn’t bike-friendly, and resistance to helmet legislation, but it’s mainly about age.

History Cycling Australia

Writer Phil Jarratt’s father, Lew, promoted his cycle business in annual parades in the Wollongong area during the 1950s. (Image courtesy Phil Jarratt).

Despite this, more than 4 million Australians – 17.4 per cent of the population – ride a bike for recreation or transport each week. Children still have the highest participation rates and cycling is growing in popularity among middle-aged men. Unexpectedly, the Northern Territory is right up there with the highest geographic numbers, challenging the stereotype of sedentary beer guzzlers. Around Australia, more than 50 per cent of those surveyed reported they had at least one bike in the house. No doubt the successes of high-profile cyclists of the likes of Cadel Evans and Anna Meares have helped maintain those figures, but there was a time, back in cycling’s golden era, when almost every home would have had a bicycle, and often a fleet of them.

THE FIRST REAL bicycle was built in Paris in 1869 by Eugene Meyer. The idea was not new – there are design sketches that date back to the 15th century, and in the 1820s Europe had a flirtation with a contraption called the ‘velocipede’. But Meyer patented a wire-spoke tension wheel with individually adjustable spokes. Featuring a high front wheel and small rear one, the Meyer bike was known as the ‘high wheel’. Only much later did it become known as the penny-farthing, after the biggest and smallest of Britain’s copper coins.

In 1870 James Starley of Coventry refined the design by adding tangent spokes and a mounting step. The Ariel model also boasted ball bearings, solid rubber tyres and hollow frames that reduced the weight and made the ride much smoother. These bicycles were first imported to Australia in 1875, sparking the establishment of the Melbourne Bicycle Club in 1878 and a club in South Australia in 1881.

The sport grew rapidly, particularly after the introduction of the ‘safety bicycle’ – more or less the bike we know today – in the late 1880s. But imported bikes were expensive and remained a status symbol (in the 1890s one newspaper claimed a cheap model would cost a rural worker five weeks wages, and yet wandering swagmen somehow managed to buy them).

History Cycling Australia

Mechanic and cyclist Tom Finnigan used his Austral Wheel Race winnings to set up shop in Melbourne. The business included a factory (pictured here in 1940) turning out Australia’s famed Malvern Star bicycles. (Image: State Library of Victoria).

Englishmen Charles Bennett and Charles Wood were both penny-farthing enthusiasts who rode in club races before migrating to Sydney in the 1870s. Sensing a commercial opportunity, in 1882 they opened a small store in Clarence Street. ‘Bennett and Wood’ sold imported Rover and Raleigh high wheelers. The pair was instrumental in founding the Cyclists Union of NSW (which later became the NSW League of Wheelmen) and Bennett’s profile in the sport was lifted when he became NSW and Inter-colonial champion in 1883 and 1885.

They began selling penny-farthings branded ‘Speedwell’, which may or may not have been produced locally. However, when Wood left the company in 1887, Bennett decided to throw everything he had into the production of an Australian ‘safety cycle’. The cycling craze was taking off, but it would take some time to reach distant Australia – so while he set up a factory, Bennett kept importing Rover safety cycles and branding them Royal Speedwell. By the turn of the century, however, Speedwell bikes were in full production and Bennett and Wood soon had to move to larger premises in Market Street. By 1911 they had grown to fill three buildings and were sponsoring the annual Speedwell Cup and advertising themselves as “Australia’s largest bicycle builders”.

MEANWHILE, IN MELBOURNE, a cyclist was training hard for the 1898 Austral Wheel Race, Australia’s premier track race since 1887. His name was Tom Finnigan, and he raced with the Albert Park club and worked as a mechanic. There was a reason that Finnigan was taking the Austral seriously. Because of his poor form over the three seasons he had contested, he had been controversially given a generous 220-yard handicap for the 2-mile race at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the first prize was 240 sovereigns, which was at that time enough to set a fellow up for life. Finnigan rated himself a chance, even if no-one else did.

He won his heat easily against more fancied riders. And in front of a crowd of 30,000, including the governor of Victoria, he took his mark for the final, which he led from the bell and won by a nerve-racking half head to take his massive payday while the bookies licked their lips and torn-up betting slips rained down on the MCG.

Finnigan used his winnings to set up his own bike shop at 58 Glenferrie Road, Malvern, and in 1903 began building and selling his own brand of bike, which he named Malvern Star. He was able to get the endorsement of Don Kirkham, one of the leading cyclists of the day, and Malvern Star quickly prospered in bike-mad Melbourne and beyond. But Finnigan began to suffer from ill health, and in 1920 he sold the business to a 24-year-old cyclist and fledgling businessman named Bruce Small for £1125 (today about $94,000).

History Cycling Australia

Writer Phil Jarratt’s fascination for cycling began in the 1950s in his father Lew’s shop. One side sold whitegoods, such as washing machines, and the other sold cycles, Phil recalls. Combining two such products in a single business was then common practice. (Image courtesy Phil Jarratt)

Small, who would go on to make millions from bikes and real-estate development, and become mayor of the Gold Coast, was a savvy operator who understood enough about cycling to spot a star in the making, which was why in 1921 he put 17-year-old Hubert Opperman on the payroll. ‘Oppy’ – later Sir Hubert Opperman, a federal minister of the Menzies era – was Australia’s first cycling superstar, and he became the face of Malvern Star. He first won the Australian Road Cycling Championship in 1924, then again in ’26, ’27 and ’29, while also making a name for himself internationally. In 1928 he won the prestigious Bol d’Or in Paris and placed highly in the Tour de France. In 1931 he won the Paris–Brest–Paris 1166km road race, and was voted Sportsman of the Year by a Paris newspaper.

The Malvern Star brand would be associated with many other champions, but Oppy’s fame in those golden years between the wars was the making of the company.

WHILE AUSTRALIA’S TWO great cycle brands were getting started, the fledgling professional sport flirted dangerously with devil-may-care entrepreneurs, gambling touts and outright rogues. Hugh ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh was a bit of each. Barely out of his teens, McIntosh, who had been an erratic cycling competitor in the seasons of 1900 and 1901, loved both the sport of business and the business of sport, and he was happiest when he could combine them, as he did when he became secretary of the NSW League of Wheelmen in 1903.

With the governing body of the sport under his control, McIntosh teamed up with two enterprising young journalists, George Wynne and Percy Hunter, to launch a venture they called Summer Nights Amusements. Summer Nights’ first production was the inaugural Sydney Thousand, a 1-mile (1.6km) handicap cycle race with a world-record first-place purse of £750. With that kind of life-changing money on offer, Australia’s best cyclists were lining up to enter, but McIntosh went one better than presenting the best local field, paying £1200 to bring the world’s best cyclist, Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, to Sydney for the race.

African–American Taylor, also known as ‘the Ebony Streak’ or ‘the Colored Cyclone’ was only the second black world champion of any sport. The Sydney Thousand was a major financial success, and Hugh McIntosh, who had played up the racism card with shameless enthusiasm to promote the event, had come up with a formula he would use many times over.

History Cycling Australia

Penny-farthing races were popular at Brisbane’s Exhibition Ground in the 1880s, when the city boasted about 200 of these unstable bicycles. (Image: State Library of Queensland).

Speedwell’s answer to Oppy was Edgar ‘Dunc’ Gray, who represented Australia at three Olympic Games (winning our first-ever cycling gold in the time trial at Los Angeles in 1932) and two Empire Games. After his LA gold, the immensely popular Gray designed and built his own ‘Olympic’ model for Speedwell at their Sydney factory. The bike sold well, but Charles Bennett’s management skills were no match for wily Bruce Small, and Malvern Star began to surge ahead as Australia’s leading cycle brand.

Malvern Star opened its second shopfront in Gardenvale, Victoria, in 1923 and by World War II had 24 stores and 450 agencies across Australia. Moreover, Small understood the mechanics of business growth, and began floating offshoot companies as early as 1929. One of these, Bicycle Finance Pty Ltd, made a small fortune offering low interest loans to buy bikes for “10 bob down” during the Great Depression, when few could afford cars.
Small of stature and mostly mild-mannered, Small could be ruthless in business, a trait he showed in 1935 when he outsmarted Speedwell and other rivals to gain the franchise for the British BSA accessories and components company, thus ensuring the quality of his high-end cycles.

After the war, Australia went through some tough years of rationing and hardship before a new era of prosperity and increased leisure emerged. In the lean years, many small businesses struggled, but there was one product that seemed to work in good times and bad. This may have been why, recently discharged from the RAAF, my father opened a corner bike sales and repair shop in a small town on the NSW South Coast. Lew Jarratt had been a keen club cyclist in Onslow, Western Australia, during his teen years in the early 1930s, but he had no experience of retail. He believed in the cash economy and would not buy stock on credit, so to fill out his meagre showroom of cycles, he strategically placed pot plants and bundles of other produce from his home garden.
Perhaps he had followed the progress of the Victorian cycle company A.G. Healing, which had begun importing English bikes in 1898 and produced locally from about 1912, reaching a peak of 25,000 bikes a year. Alongside the bike business, Healing began importing Atwater Kent radios in 1933, and then started building its own sets. In the 1950s they moved into televisions and whitegoods, eventually selling their bike division to the English company that had just bought Malvern Star.

So as his business grew, my dad did the same. He lined one side of the shop with bicycles and the other with fridges, washing machines, radios and new-fangled television sets. We weren’t allowed to have a TV, but I grew up with the smells of chain oil and linseed oil for the saddle. Some of my earliest memories are of being baby-sat in the bike repair shop out the back, grease all over me as I happily passed the tools to the mechanic.

I started out riding trade-in, half-sized, fixed-wheel bikes, but for my 11th birthday I was given a racy black-and-pink Speedwell Special Sports, with three-speed Sturmey Archer gears, comfortable Bell saddle and some very fancy transfers adorning its frame. My memory of my first new cycle is that it was the last word in cool and that I was envied by every kid on the block, but when I researched the model, I found it described as “conventional” and “functional”. One vintage cycle expert wrote: “It’s called the
Special Sports, but that’s the only sporty thing about it.” That hurt.

Staying ahead of the curve, Bruce Small sold Malvern Star to the UK’s General Accessories group in 1958, the year that he reported the company’s best ever sales of £2 million. Speedwell followed in 1965, about the time that my Special Sports was starting to look a little shabby. The great days for Australian cycle manufacturing were gone, the victim of cheap imports. Small cycle retailers would go the same way, the victims of big box shopping centres, but my dad hung on for a few more years.

SINCE THE 1970s, two great changes in cycling have been diversification through the introduction of BMX and mountain bikes for off-road use, and the explosion of the doping scandal at the highest levels of the sport. BMX bikes originated in California as a result of teenagers imitating their motocross heroes, and as seen in the 1971 hit documentary On Any Sunday. In the film, the kids used road bikes, but by 1975 off-road models had been manufactured and the sport developed a cult following.

In 1981 the first mass-produced mountain bike appeared, intended for use over a variety of surfaces, and featuring sturdier frames, wider tyres with large knobs for increased traction, a more upright seating position, and, increasingly, various front and rear suspension designs. By 2000, mountain bike sales had far outstripped that of racing, sport/racer, and touring bicycles.

In Australia, mountain biking received a boost when a young Cadel Evans won two world championships and competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, before switching to road racing. Large numbers of trail networks have since been established, particularly in the Victorian High Country, and mountain biking has become a major summer sport in alpine resorts.

The road bike is gaining in popularity too, helped by Cadel’s 2009 UCI Road World Championship and 2011 Tour de France victories. Cycling clubs are growing, with many new members among older men who enjoy the social aspects of it and the fact that cycling has a lower impact on the body than contact sports. With Cadel now retired, other riders – such as Caleb Ewan, a 21-year-old sprint sensation from Sydney and Richie Porte, from Launceston – are following in his tracks and have bright futures.

The use of performance-enhancing drug use in cycling goes back to the 19th century, when a concoction of cocaine, strychnine and caffeine was used by racers and marathon runners. Unfortunately it often killed them, if not during the race then later in life. Modern use of drugs is less dangerous, but it is no less a tragedy, ruining the lives of cycling champions, such as Stuart O’Grady and Lance Armstrong, who was brought down as a career-long cheat in 2012. Although drugs had been a constant in endurance racing throughout the 20th century, the introduction of corporate teams paying huge sums for successful riders in the 1990s brought with it a new culture of science-based performance enhancement.

The crossroads of big-time controversy and the weekend warriors can be found at triathlon events and community cycle meetings. The lycra crowd gathers to compare the latest in light frames, sleek headwear and fancy accessories, but, unlike their heroes, there is no secrecy and the closest they are likely to come to anything performance enhancing is the latest energy drink.

Yes, today’s recreational cyclists tend to take their hobby very seriously, but once you’re out there with the wind on your face, it doesn’t matter if you’re a racer or an old coot on a fixed-wheel cruiser like me; the freedom of the road, the thrill of the downhill glide, is just the same. 

This article originally appeared in the Mar-Apr 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#131).