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Freewheelin’ through Australia’s cycling history

Cadel Evans, Anna Meares, Simon Gerrans, Nathan Hass, Caroline Buchanan, Kathy Watt, Sue Powell and Michael Milton are just a few of the cycling stars you will encounter in a new National Museum of Australia travelling  exhibition due to open at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane this weekend.

Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia explores the story of Australian cycling, from our elite champions through to the role bikes have played in all our lives.

Read more below about what’s on display and how the show came about.

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Double Abbott Buggy. Photography by Jason McCarthy, National Museum of Australia

Buggies, Bicycles and FJ Holdens

Every Australian family wanted one of these. With room for the whole clan on two bench seats, the sleek and robust double Abbott buggy was the FJ Holden of the late 19th century. I like to imagine the Victorian equivalent of the barbecue where ladies chatted about the Abbott’s silky smooth ride and the convenience of its rain hood. Men might have debated their buggy’s top speed with a decent pair of horses on the front. Continue reading

tipper small scale

The Strange Case of Professor Tipper: cyclist extraordinaire

In what must surely rate as one of the most bizarre career choices in Australian history, Alfred Henry Tipper, a 6 ft 2 inches tall Victorian man, decided to start making his own range of tiny bicycles and tour the globe. The National Museum recently acquired a postcard depicting the intriguing Mr Tipper, in 1919, showing off one of his-10 inch bicycles and his ability to ride while carrying two children. We are now on the lookout for one of his bikes!

So, who was he?

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Cycling revolution

Cycling revolution? Velo-City Global 2014: a personal view

There’s a scene in the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix that kept jumping into my mind during the annual international cycling conference Velo-City Global held in Adelaide in May. In a flash restaurant, one of Neo’s (Keanu Reeves’) collaborators is making a deal with the enemy, the machines. He bites into a piece of steak admitting that while he knows it is merely a virtual construction that makes it seem juicy and delicious, he would preferred to enjoy the meal and forget about the complex reality around him. In exchange for betraying Neo he will be given a virtual life full of everything he has ever wanted. His memory will be erased so he will never be aware of the awful truth that has befallen the planet: that humans have been enslaved and now exist as passive batteries, their lives played out in a virtual space, the matrix.

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The dark side

The darkside: endurance cycling in Australia

It’s 11pm on a Saturday night and I’ve arrived at Eaglehawk Service Station (about 10 kilometers to the north of Canberra) a little worse for wear. Desperately hungry, I devoured a giant sausage roll and a number of the other “healthy” options on offer. No, this wasn’t the end of a day-long pub crawl or buck’s night. I had, in fact, just spent the day cycling over 300 kilometers with two mates from my cycling club, Audax Australia. One of my more experienced riding companions, Pete Heal, shook my hand: ‘Congratulations’, he said, ‘welcome to the darkside’.

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Members of the Vintage Cycle Club of Victoria riding to Sydney, 1988. Photograph courtesy of Paul Farren.

Riding High: Adventures with ‘Black Bess’

High-wheelers, known later as penny-farthings, arrived in Melbourne in 1875, and soon confirmed the speed, excitement and potential of the bicycle. High-wheelers featured rubber ‘cushion’ tyres, so were more comfortable than the old ‘boneshakers’, but they were difficult and dangerous to manage. Riders sat more than two and a half metres off the ground, making it hard to mount and a long way to fall. On a high-wheeler, however, a fit cyclist could sustain speeds of between 16 and 25 kilometres an hour, meaning that, for the first time in history, a person moving under their own power could travel as fast as a trotting horse. Among athletic young men, in particular, the high-wheeler promised an exciting future of transport for work and recreation. The arrival of the low-mount ‘safety’ bicycle in the 1880s rendered the high-wheeler obsolete, although dedicated riders still flew around on them for a few more years. Then, they all but disappeared.

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Images: Wikimedia Commons -
Horse: Johnownsuk
Cyclist:  Eric Van Balkum

Road Rage: Bike vs Horse

In December 1889, Dr G. A. Thorne from Melbourne found himself with a spare fortnight at his disposal. A keen bike rider, he decided to take his new ‘taut and trim’ safety bicycle (that he referred to as his ‘trusty little horse’) by train to Sale in Gippsland, Victoria. From there he would cycle to Sydney, following the coast as closely as possible.

On the first day of riding, when he approached Bairnsdale, a horse drawn buggy approached from the opposite direction. The horse appeared to grow restive. The woman driver yelled at Thorne to get off his bicycle. He dismounted and slowly approached the horse, leading it further along the way. As he did so, she blackguarded the good doctor in what he described as an ‘absurd manner’. ‘The Government’, she raged, ‘should not allow “those things” on the road’. Thorne retorted that she should learn to drive before taking charge of a horse. He then left the scene only to be ‘followed by a torrent of abuse’.

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Photography by Peter Dameon, 2010

Riding with ‘Hernia': Biking Rottnest Island

I first met Darrell Hick on Rottnest Island in 2007 while I was doing some research with the island’s heritage officer, Patsy Vizents, for the National Museum of Australia’s Landmarks gallery. Darrell had just undertaken some conservation work on an historic firearm that had been on display in the Oliver Hill WWII gun battery. I was enjoying a pie from the ever-popular bakery. He asked me what kind of objects the Museum was hoping to display as part of a planned exhibit about Rottnest. The most obvious and important symbol of the Island, I said, was a bicycle: “Do you happen to have one that you used on the Island”, I asked hopefully.

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A dead shearwater on Tathra beach, New South Wales. November 2013. Photograph: Daniel Oakman

Wrecks on the South Coast

Not what you were expecting?

When I walked the beaches of the far south coast a few weeks ago, I wasn’t expecting it either. The usually empty stretches of sand were littered with the dead and dying bodies of hundreds upon hundreds of short-tail shearwaters, commonly called mutton-birds. These events are called ‘wrecks’. They occur when these migratory birds return to Australia to breed after a journey of some 15,000 kilometres from the Bering Sea near eastern Russia, Canada and Alaska. If they are unable to feed or rest in calm water, they can perish in their thousands. They then wash up on the beach, exhausted, emaciated and half drowned.

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