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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1980s cycling icon

They were big, bulky, orange and made you look like you were about to be fired from a circus cannon. If you were spotted near your school (and, let’s face it, stealth was impossible when you were wearing one of these skidlids), you could be guaranteed days of ridicule, if not complete ostracism. If the FJ Holden is a key symbol of 1950s Australia, has the Stackhat earned the right to become an icon of the 1980s?

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This image shows Australian cyclist, Ken Ross, centre, with his trainer, right, and Belgian cycling champion, Emile Aerts. The photograph was taken after the finish of the Berlin six-day race in February 1922. According to Ross, ‘the Sydney Six-Days race … was only a training ride alongside of these’.

Taking it to the limit – the ‘extreme’ sport of six-day bicycle racing

It’s difficult for us today to imagine a cycling competition where, as The Mercury (Hobart) reported on 17 February 1897, ‘exhausted riders [were] lifted from and on to their wheels and carried to and from their quarters, their joints swollen and inflamed, barely able to see, with wandering mind, and only kept in a conscious condition by the efforts of trainers and physicians.’

The occasion referred to by the Mercury’s shocked and disapproving correspondent was a six-day bicycle race held at Madison Square Gardens, New York, in 1897 - a largely-forgotten type of cycling competition that, in its heyday from the early 1900s till the late 1940s, catapulted many cyclists Continue reading

Black and white image showing numerous bikes that have been left on the street outside a cinema. Two people walk on the footpath outside the cinema, under a sign above which reads 'MY AMERICAN WIFE'

When bicycles ruled the streets

Major bicycle pile up on Queensland streets! Well, no …  actually a crowd of eager cinema goers in Cairns have ‘parked’ their bicycles before catching the matinee screening of My American Wife in 1922. Can’t vouch for the film, but how amazing to see this tangle of metal, with no bike locks or stands. I guess everyone was going to be leaving at the same time.

Can we imagine a world without cars? Or maybe just one day? Sunday 22 September 2013 is World Car-Free Day.

Photograph: State Library of Queensland.

cadel media scrum

Curator faces ‘media scrum’ about Cadel’s bike

It’s always a bit tricky in the scrum to summarise why an object is significant, especially in a form pithy enough for the media to use. We’ve just put Cadel Evans’ 2008 road bike on display in the Main Hall to coincide with a series of road cycling races being held in Canberra over the weekend.

installing cadel's bike

I don’t remember much about the 2008 Tour de France. Cadel came second … again. He wore the leader’s yellow jersey for 5 days. But, overall, the race was a clinical affair, with one team dominating proceedings and skilfully delivering their yellow jersey contender to the line at the right time.

I do remember one stage. On stage 17, the quiet Spanish climber, Carlos Sastre, had been protected all day by his team, before a gut-busting finale on the Alp d’Huez. At the base, he shot from the pack and danced to the summit, winning the stage and enough time to win the Tour. Cadel was left in the wake of this spectacular performance. But as in previous years, he grimly hung on, hurling his bike back and forth, propelling it up the mountain. He ground to the finish, having limited his loses. And although he beat Sastre in the final time trial, it wasn’t enough to take the prize. He missed out by 58 seconds.

Bjarte Hetland, Wikimedia Commons

Carlos Sastre in 2008. Photo: Bjarte Hetland, Wikimedia Commons

Cycling is an unforgiving sport. In the modern era, a three-week stage race is often decided by seconds. Over the years, Cadel had endured bad luck, a lack of team support and criticism of his riding style. Yet, in 2008 he displayed the kind of the tenacity and fight that he would need to eventually win the tour three years later.

That’s what makes this bike so interesting. It speaks not to a failed attempt at victory, but to the way he rode and the way he dealt with the physical and mental challenge of falling just short of your goal. It has been his humility and his determination that has endeared him to many Australians, many of whom only started watching cycling on television because an Australian was in a position to win.

What’s your favourite Cadel moment?

For more information on Cadel’s 2008 road bike, visit the National Museum’s Cycling in Australia project.

Three dogs in the back of a ute.

A blog about dogs

… and about cats, horses, plants, viruses, rocks, farms, houses, roads, bicycles and the diverse and intriguing ways in which Australians are inter-connected with them all.

Welcome to our new People & Environment Blog. This is a place for members of the National Museum of Australia’s People and the Environment program to talk about our work collecting, researching, writing, talking and exhibiting about Australians’ relationships with their physical environments.

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