Riding bikes, not ponies.

Melbourne Cup Day; for some it’s all about the horses but for many of Melbourne’s cyclists, it’s an opportunity to enjoy a day out on the bike. An idea it seems, that goes right back to when bicycles first took hold of Melburnian’s hearts.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago Melburnians first organised a cycling event for Melbourne Cup Day. Cup Day has attracted a public holiday in Victoria, or the Colony of Victoria as it was then, since 1875. As the bicycling craze tightened its grip on Melbourne in the 1890s, the Melbourne Cup Day holiday soon presented itself as an opportunity to ride a bicycle that was too good to resist.

“Auraria’s Melbourne Cup, 1895, finish,” Monash Collections Online, accessed October 28, 2019, http://repository.monash.edu/items/show/14177

And what better bicycle ride than the then relatively new fad of a Century Run? Melbourne’s first Century Run, also claimed as Australia’s first, was held in Melbourne on Cup Day in 1895, inspired by reports of similar events in the United States.

Organised by a special committee set up for the purpose and months in the planning this first Century Run was anticipated by touring cyclists and club men alike. The Century Run was 100 miles, (160 kms) and designed to be at a social pace so that all cyclists could join in, not only cycling club members or those used to scorching. Accordingly twelve hours were allocated for the completion of the ride, ten hours of cycling with two hours of combined lunch and ten minute rest stops along the route.

“Don’t forget that the pace will be slow, and a few “ necessities of life ” strapped on to the handle bars will add to the general enjoyment of the outing. ” the East Melbourne Bicycle Club advised their members in a column in Australian Cyclist. While lunch would be provided at Woodend, participants were advised to bring their own tools and extra nourishment for the day.

From the Australasian Newspaper, October 1895

The route and times were published well in advance and the organising committee went out of their way to advise that “The run is open to all cyclists, ladies or gentleman”. As it was only one year since most women in Melbourne had taken up riding and public discussion about the wisdom of women exerting themselves on long bike rides was still energetic, this was no lightly made invitation. A cycling journalist noted in the Australian Cyclist that “Several ladies intend to join the century run on Cup Day, and have no fear of the distance, the road being familiar to them.”

Exactly one hundred riders set out from the Melbourne GPO (now H&M at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Sts) at 7am on a drizzly spring morning, Tuesday November 5th 1895. Two pacemakers set the pace, ensuring that riders would meet their time slots for each checkpoint and that the ride was conducted at a sociable pace. The rules forbade any riders from getting ahead of them. Amongst those riding was a lad of fifteen, a rider on an ancient hard-tyred safety and four or five women. The most popular bicycles on the Century Run were Raleighs, of which were counted sixteen in all, seven Humbers, five Sparkbrooks and four each of Swifts, Singers and New Rapids.

The ride progressed through Bulla and on to Lancefield with residents of Sunbury walking over to the cross roads at Bell’s to witness the run where the cyclists turned up the Lancefield-road. From Lancefield over the dirt roads of the colony, dusty, often rutted, maybe freshly metalled, to Woodend, where Dinner was served before finally turning back towards Melbourne via Gisborne and Essendon.

The ride was seen as a huge success, “The Cup Day Century run will do an immense amount of good to the pastime. It can be seen by the result that 100 miles in a day of twelve hours is easily accomplished, and without distress” reported the Herald.

Some of the cyclists who participated in the 1895 Melbourne Cup Day Century Run including two women in rational dress. Australian Cyclist November 1895

Those riders who completed the ride within the allotted time received certificates with the above photograph on them. Amongst the finishers were two women, controversially, in rational dress. Australian Cyclist reported at the time “Indeed, the ladies looked splendid, and the dress they wore, besides being practical was most becoming.”, a supportive note for the women who more often attracted ridicule and abuse for adopting rational dress. It also described them as the “first ladies in the colonies to ride 100 miles in twelve hours” although both women had ridden a century or more on earlier occasions. Both women were presented with an especially made badge in addition to the finishers certificate for their plucky riding.

The Australasian noted that advancements in bicycle technology were what had made the run such a success; “The result of the century run in Melbourne on Cup day shows us pretty clearly how easy it is to ride long distances on the comfortably built bicycles of to-day. Seventy-Seven riders — many of them just ordinary wheelmen who had seldom or never taken a long spin before— covered 100 miles of hilly country roads in 12 hours, including an hour or two spent in rests. This run has given us the most practical demonstration of tho case of cycling that we have ever had. A dozen years ago tho Melbourne Bicycle Club gave gold medals to its members who rode 100 miles in 12 hours, and the task was so difficult very few medals were won,”

Indeed the Cup Day Century Run was such a success that it became a Melbourne tradition. In 1896 over a hundred and seventy riders started with over two hundred in each of the years after that until early in the Twentieth Century.

While the earliest organisers of the Century Run were proactive in encouraging women to ride at a time when many people thought women shouldn’t be exerting themselves, the fact that they were ahead of the times is borne out in reactions to subsequent runs. One correspondent in the Australian Cyclist of 1896 writes;

TO THE EDITOR. S i r , —Considering the great success century run, one hardly likes to find fault; but I would strongly recommend to the con­-sideration of Messrs. Broadbent, Dwyer and Co. the desirability of discouraging the attendance of ladies. From time to time efforts have been made in all branches of sports to organise races, tests of endurance, and record making for ladies, but so far without success. The perspiration, dust, and excessive fatigue in connection with a century run are evils incident to a vigorous manhood ; but to my mind are decidedly out of place where the fair sex are concerned. No one should object to ladies cycling in moderation, providing they are modestly attired, butI am sure everyone who has the interests of the sport at heart, and who has a proper respect for them, will hope that they will be conspicuous by their absence at our next century run. Probably the best way would be to reduce the time occupied in the run from fourteen hours to twelve.—

Century Runs continued into the new Century although no longer associated with Cup Day in Melbourne. Regional areas also took up the practice of hosting a Century Run as did other cities around Australia.

Going for a ride on Cup Day is still popular with Melbourne cyclists today, it being one of the few days of the year when cyclists can enjoy relatively low traffic conditions on roads. Maybe it’s time to bring back the tradition of a Century Run on Cup Day, or organise your own ride with friends and family and #ridebikesnotponies ?

Riding to work for 120 years

No its not the world’s longest commute! Rather, as Wednesday is Ride to Work day here in Australia, I thought it was a good time to take a look back to the 1890s, when Australians first started riding to work on their bicycles.

If we go back one hundred and twenty years we find that riding to work in 1899 was a reasonably new activity.

Cycling in Australia, as in the rest of the world, was initially a recreational hobby of the well to do. The advent of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tyres during the early 1890s saw it taken up by the middle-classes en masse by the middle of the decade and while initially a source of recreation, it was not long before a far more practical use for the bicycle became apparent. The middle class urban professionals that enjoyed a Sunday tour to Healesville or the Blue Mountains soon twigged to the practicality, not to mention, fun of using their bicycle to get to work.

After all, what better way to show off your up to date machine, than by riding into the office along the St Kilda Road? And if an aquaintance were to stop you to admire it and give you the opportunity to share the details of your most recent country tour, then all the better!  

A woman prepares to alight her bicycle in Chapel St, Prahran in Melbourne. Photo from the Victorian History Library at Prahran Mechanics Institute

By September 1896 the cycling correspondent of Melbourne’s Champion newspaper was able to report that they had counted seventy-three cyclists at five pm between the military barracks on St Kilda Road and Collins St, pointing out that “This will give some idea of the number of men who cycle homewards from their offices.” But it was not only men who were riding to work.

Melbourne’s medical establishment were some of the earliest to take up cycling. One of Melbourne’s earliest female doctors Dr Marie Castilla was not only a keen wheeled tourist on the weekends but could also be seen during the week visiting her patients on her bicycle, her black doctor’s bag attached to her handlebars. Additionally, Dr Castilla advocated in public lectures that cycling to and from work was excellent exercise for women employed in offices, shops and schoolrooms all day.

Miss Jospehine Samuell, a Melbourne elocutionist, who used her bicycle to get to work in the 1890s. Photo Australian Cyclist June 1896

Journalist’s were also quick to seize on the bicycle’s possibilities as a mode of transportation and Melbourne’s female journalists were amongst the first to adopt the bicycle in the pursuit of their reporting duties. Minnetta, Francesca and Rita (the nom-de-plumes of three pioneer Melbourne journalists) were just a handful of those who used their bicycles to cover the wide range of events they were expected to attend and report.  

Cyclists on High St Northcote, Victoria, Australia, outside the town hall. Photo by Dr Thomas George Beckett 1898 Museums Victoria

The depression of the 1890s may not have slowed the adoption of the bicycle amongst the well to do but by the late 1890s, with cheaper bicycles becoming available, it became a reason in itself to take up cycling. For some it meant saving on the cost of keeping a horse which they could no longer afford. For others it could save the cost of a tram or train ticket on each trip to work.  As bicycles became cheaper, and second hand bicycles entered the market, the practice spread, taken up by workers at the lower end of the pay scale; clerks, shop girls and labourers, for whom it provided not only cheap transport but access to a wider range of work. 

A group of women with their bikes. Check out the photo-bomber peeking over the fence!

Nowhere in Australia, or the world, was cycling to work taken up in such numbers as in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, where prospectors took to the bicycle in their thousands to move around the district. Networks of camel pads were quickly repurposed to create the largest network of cycle paths in the world.

Kalgoorlie, Western Australia 1895. Photo Western Australia Newspapers Limited

The network of paths ensured that not only male prospectors but women in the district used bicycles too. So much so that the lady cyclists of the district were invited to join the Federal Cycle Parade, in order to harness their formidable petitioning powers. In 1896 the Australian Cyclist reported that when a “well known Melbourne lady” made the move to Coolgardie, “Horses cost £1 per day over there, and the lady considers a cycle will prove much cheaper.” Sadly, networks of bicycle paths as extensive as that in Kalgoorlie 120 years ago can only be dreamt of in most of Australia for those riding to work now.

Unfortunately, just as it does today riding to work in busy cities could have its risks. Newspapers of the time list accidents befalling commuters that will resonate with many modern day riders, tram tracks and inconsiderate drivers (of carts) featuring regularly as culprits. Less common today in the city but prevalent then was the errant dog, suddenly appearing in the wheelman’s path, and on at least one occasion causing the death of a young booking clerk from Spencer Street Station.

Of course, with people taking up riding to work it soon became necessary to house all those bicycles. Cycle stables were built in Australia during the 1890s, some attached to places of employment, others available for general use, at a cost. Popping up in major and regional cities cycle stables ensured that those riding to work, to conduct business or indeed to shop, had somewhere to secure their bicycle.  Cycle stables like this one in Launceston promised “Bicyclists who ride daily to business will find our cycling stables a great convenience. By payment of a nominal sum weekly they can have the use of our stables at any time during business hours, and, moreover, all machines stabled with us will be thoroughly cleaned and oiled daily”

An advertisement in the Australian Cyclist of 1896

Meanwhile in Melbourne, The Block Arcade boasted cycle stables that were ‘always open’, and included lavatories and dressing rooms, a favourite with the cities cycling ladies.

To be honest, while many workplaces boast end of trip facilities as we like to call them in 2019, a cycle stable, for those whose work isn’t attached to one workplace or who are making non-work trips to business centres would be a welcome addition to the cycling landscape 120 years on! For some reason, recent attempts in Melbourne at least haven’t caught on.