Wheeling Matilda: The Story of Australian Cycling

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Jim Fitzpatrick is widely regarded as one of Australia’s foremost cycling historians and now the US-born writer has revealed his latest book, Wheeling Matilda: The Story of Australian Cycling. In this post Craig Fry reviews Wheeling Matilda and shares some of his favourite moments.

Jim Fitzpatrick was born in 1943 in Maryland, USA, and moved to Australia in the 1970s. The back cover of his new book Wheeling Matilda describes him as:

” … the premier cycling historian in Australia, and one of the world’s groundbreaking writers in the field. Each of his books has revealed previously unknown facts, and offered fresh and unique perspectives on the machine’s use”.

This is certainly a fair appraisal of Fitzpatrick’s work. He has led the way for many years in researching and writing some of Australia’s rich cycling history, with previous titles including The Bicycle and the Bush (1980), The Bicycle in Wartime (1998), and Major Taylor in Australia (2011).


Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s Bicycle and the Bush book published in hardcover by Oxford University Press is widely regarded by cycling historians as the definitive account of the emergence of cycling in Australia. It is now a sought-after title by collectors in a field with precious few authoritative works.

Despite this pedigree however, my first impression of the look and feel of Fitzpatrick’s latest offering, Wheeling Matilda, was disappointment. It is a self-published soft cover book, which unfortunately has meant that the quality of the illustrations and photographs has suffered. No doubt many of the original historical images sourced for this book will not have been in perfect condition. Though I felt the quality of the reproductions could have been better all the same.

That said, it is true that we should not judge a book by its cover. The actual content of Wheeling Matilda is classic Fitzpatrick — it is first class. This book is thoroughly researched, well written, accessible, and structured around nine chapters covering the early years, long distance cycling across the continent, the bicycle in wartime, cycle racing, and the bicycle in Australia today, to name just a few topics.

The Melbourne Exhibition ground track.
The Melbourne Exhibition ground track.

Let me make clear that Wheeling Matilda is not a glossy coffee table book. There are no colour illustrations at all. But neither is it a dry and boring account of the history of cycling in Australia. What this book lacks in visual appeal it more than makes up for in content.

The author’s fine eye for the fascinating is well demonstrated throughout this work. Just some of the things of interest that jumped out at me while reading Wheeling Matilda included:

  • Massive crowds that gathered in the late 1800s to watch the first cycling races at the MCG and SCG (e.g. between 40-65,000 people watching the Austral Wheel Race
  • A history of the early boom period of cycling journalism in specialist journals (e.g. Bicycle first published in the early 1880s) and the general press that rivals even today
  • The first Sydney to Melbourne bike ride in 1884 by Alf Edward in eight and a half days … on a penny-farthing.
  • Accounts of early rides into the Australian Alps on fixed-wheel single-gear bikes with no auxiliary brakes.
Touring cyclists in NSW circa 1900.
Touring cyclists in NSW circa 1900.

My personal favorite though is the enthralling account by Fitzpatrick in Chapter 7 (“A Racing Powerhouse”) of the early days of cycle racing in Australia, the steady stream of international stars coming for the prize money, and our own early champions testing their fortunes abroad (e.g. Hubert Opperman, Alf Goullet, Jackie Clark and Reggie McNamara).

Consider this:

The riding was hard and rough because there was so much at stake, given the average annual income of the day (circa £120 in 1904). Victorian professional races alone distributed a reported £6,348 in total prize-money during the 1897-98 season and prize-money for single Australian races – £400 at the Westral and Austral Wheel Races, and £800 for the place-getters at the seven-race card of the ANA races of 1899, for example – ranked with that offered in North America or Europe. — (p136)

A cycle battalion including ANZACs and Canadians.
A cycle battalion including ANZACs and Canadians.

This chapter reads more like true crime than a story about cycling as sport. Gambling, violence, murder, stand-over tactics, corruption, drugs – its all there and more. And I also liked this anonymous poem written about the Austral Wheelrace (p136), ‘To the 1897 Austral’:

After the Austral’s over,
After the track is clear –
Straighten my nose and shoulders,
Help them to find my ear.

After reading this Chapter you might rightly wonder if the ‘HTFU’ T-shirt logo often quoted in some cycling circles today originated from those tough days.

Arthur Richardson, the first to cycle the Nullabor (in 1896).
Arthur Richardson, the first to cycle the Nullabor (in 1896).

Jim Fitzpatrick’s latest book tells us how the bicycle and cyclists have made a major contribution to the cultural, social, and economic fabric of Australia for well over 100 years. The author has a uniquely simple way of thinking about the bicycle (p3):

A cyclist is not a person on wheels, but a person with wheels. There is an immense difference. While ‘riding a bicycle’ is the usual image, bicycling is essentially a man-machine combination that allows mode to be matched to terrain, optimising the use of wheel and foot. (p3)

And Fitzpatrick is also refreshingly clear and optimistic about the future: “In Australia the bicycle will not go away” (p179).

Despite the reservations I have about the presentation quality of Wheeling Matilda, I wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of cycling in Australia. Wheeling Matilda is the perfect book for cyclists of all disciplines, fans of the sport, and history buffs alike.

Wheeling Matilda: The Story of Australian Cycling is available direct from Jim Fitzpatrick for $28.95. Images in this post appear courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick and can all be found in Wheeling Matilda. The feature image shows riders lining up at the start of the 1896 Austral Wheel Race.

Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. You can follow him on Instagram at Pushbikewriter and on Strava. You can contact him at craiglfry@gmail.com.

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