The Austral Wheel Race: the world’s oldest track race
This Saturday, December 17th, the Hisense Arena in Melbourne will play host to the 119th edition of the Austral Wheel Race and 2017 Australian Madison Championships. The Austral is regarded by many as Australia’s greatest track cycling event, and is the world’s oldest track race. To get you ready for the latest edition, Craig Fry delves into the archives to uncover some of the fascinating (and sometimes sordid) history of this important bike race.
Birth of the Austral
Melbourne’s Austral Wheel Race is widely known as the oldest track cycling handicap race in the world. But there are differences of opinion over when this famous race actually started.
Most official records and current day coverage report the first year of the Austral Wheel Race as 1887 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The Austral winner that year was Harry Lambton off 210 yards. The first prize was a walnut cabinet with 152 pieces of silverware and cutlery with a reported value of £200 sterling.
But earlier sources, such as the newspapers of that era, report that the first Austral running was a year earlier in 1886. This report from The Argus in 1897 gives an interesting account, and makes clear the status of the Austral even in its early years:
Cycling in Australia centres around the Austral Wheel Race, and no other wheeling event in the world is so rich in traditions. It is an oft-told tale now, this of the Austral, as it has been repeated each year since 1886. But repetition falls to dull the edge of its interest.
In 1886, when cycling had not the stamp of Royal approval, and Governors of the colony did not go round with their arms in slings because of falls from cycles, an enthusiastic coterie of riders initiated the Austral Wheel Race, and W. Brown won the prize, with a start of 230 yards. There were 28 starters that year, and the race was run on the old spider-legged machines, which have since been relegated to the back yard.
The crowd increased steadily till 3 o’clock, when there were nearly 30,000 spectators in attendance, and the cash receipts at the gates were about £1,200, while the Melbourne Bicycle Club’s treasury was enriched with a profit of about £1,100 on the meeting.
Earlier cycling historians have noted that the Austral (and Victorian cycling generally) changed forever in 1890 when the Melbourne Bicycle Club (which formed in 1879) broke away from the amateur controlling body (Victorian Cyclists’ Union) to stage its own version of the Austral with cash prizes.
This was the advent of organised professional cycle racing in Victoria, from which later developed the League of Victorian Wheelmen in 1893.
In thinking about the Austral then, it may help to distinguish between earlier editions when the race appeared to be run as an amateur event, and the later years when it was a key event on the organised professional track cycle racing calendar. At the very least, 1886 (and possibly earlier than that) may have been the year when cycling races on the MCG inspired the ‘official’ Austral Wheel Race. Something for the history buffs to debate.
The naming of the Austral Wheel Race is thought by some to have originated from the ship ‘SS Austral’ which sank in November 1882 off Sydney, resulting in the deaths of five crewmen. Whatever the origins, the link with cycling in those early times is clear.
There was a Melbourne-based Austral Wheel Club for ladies, and a prominent cycling journal called the Austral Wheel, the official publication of the Victorian Amateur Cycling Council which was published between 1896 and 1901 by Major M. O’Farrell.
It focused mainly on cycling but from around 1900 it also covered motoring. The publishers of the Austral Wheel also produced the Austral Wheel Guide to the Victorian Alps, and a smaller series of local maps for cycle touring.
The historical records contain references to both amateur and professional Australs, motor paced Australs, and Coolgardie on the Western Australian goldfields had its own Austral, the ‘Coolgardie Austral’, which was later renamed the ‘Westral’ and continues today. Reports on the first running of the Westral vary – some claim it was 1887, others claim 1897.
The facts are clear from this excerpt from the Kalgoorlie Western Argus (Dececmber 19, 1905) article ‘The Westral Cycle Meeting: Its past and present’:
On Boxing Day of the same year (1897) the Coolgardie Austral meeting was held. This meeting showed a profit of £147 6s., and gave birth to the now famous Westral. The M.B.C. promoting the Austral, asked the Coolgardie committee to alter the name to avoid confusion, and it is credited to Mr. W. T. Cochrane, the now secretary of the meeting, that the name of the Westral was adopted.
Yet another important development in Australian cycling history that the Austral had a part in was the birth of Malvern Star cycles. One of the often-told stories around this race is how the 1898 winner Tom Finnigan (off 220 yards) used his winnings to set up a bike shop in Malvern to sell the early ‘Malvern Stars’.
The Austral Wheel Race was a tremendously popular and successful cycling race at its peak. Records from the early years of the race confirm crowds in the tens of thousands, and the race reports from those times evidence the excitement around this race and its status. Indeed, so accepted was the Austral in Melbourne’s social circles that the Governor Lord Brassey and his wife attended the race in the late 1890s.
Consider the following example from the Kalgoorlie Western Argus on December 3, 1896:
It is now 11 years since the M.B.C. established the Austral Wheel Race, an event which has grown to such dimensions that it is regarded as the Melbourne Cup of the cycling world.
This year the entries totalled 127, including most of the Champions of Australasia, England, America, Italy, and South Africa. The weather was beautiful, the warm rays of the sun being tempered by a cool southerly breeze, which, with the perfect arrangements for the comfort of the visitors, made the sport most enjoyable.
The attendance was estimated at over 20,000, and the takings at the gates totaled £800, which is £800 more than the first day’s receipts of last year’s meeting.
A big part of the Austral’s appeal is the format. It is a handicap track cycling event which in theory gives all riders a chance to influence the race outcome, and perhaps even a shot at the title.
The Austral Wheel Race has certainly been no stranger to controversy over the years. Like many other areas of competitive cycling (especially where significant prize money has been involved), this race has also had its links to drugs and doping.
For example, one rider was allegedly drugged to prevent him winning the 1894 Austral Wheel Race, according to the Launceston Examiner on December 14, 1894:
Megson was the hero of the meet, his spurting powers being a treat to witness. He is reported to have been drugged previous to the final for the Austral, which accounts for not getting placed.
Another source of controversy over the race’s long history has been the handicapping of riders. Handicap races always attract complaints and speculation about unfair rider marks. In 2000, Gary Neiwand (Olympian and Commonwealth Games medallist, and multiple world champion) was controversially handicapped on 70m for the millennium edition, and won comfortably.
But without a doubt, the most spectacular of controversial chapters in the Austral Wheelrace history was the 1901 Austral. It involved what amounted to race fixing by the notorious bookmaker John Wren (of the Collingwood Tote), who it was alleged had conspired with the American rider ‘Plugger’ Bill Martin to bribe other riders in the final to ensure the 43-year-old scratchman’s win.
The pay-out in the bookmaker’s ring was estimated at £7,000-£8,000 and the amount of money wagered was a record for a cycling race anywhere. The rumour was that Wren had plunged on Martin and made a fortune.
Plugger Bill’s trainer, General Gordon, later gave this account of the fix, as reported in The Lone Hand in May 1907:
The bribes were laid out in piles of notes and sovereigns upon Martin’s bed at the hotel. One by one the cyclists were admitted to the bedroom, and Martin, who had a loaded revolver beside him, addressed each successive visitor by name in a loud voice, and stated the terms of the contract.
The visitor replied “Quite right, Bill” or words to that effect. Then Bill paid over the money, and solemnly requested the recipient to sign for it. Everybody was enriched with a heavy burden of notes and gold, save poor General Gordon, who ultimately sued his employer for 60 pounds.
Following news of the 1901 Austral fix, interest in the race (and cycle racing generally) started to wane. The bicycle was no longer the novelty it had once been and the motorcar was starting to capture the attention and imagination of Australians. The Austral continued (despite the inevitable wartime interruptions) but falling crowd numbers prompted the promoters to try bizarre things to boost interest and ticket sales.
In the early 1900s the Austral program of ‘entertainment’ included balloon ascents, the release of racing and homing pigeons, model aeroplane contests, and even skydiving from planes that took off from the MCG itself. Such efforts didn’t always go to plan, as Keith Dunstan wrote in 1999:
In 1910, the Austral committee hired Mr G. Cugnet to take off from the Melbourne Cricket Ground in his Bleriot aeroplane; an extraordinarily hazardous idea. On the day the weather was so bad, Mr Cugnet was fearful of making his ascent until the wind dropped.
That situation did not arrive until 7pm when almost all the Austral crowd had gone home. Mr Cugnet did get off the ground. He had to bank violently to miss the scoreboard, he dived into the tennis court and the Bleriot was hideously wrecked. That was the end of the Austral on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The Austral Wheel Race was long regarded as a tough cycling race, and this was probably a part of its widespread appeal. Available race reports, such as this one from The Australian Cyclist in March 1964, provide very compelling accounts of what it was like:
South Australian, Charlie Walsh, who was knocked from pillar to post, during the last ½ mile, finished an excellent third. Walsh was hit with the “kitchen sink” including Young’s head as he fought for Patto’s wheel. The race was the roughest seen in years and severe interference to several fancied candidates saw a few heated after the race arguments.
There was even an anonymous poem written about the race, as mentioned in Jim Fitzpatrick’s book “Wheeling Matilda: The Story of Australian Cycling”:
‘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.
History has shown that the Austral is hard to win from the scratch position (i.e. the last position in the field given to the rider(s) the handicapper regards as the strongest). In more than 100 editions, it has only been won by a scratch rider 21 times.
That list of scratch men contains the best of the best, an impressive mix of state, national and world champions, and Olympians: Darren Young (2002, 2003); Stephen Pate (1999, 1993, 1991, 1988); Danny Clark (1990, 1986, 1977); Phil Sawyer (1983); Steele Bishop (1982); Laurie Venn (1981, 1979); Gordon Johnson (1973); and Sid Patterson (1964, 1962).
Many other Australian and international stars have tried to win the Austral over the years. Sir Hubert Opperman came second in 1925. Barry Waddell tried a few times, coming second in 1976 to the 19-year-old David Allan. Cameron Meyer, Graeme Brown, Jack Bobridge and Shane Kelly have also tried their luck in recent years.
2010 was another significant year for the Austral. The race was won that year by Ben Sanders (off 80m), repeating his father’s feat (David Sanders won in 1978 off 50m). They made the record books as only the second father-son combination to each win the Austral. The first to achieve this was Gordon Johnson (1970 World Professional Sprint Champion) who won from scratch in 1973, following his father (Ian ‘Tassie’ Johnson) who won it in 1944 from 30 yards.
No history of a cycling race as important as the Austral would be complete without a list of notable facts and oddities:
- The Austral was held more than once in some years, in different seasons and with different promoters and venues. For example, the Cyclists International honour roll for the race shows two winners for each of the years 1923, 1925, 1936 and 1944, and three for 1927.
- The youngest Austral winners were the 16-year-olds, Merv Andrea from Bendigo who won it in 1968 (off 230 yards), and Zak Dempster who won in 2004 (off 90 metres). Prior to that Doug Jennings (Coburg rider and then current Australian Junior Road and Victorian All-Round Track Champion) had been the youngest at 17 years winning in 1952 off 120 yards.
- The only rider to win the Austral in two successive years (escaping the handicapper) was Tasmanian Darren Young, who won in 2002 and 2003, both times from scratch.
- The Austral has also had its embarrassing moments for some. In 1957 the winner from New Zealand, John Robinson, had a moment he regretted: “Highlight of the final perhaps was after the presentation, which was made by our friend Mr. Hubert Opperman. Robinson was doing his lap of honor, complete with flowers, sash, etc., and he slipped off the track. His strap broke, he pulled his foot out and down he went. Not many people knew of the incident because of the riders standing up.” — Bill Long, The Australian Cyclist, March 1957.
- The 1962 Austral at the Olympic Park Velodrome was made notable by Bill Long’s recording of the event on 45 RPM record, including pre-race interview with Jack Fitzgerald (winner from scratch in 1922), a race description, and interview with Sid Patterson who coincidentally won the race that year. If any readers have a copy of that recording please get in touch!
A Moving Feast
In what is probably some sort of record, the Austral Wheelrace has been held at 12 different venues since inception, starting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (1887-1903, 1907-10), the Exhibition Track (1904-06, 1920-23, 1925, 1927), Exhibition Indoor Track (1912-13), the Motordrome (Olympic Park) (1923, 1925, 1927, 1929), Exhibition Board Track (1936-38), North Essendon Board track (1939-42, 1944-48, 1950-57), Olympic Park Velodrome (1958-70), Brunswick Velodrome (1971-74), Northcote Velodrome (1975-77, 1982-85, 1987-2000), Coburg Velodrome (1978-81), Vodafone Arena (renamed Hisense Arena) (2001-2010), the Darebin International Sports Centre (2011-2014) and has since returned to the Hisense Arena (late 2014 to present).
2000 was the last year the Austral was held on an outdoor track, on the cement of the old Northcote Velodrome.
The Austral Wheel Race has also seen a range of bike designs since 1886, from the high-wheeler ordinaries (‘Penny Farthings’), the safeties, tandems (first in 1894), through to the carbon speed machines of the modern era. For readers who appreciate the steel framed bikes of yesteryear, David Rapley’s 2012 book “Racing Bicycles: 100 years of steel” features, amongst many other special machines, a number of track bikes ridden in the Austral.
In 2011, the Austral carnival program included a “Legends Austral” involving Danny Clark, Stephen Pate, David Sanders and Laurie Venn. This group of four had won a combined total of 10 Australs between 1977 and 1999.
Also of significant interest, and a fantastic development for women’s track cycling in Australia has been the Women’s Austral Wheel Race with winners including Annette Edmondson (2012 and 2015), Caitlin Ward (2013) and Helen Kelly (2000).
Austral prize money has of course also changed over the years. A Cyclists International account of the race purse reveals some of the changes:
The massive amount of 1,050 Sovereigns was the allocated prize money for the 1902 event, the low point being in the late 1970s when only $1,500 was on offer. There was resurgence in 1982 when the prize money was lifted to $5,000 plus sponsors products. The present level of prize money has now exceeded $18,000 at recent stagings of this prestigious wheelrace.
The Austral prizes were not always in cash. Some of the more unusual first prizes have included the aforementioned walnut cabinet filled with silverware in the 1887 race, a grand piano worth 80 guineas in 1886, and a BMC Morris Mini valued at $1,669 for the 1969 winner Charlie Walsh (see photo above). For a time the Austral was the richest track cycling race in the world and this attracted riders from all over Australia and around the world.
And the number of entrants for the Austral Wheel Race has also varied over time. Entry numbers of course were always larger than the final start lists – some riders would base their decision on whether or not to start depending on the mark given to them by the race handicapper.
In the initial years rider numbers were smaller, but it didn’t take long for the popularity of the race to spread and the chance to win the significant prize money was also no doubt an attraction. Examples of rider entries over the years are interesting, especially after cash prizes were routinely used post 1890: 1886 (45 entries, 28 starters); 1887 (35 starters); 1888 (40 starters); 1889 (37 starters); 1893 (84 starters); 1894 (79 starters); 1953 (213 entrants); 1957 (149 entrants, 143 starters); 1962 (80 entrants, 77 starters); 1984 (>100); 1985 (90).
Past winner, David Sanders has said this about the Austral:
It’s bigger than the national champs, or any other race in Australia. For old school cycling people this is huge. This is history, a lifetime experience.
Cycling Victoria is currently doing some great things to reinvigorate track cycling in this state. Let’s hope we can soon return to the times when events like the Austral Wheelrace were major attractions on the sporting calendar that rivalled even the Melbourne Cup, the Boxing Day cricket test match, and the AFL grand final.
Long live the Austral!
About the author
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally written in 2014 for the race’s 116th edition.