What makes the Austral Wheel Race so special?

by Craig Fry


This Saturday, the 20th of December, Melbourne will play host to 2014’s second running of the famous Austral Wheel Race – the first in 2014 was won by Japan’s Minori Shimmura on March 1st. Craig Fry’s piece for us back in March covered the history of the world’s oldest track race. In this follow up article Craig discusses what makes the Austral so special.

No better words have been written about the Austral Wheel Race since these, 117 or so years old this week:

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 fails to dull the edge of its interest.” (The Argus, 13 Dec 1897)

This race is one of the world’s important heritage cycling events.

It is fitting then that the biggest story so far of the 117th Austral has a strong historical theme – the planned return of Tasmanian track legend Danny Clark to the race he won in 1977, 1986 and 1990.

Clark has a tantalising handicap of 160m in a heat that many older cycling fans will be hoping he wins, just so we can see what happens in the final. Clark has also entered the 200 lap men’s madison race with George Tansley (see schedule of events here).

Regardless of the outcome, the very fact that Clark has set his sights on the Austral again, at the age of 63 no less, gives an indication of there being something very special about this track race.

Sure, having first started on the then young turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1887, the Austral is deserving of the respect that should come to things (and people) of a certain vintage.

The finish of the Austral Wheelrace in 1898 which was won by Tom Finnigan.

The illustrious list of past winners and place getters of this great race is also cause to revere and celebrate it – riders of the caliber of Hubert Opperman, Sid Patterson, Gordon Johnson, Stephen Pate, Danny Clark, Phil Sawyer, Laurie Venn, Barry Waddell, David Allan, Zak Dempster, Shane Perkins.

Personally though, the Austral captures my attention and imagination because of the characters and controversial moments it has been associated with over the years.

I don’t know if there is a self-selection effect at play here, where ‘interesting’ personality types gravitate to track cycling. Or maybe it’s just that the velodrome acts as a cauldron or crucible for energy, emotion, and pure speed to create the unexpected.

Perhaps the Austral is a little special simply because of the handicap format – making it possible, in theory at least, for the unknown underdog with a generous handicap to take on and beat the scratch markers.

Whatever the reasons behind the appeal of the Austral, one thing for certain is the characters and the controversies have never been far away from this race. At least that’s how it used to be.

Over the years, just some of the Austral Wheel Race controversies have included:

  • Allegations of a rider being drugged to stop him from winning in 1894 (Launceston Examiner, 14 Dec, 1894, p7)
  • Race fixing, rider collusion, and race official betting in the early 1900s (see here)
  • Air-balloon and airplane crashes as pre-race ‘entertainment’ in 1910 (see here)
  • Curious handicapper marks (e.g. Gary Neiwand’s comfortable win in 2000 after the gift of 70m)
  • The presence of bookmakers and betting on the race (“Patto was backed for a small cycling fortune. He firmed from 10/1 in pre-post betting, prior to his heat win, at which price he started 5/4 on. On the night of the final, the bookmakers opened Patto favourite at 5/2.” – The Australian Cyclist, Mar 1967)
  • The unknown internationals that take everyone, including the handicapper, by surprise (e.g. the 116th Austral won by Japan’s Minori Shimmura in his first trip to Australia)

And the Austral has also seen its share of interesting characters too, such as:

  • ‘Major’ Taylor, the first African-American World Champion, who was paid an enormous sum by promoters to ride exhibition races as part of the 1904 Austral carnival
  • 43 year old Irish-American ‘Plugger’ Bill Martin’s bribing of other riders in the 1901 final to ensure his win (“Plugger gave the crowd its money’s worth because he was never out of trouble” – Dunstan, Confessions of a Bicycle Nut, 1999).
  • Two time Austral winner Sid Patterson (1962, 1964), a giant of the sport and a major track drawcard and crowd favorite through the 50s and 60s.
  • Past Austral riders who have had their own personal troubles (Stephen Pate, Gary Neiwand, Jobie Dajka, Mark French), some of whom have made steps back to cycling
  • LA Olympian and track showman Max ‘Hollywood’ Rainsford’s attempt to win the Austral at aged 44.
  • Azizul Awang’s finish line wheelies

No doubt some readers will recall other memorable Austral moments and personalities of their own – please share these in the comments section below. But my guess is these won’t necessarily be from recent years. With no disrespect intended to current track riders and officials, to me track cycling just somehow seems different.

Arguably, it’s the characters and controversy that are a big part of the appeal of any sporting contest. These were in large part the things that drew the biggest crowds to the cycling tracks of yesteryear.

These are the factors that make track racing most exciting in my view.

I think interesting characters and controversial moments are appealing in any sport because these lend a sense of unpredictability to the event, and the contest outcome. Such things humanise the contest in my view, and present an alternative experience to watching people with skills, speed, strength, and athleticism which seem decidedly inhuman, or robot like.

While some might disagree with this thinking, I believe there is a case to be made for recreating some of the excitement and interest that existed back in track racing’s halcyon days. One way to do this is to allow a bit more space for the ‘interesting’ characters and personalities to emerge in the sport.

Australia’s elite track cyclists are arguably more successful on the world stage these days than our riders from past eras.

But despite this, the public appeal of this cycling discipline (compared to past crowds in the many tens of thousands and in periods where multiple cycling tracks operated) doesn’t seem to match the success.

It seems that being a World or Olympic Champion, or World Record holder isn’t always enough to draw the crowds.

Perhaps this is partly to do with the relative lack of characters and controversies in modern track cycling? Has this discipline become too sanitised, clinical and run ‘by the numbers’? Tell me what you think.

At Hisense Arena on Saturday night, I for one am hoping to see some big characters and a bit of passion, presence, and emotion on the boards.

I’m not saying lets bring back the bribes, the head-butts, crooked bookies, and cheating.

But I’ll take finish line wheelies, aggressive riding, flashy victory salutes, and human unpredictability any day over boring clinical robot riding by the numbers.


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 craiglfry@gmail.com.

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