- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 9 December 2013
After the Austral’s over
After the track is clear –
Straighten my nose and shoulders,
Help them to find my ear.
This is an ode to the 1897 Austral, the world’s oldest extant track bike race, that I read in Jim Fitzpatrick’s new book, Wheeling Matilda. This is Jim’s fourth book on Australian cycling history, and Wheeling Matilda is probably the best all-encompassing cycling history written about this country.
It’s relatively easy to do ‘a’ cycling history. Sports cycling in Australia has always been popular; we’ve won 49 Olympic medals in cycling, as well as one Tour de France, so far. The stories of the great Aussie sportsmen, like Opperman, Mockridge, Anderson, and Evans, are easy to find and they do make for great reading. What is hard to do is write ‘the’ cycling history of Australia, the type of history that looks at cycling in all of its forms and contexts. Jim Fitzpatrick has done that in Wheeling Matilda.
Wheeling Matilda begins in the late 19th century with the introduction of various types of bicycles to the burgeoning nation. In the 1890s, there was a severe depression in Australia; the big gold rushes were over and people had the need to travel between point A and point B in order to find work. Of course, this being Australia, point A and B were often further apart than could be easily travelled without help. That help came in the form of the bicycle.
Starting as a class-equalising utilitarian vehicle, the bicycle was a hugely popular transport option. Despite being so distant from the traditional centres of cycling in Europe, and despite this country’s small population, Australian cyclists probably covered more distance than cyclists anywhere else in the world – because we had to. The bike’s popularity continued to rise as a vehicle for the masses up until World War Two, after which the car took over on the roads.
But the bike wasn’t just a tool, it was also a major building block of the Australian sporting tradition. Competitive cycling in Australia in the first half of the 20th century was at least as popular as cricket or football; Hubert Opperman rated alongside Don Bradman and Phar Lap in the media of the time. Australian cyclists competed all over the world in track and road cycling, and Australia hosted many international greats, like Marshall “Major” Taylor, who named his daughter Sydney after the city she was born in.
Australian cyclists also saw action of a different type overseas; bicycles have been used in combat since the Boer war, and they still are in places like Afghanistan. The ANZAC legend rarely includes mention of bikes, but they were there with two ANZAC cycling battalions (one of Aussies, the other of Kiwis) seeing action in World War One.
Wheeling Matilda presents an overview of the diversity of Australian cycling, vehicular, sporting, and otherwise. The book draws on the themes explored in the author’s previous books on cycling history: The Bicycle and the Bush, The Bicycle in Wartime, and Major Taylor in Australia. Where his previous books explored individual aspects of cycling history in depth, Wheeling Matilda takes a more complete approach. It’s as if Jim is looking back on his academic research in cycling over the past 30 years and reflecting on it, updating it, and reinterpreting it.
The product of this revisiting, Wheeling Matilda, is the book on Australian cycling history that should be read before any others. While it begins in the late 19th century, it looks at all of the aspects of cycling up to the present day. It’s a sampler, an overview, a high-level look, but it’s also a gateway into the author’s much more detailed histories, and the histories of various aspects of cycling written by others. If you had to put one book into every Australian library to represent Australian cycling, this one would be it.
Wheeling Matilda is well researched and readable. While Jim is/was an academic (his original research into cycling led to a PhD from ANU), he writes in a “popular history” style that is enjoyable to read, but he includes all of his sources in an annotated bibliography for further investigation by the reader. This book is an invitation to learn more, and Jim makes it easy, and desirable, to do that.
No matter what type of cycling you’re into, you will enjoy reading this book. It will open your eyes. Moreover, these are the stories you’ll be telling other people over coffee after a ride, or over wine at a dinner party: “Yeah, I’m planning on a 200km ride this year on my new 11 speed carbon fibre bike, but that’s nothing compared to Francis Birtles on his steel fixie. Let me tell you about it…”
This is the book you lend to people to show them that there is more to cycling than lycra boys running red lights. They might take a different view on things when they realise that our sealed roads weren’t originally built for cars, that their 4WD tyres began life on two wheeled vehicles, and that bikes were more common on city streets than cars were for a very long time.
You can order Wheeling Matilda directly from the author at Star Hill Studios for $28.95 with free standard postage. Jim has three other books you might also be interested in, so make sure you check them out while you’re there. If you ask Jim nicely, he might even autograph the books for you! Buy a copy for yourself, a copy for any other cyclists you like, and a copy for your kid’s school library.
I’m a big fan of Jim’s books, and I was delighted to be able to interview Jim about his books and his research process. You can read that interview here.