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Book: The Hum of the Wheels, the Roar of the Crowd

It’s hard to sit in Sydney, one of the worst cycling cities in the world, and imagine that it has ever been different. It’s now been several generations since cycling was considered a valid form of transport, and while sports loving Aussies will cheer every four years for our cycling Olympians, there is little acknowledgement of the sport in the mainstream at other times. So when you pick up a book about the boom of cycling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Sydney, it reads like a novel of alternate history. Author Harry Irwin has taken a Sydney just out of living memory, and has bought it to life through five cycling brothers and their families.

The Hum Of The Wheels The Roar Of The Crowd is an interesting biography of cycling in Sydney. The book begins by looking at the cycling craze of the 1880s and 90s, and quickly focuses on the racing aspect of cycling in all of its colourful excitement. Irwin’s brief (20-ish page) overview of cycle racing in Sydney is probably the most comprehensive treatment of the subject available and would stand alone as an excellent excerpt from the book.

The rest of the book looks at cycling and cycle racing through the lens of five brothers from Woolloomooloo, a Harbourside suburb of Sydney that was once very working class. (As an aside, apart from the Shaw brothers, Woolloomooloo’s other claim to bicycle fame is being the birthplace of the phrase “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”) The brothers, part of a much larger family, as was the fashion of the time, showed an affinity for cycling and sailing, but it’s cycling that is used here as a way to tell their stories.

The hum of the wheels, The roar of the crown - Harry Irwin

One by one, Irwin tells the life story of the brothers as it relates to the bike, and even includes a section on a cycling brother-in-law as well, just to top it off. The book reads like one of those novels/movies that tells the same story from lots of different angles, a multiple narrative that manages to capture almost every aspect of cycling culture in one way or another. Road racing, track racing, bike building, retailing, all of them are part of the story. As too are iconic Australian races like the Goulburn to Sydney, Warrnambool to Melbourne, and The Austral. This is a rich and personal coverage of events that have mostly come down to us as stories.

This won’t be a book that appeals to everyone. I enjoyed the more objective historical parts of the book and appreciated the research that went into them – the author is an academic and it shows. What I didn’t enjoy as much were the subjective dives into the history of the Shaw family. It’s the same reason I can’t read any of Peter Fitzsimons stuff either. That doesn’t mean that this book is flawed in any way, rather it has an inconsistent approach that doesn’t appeal to me, but your mileage may vary.

Despite that, I did enjoy the book and learned a lot. I’ve read several cycling histories with chapters touching this era and this is certainly a strong contributor to the written sub-history. For anyone with an interest in racing or early cycling in Australia, this is an essential piece of the puzzle. For anyone who is interested in a story of a family striving through the years up to the Great Depression, then this is one you won’t see anywhere else.

The Hum Of The Wheels The Roar Of The Crowd by Harry Irwin is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing and retails for $39.95

David Halfpenny
David Halfpenny
rides whenever and wherever he can; in good weather and bad, in sickness and in health...and mostly off the back of the peloton.
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