Was just purging my old laptop of its stuff when I found this.... First part of a few which will be completed in time, weekly, monthly, quarterly. I can't say for sure. The posts will go in a chronological manner as far as possible.
The Austral Wheel Race is Australia’s longest surviving professional bicycle race, and the oldest continuing handicap race in the world. The start date of the Austral wheel race remains disputed, but the current official version states it at 1887 while the Argus during the turn of the 20th century had it listed as beginning in 1886. In a very short space of time, the Austral wheel race captured the imagination of the Australian populace and fell out of favour just as swiftly. The race in its zenith was raced on grass before plummeting to its nadir on wooden bicycle tracks (velodromes, if one might say).
The Austral was a 2 mile handicap race (now 2km). Weaker riders were, and are, given headstarts. The strongest riders started on scratch, ie, furthest back and in exceptional cases, even a negative handicap (even further back).
History in professional cycling is about who threw the money first and hardest, which does make it slightly ironic that money is such a taboo these days. The Austral definitely used the money in its favour. The prize money in the 1887 edition was a stunning £285 according to the
Australasian newspaper. It was then the highest prized bicycle race in the world. As a comparison, Ranjitsinhji (better known as Ranji) received £400 annual allowance during his education in Cambridge. Nothing too special, apart from the fact that Ranji was a nephew of the Jamsaheb of Nawnagar. Albeit, he did end up bereft of cash quite often.
The money came primarily from two sources. Firstly, the Melbourne Bicycle Club, and secondly, the punters attending the event. The MBC was riding on the wave of the bicycle boom of the late 19th century. The latter further explained below.
1887 onwards, the Austral was raced in the already much respected MCG turf, which would later be considered hallowed. The ground had
already hosted the first test match between an England XI and Australia (Vic and NSW XI then) a decade ago. By the 1890s the race used to attract massive crowds of around 30,000 people. The race had already captured the interest of hordes of Australians. 1898
While each edition was significant in the early years, one edition of the race stood out in terms of its importance in years to come. The 1898 Austral was again raced in the MCG and had an attendance of around 30,000 people, more than most tests of the time. In attendance of the event were, among others, the Governor of Victoria, Sir James Fairfax and a clutch of ministers.
The gate receipts from the event amounted to a stunning £1200, the second highest recorded at the MCG at the time (It’s a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the record were achieved in the Ashes decider when AE Stoddart’s England side toured Australia. England won the Ashes that year). The net profit, amounted to a handy £1500. Overall, a very successful event.
It was a popular description, almost cliché, that said that handicap racing was the combination of front men (frontmarkers) beating those on the rear mark. As with horse racing and some motor racing formats, the strongest riders were given the most difficult handicaps while the weaker riders had a more favourable handicap, in this case, a head-start of stated number of yards.
According to the Argus, none of that happened and every man rode for himself at break neck speeds to such an extent that they were nearly matching the world records for grass tracks. The heats were won mainly by second raters with favourable handicaps, much to the chagrin of the favourites who complained of harsh handicaps for them.
The main contenders for the race were Finnigan, Jackson, Garguravich, Morgan and Clinton. Finnigan started at a generous 220 yards. Clinton at 100 yards. At scratch (0 handicap, ie, headstart), were Taylor, Morgan and Tame.
The latter trio raced hard in the early stages in the hopes of catching upwith Fontaine and Clinton. Taylor doing the grunt work. While they were going so, Garguravich was flying 20 yards back.
Garguravich and Bennett attacked broke away from the group in an attempt to catch the leaders. Jackson was in fine form, but the generous handicap was too much to make up.
MacGibbon, Mathews, Stapleton and Finnigan were together in the 3rd lap of 8.
Surprisingly, whistles were heard from the crowd. After a short while, it was observed that a couple of riders were making pace on the basis of whistles. Later, it was observed that the whistles were targeted towards Finnigan to help him too.
At the mile mark, 4 laps completed, Bennet faded, Jackson caught the second group and the three Middleton brothers' strength displayed.
On the next lap, lap 5, Finnigan was in the lead with Mathews and Bennett with him. Morgan and Stapleton were there too but struggling.
Lap 6, Alf Middleton and Garguravich closed in on the leaders. Tame accelerated to catch the lead group and Clinton tried following. Finnigan
heard the roars from the crowd and seized control.
At the bell, the order was Finnigan, Mathews, Morgan, Middleton and Garguravich. MacGibbon, Brooke and Stapleton also in contention.
On the last corner, Mathews fough to wres control from Finnigan. Middleton challenged both from the inside and Morgan on the outside for the home sprint. Finnigan shook all off and won the rich Austral wheel race.
One interesting aspect of reporting from the era was the use of terms now associated with horses: trainers, stable mates etc.Aftermath of the 1898 Austral
The most famous and consequential edition of the Austral ended with Tom Finnigan pocketing a massive 240 gold sovereigns. Like his contemporaries, Finnigan took up the preferred occupation of retired sportsmen of setting up a sports business, in this case, a bike shop. The address according to the Historical Society of Malvern and newspapers of the time list it as 185, Glenferrie Road, Malvern. This has been wrongly reported as 58 Glenferrie road by other sources. This store, in 1903, was to sell Australia's first Malvern Star bicycle. The business really started taking off after Finnigan was convinced to place a modest advertisement in the newspapers.
Finnigan later sold the business to Bruce Small. Small employed a young Hubert Opperman whose subsequent success and star grew the company more rapidly than ever becoming one of Australia's leading bike manufacturers.Troubles with the Austral
The Melbourne Cricket Club earned pots with the Austral, but the club itself never warmed to the professionalism, but more importantly the betting.
As noted in Ride magazine, the bicycle boom started dying down at the turn of the 20th century.
Also, the racing itself was largely dull with frontmarkers having healthy enough handicaps to make it near impossible for the scratch riders.
With big betting, came big problems. In 1906, there was a betting scandal, read race fixing, which led to the resignation of a trustee of the Melbourne Bicycle Club and also the President of the MBC. As alleged by the Argus in 1956, John Wren won £7,000 on the victory of 41 year old American Bill Martin from scratch, with the very enticing odds of 12/1. In 1903, a race judge was asked to resign after it was discovered that he'd bet on the race.
This led to the MBC taking up some novelties, rather gimmicks, to keep interest in the event artificially high. To quote the Melbourne Cricket Club's Yorker Magazine
To lure patrons, the organisers resorted to novelties. Pigeon flights appeared in 1907. A year later, the Leader maintained that ballooning and parachuting had "more to do with drawing the big crowd than the afternoon's racing, which was very tame." In mixtures of spectacle and foolish insanity, balloonists clung to trapezes, performed parachute jumps and even tried to glide to earth while mounted on a cycle.
It was hoped that the 1910 Austral would provide cycling with a fresh start. Advertisements promised a "Revival of the Pastime", as the sport was now "Clean" and "Straight", with "All the Old Element Passed Out." On top of that, just 10 months after Australia's first powered flight, the Melbourne Bicycle Club planned to delight spectators with the rare spectacle of an aeroplane taking to the air.
In 1910, the combination of aeronautics and cycling was not as incongruous as it appears now. In the Australasian, for example, these fields (and motoring) were jointly covered under the heading "Wheel Notes", while the French, in particular, regarded aviation contests as sporting events.
The MBC in 1909, had decided to invite John Duigan, the maker of the first Australian built aircraft. But due to the outfield being unsuitable for take-off, Duigan rejected a substantial amount of £100. In the end, they invited Frenchman Gaston Cuniet and after wind impeded his first flight attempt, it was rescheduled for the days of the Austral, where despite the unfavourable wind, after some barracking from the crowd, he
did take-off. After a couple of rounds around the ground, Cuniet tried to pass through the gap between the MCG scoreboard and the Member's Stand (the MCG of old was more akin to what we see in the Member's and Women's stand at the SCG than the big concrete engineering marvel lacking in character that the new MCG is). The gap, described as two and a half times the width of the plane, was a risky manoeuvre at the best of times, let alone with a wind. Inevitably, the plane's bottom struck the spiked fencing before crashing.
This signalled the end of the Austral's affair with the MCG. The crowd for the final in the following week was nowhere near the dizzy heights that it reached prior to the turn of the century.
All this resulted in the shifting of the Austral from the MCG to the Melbourne Exhibition Oval. Bicycling, which for a decade had looked like Australia's pass-time had exceeded its use by date.
As the Argus, in 1956, described, the Austral had, at its zenith, gained a stature of a classic, The Melbourne Cup of wheelmen. Indeed, it made an indelible mark on the MCG too, with the wheelmen of the Austral making their way into the MCG tapestry alongside the greats of cricket and football (VFL/AFL code).
Addendum: Don't get surprised by the attitude towards professional sport. Cricket was an amateur sport with around half of its players being professionals, greater professionalism in Australia. The biggest stars, Grace, Ranji, Jackson, Murdoch etc. usually amateur.
In England, especially, amateurs were held in higher esteem. Being paid to play a sport/game was never thought highly of. Amateurs used to be captains and the first professional English captain was Len Hutton in the '50s. They also received benefits from the club where they played as opposed to the often poverty stricken professionals. WG Grace, in his inimitable style, in the late 19th century publicly chided professionalism. It took till the Second World War to reduce greatly the nature of perception of the amateur and professional game and another decade or so to destroy it.
But it did lead to lesser cheating, generally, and also created the culture of testimonials and benefit years.
Cheers for now.