Australian cycling has a rich and exciting history
The Herald-Sun Tour is Australia’s oldest cycling stage race. As a child, I recall watching the Tour riders travel through the small country town of Rosedale in Gippsland where I grew-up. Sometimes there would be an intermediate sprint in the town. On other occasions we would watch the riders racing up the ridge adjoining our property.
The Tour marked the revival of competitive cycling after the Second World War.
For the first half of last century, track racing and one-day endurance events dominated the cycling calendar. Track racing was extremely popular, as thousands of people flocked to the wooden velodromes to witness closely fought races.
While the velodromes drew large crowds in an era before radio and television, many long distance races were also promoted. The Melbourne to Warrnambool, first raced in 1895, remains one of the oldest and longest continuous one-day races in the world. Others to survive include the Goulburn to Sydney and the Grafton to Inverell in New South Wales.
European-style stage racing had more recent beginnings. As part of the Victorian centenary celebrations in the 1930s, a 1,000 mile road race was organised. Hubert Opperman, who had been riding in Europe, was coaxed back for the event. Oppy had recorded the fastest time in the Melbourne to Warrnambool three times in the 1920s before venturing overseas.
A nine-stage Batman 1,000 was organised in Tasmania a few weeks before the Victorian event. Oppy later described it as the “weirdest competitive event I have ever encountered” as the riders traversed rough, puncture-prone, pot-holed roads. One stage involved “103 miles of virtually uninhabited rugged bush country from Ouse to Queenstown.”
The Victorian Centenary 1,000 provided similar challenges for the riders, which included the 1932 Olympic Track Gold Medallist, Nino Borsari. The Italian champion later settled in Australia, and founded a bicycle shop in Carlton which still exists today near what is now known as Borsari’s corner.
Two French riders, Paul Chocque, who won silver in the teams pursuit at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and Ferdinand Mithouard, who went on to win Bordeaux-Paris in 1933, also competed.
According to Opperman, the race descended into a “process of elimination by accident and disorganisation, unique in Antipodean cycling history” with torrential rain which ‘grounded’ the riders on Mt Buffalo. “The route over Mt Buffalo and the Alps to Omeo was atrocious,” reported Oppy after the field struggled through the 213 mile (340 kilometre) penultimate stage that ended in Sale.
The A-grade riders alone suffered six broken wheels, 25 falls, several concussions and broken collarbones. Oppy crashed on the descent of Mt Hotham after hitting a large rut in the road. He had to abandon on the last stage of the race from Sale to Melbourne which was ultimately won by a little known Coburg rider, Harry Cruise.
The poor organisation of the Centenary Tour did little to enhance stage racing in Australia. With the added intervention of the Depression and the Second World War, it was two decades before a major Tour was again staged.
Organised under the banner of Melbourne’s Sun newspaper, the Sun Tour was first staged in 1952. It was won by Keith Rowley from Maffra, who beat his brother, Max, by just 49 seconds.
Later one of the best riders of the era, and a regular competitor, Jim Taylor, who had been injured in the tragic crash that killed the 1957 winner, Russell Mockridge, came to live in Rosedale when I was a child. His daily training exploits around the nearby roads were a talking point amongst locals.
The Tour became a feature of the sporting calendar in Victoria. Along with the Melbourne Cup, the VFL grand final, the cricket test at the MCG, and the Australian Open, it was one of the big events of the year. Coverage in The Sun newspaper meant that riders like the Western Australian, Barry Waddell, who dominated from 1964 – 68, and John Trevorrow, who claimed three wins a decade later, became household names in Victoria.
International riders and teams started to appear from the mid ‘80s as more and more Australians broke into the ranks of the top European teams.
Despite being Australia’s oldest stage race, the Tour retained a provincial flavour. Coming at the end of the European season, it couldn’t attract many of the best riders, who by October were looking for a few weeks off the bike before preparing for the following year.
The Herald Sun Tour which started on Wednesday is bigger and better than ever, after not being conducted last year because of the World Championships in Geelong.
A new route that retains some of the provincial flavour, but concentrates on the major cities of Ballarat and Geelong, as well as the Surf Coast and Mornington Peninsula tourist destinations reflects the winning formula of the more recent South Australian Tour Down Under.
Future route possibilities could include the Dandenongs and the Mecca of popular cycling, Beach Road. A program like this year’s provides a balance between country and city Victoria, and should attract many more spectators.
This year’s event includes many of talented young Australians who are making a name for themselves overseas. Riders like Jack Bobridge and the Meyer brothers, Cameron and Travis, are the stars of the future. Others, such as Baden Cooke, Heinrich Haussler and Ritchie Porte, already have a series of impressive performances in the elite peloton.
The three climbs up the steep three kilometre ascent to Arthur’s Seat on Saturday, and the final stage in Lygon Street, Carlton, on Sunday, should attract large crowds to Australia’s oldest stage race. It is an opportunity to see the stars of the future, and to observe why Australian cycling currently commands such international acclaim.
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