The image below of John Bange seemingly defying gravity is an iconic image of Australian cycling. This image was taken in 1930 on his dirt track on his property in Aviadell which is near Clifton in Queensland.
Images courtese of the State Library of Queensland
Little is known about John Bange’s love of cycling except for this image. John was born in Clifton in Queensland and was a farmer who was best known as an aviator and the pilot of the “Azure Star“. This was the first enclosed-fuselage glider to fly on the Darling Downs. The glider was 19 feet long with a width span of 40 feet. John lovingly built this glider with the help of the members of the Aviandell gliding club in Clifton. This was one of the first gliders ever to be constructed in Queensland.
John Bange, who was 25 years old at the time first flew the Azure Star on the 13th of March 1932. Reaching heights of 60 feet, and very fast speeds.
John devoted his life to farming and flying and was affectionately known as the “flying farmer”.
Little is know of Bange up until 1982. Where he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his initial flight by taking Azure Star back to the air. Recreating his historic flight at the ripe old age of 75. Bange possibly became the oldest pilot to fly a glider in Australia. A testament to the design and quality of the craftsmanship of his glider to be able to fly 50 years after it was created. His story made national coverage.
Channel 9 news story from 1982 on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary flight of the “AZURE STAR”
In the late 19th century there was much respect for “the Overlander”. These were riders who rode across the Australian continent well before there were roads and motorised vehicles were invented.
In 1937 Hubert “Oppy” Opperman set-out to make the Transcontinental ride between Freemantle to Sydney. Arthur Richardson was the first rider to ever make the crossing, and whilst Oppy wouldn’t be the first. He was determined to make sure that he was the fastest. Planning to beat the record that had been held by Bill Read who had covered the distance in just under 19 days.
Hubert Opperman is one of Australia’s most decorated cylists who was sponsored by the Malvern Star bicycle company. At the time Malvern Star was Australia’s leading manufacturer of bicyles, and who’s name was associated with long distance speed records all throughout the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Largely in part to the great man Hubert Opperman himself.
He took down a large number of records during his cycling career. Oppy’s opinion was; “when you set-out to beat a record you’re not racing the other man. You’re racing the fella who’s going to come after you!” – Hubert Opperman
This was to be a very treacherous journey. In 1937 there was over 1,600 km of unmade road along the route. Some of the roads they took were barely goat tracks and predominately used by Camel and bullock teams. There were also long stretches of rutted tracks and soft sand where he was forced to carry his bike in some pretty intense heat.
The support crew
The ride was sponsored by Malvern Star bicycles, and led by Bruce Small, the owner of Malvern Star bicycles. Opperman came with a crew of five, including a mechanic Aubrey Melrose who’ experience with the Nullarbor was invaluable in helping the team navigate their way safely across the desert. This was to be Aubrey’s 8th Nullarbor crossings.
The party of five followed in two cars. One towing a special Romany Road caravan which had been fitted with sleeping berths and modern cooking facilities. Oppy planned to ride night and day. Looking at minimising sleeping to three an a half hours a day. This meant his support crew would have to drive through the night. Using the headlights from the cars to light the way.
Bruce Small promoted the ride. Telegraphing ahead to notify towns when they were likely to arrive. Arranging interviews with newspapers and radio presenters alike. The ride received great press coverage, and people throughout the nation followed his progress eagerly. Lining the route through country towns and massive crowds came out in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to catch a glimpse of the great man.
Crowds were so overwhelming that warnings needed to be wired ahead in the capitol cities in order to protect Oppy;
“Opperman is badly sunburned and is in a highly nervous condition. Well-wishers are therefore requested not to pat him on the back or insist upon shaking hands with him”.
Hubert Opperman set-off from the G.P.O in Forest Place, Freemantle on 5 November 1937 at 10:40 am, riding a modifified 1937 Opy Cyclo Model. This was equipped with the English made Cyclo standard six-speed derailleur and balloon tires. A ceremony had been held by the Mayor of Fremantle Frank Gibson. Who had lowered the rear wheel of Hubert Opperman’s bicycle into the Indian Ocean, and presented Hubert with a letter to deliver to the Premiere of Sydney. The goal of the ride was to cover the distance in less than 18 days.
Oppy said “this would be the longest and toughest ride of my career. Harder than the Tour de France with its Alps and descents”.
The ride was marred by incidents right from the start. In Doodlakine, W.A he narrowly missed crashing into a stationery goods train at a crossing as he swept around a corner into the darkness. You can imagine the choice words he would have said after this incident.
An interview given at Kalgoorlie in W.A will give you an impression of some of the hardshipes he went through. “I have had a hard day. Rough roads, corrugations and sand have made my progress slow. After leaving Bulla Bulling I got on the wrong side of the line and had to hump my bicycle across country to find the right track”.
This was but the start of a number of incidents that would have derailed the strongest of riders. Rainstorms, hail, heavy and unfavourable winds greeted Oppy all the way from Freemantle to Adelaide, and after surviving the crossing over the Nullarbor, in particular the dreaded Madura Gorge’. This was the most dangerous section of the Nullarbor Plains. It went from the Nullarbor Plateau to sea level and composed of rocks at least a meter high & not suited for a bike, let alone the two cars that a modern day 4WD would struggle to get through.
“the desert was something I do not want to go through again!” – Hubert Opperman.
Oppy had a heavy fall whilst riding on slippery clay in the town of Wirulla, SA. This resulted in some abrasions, then experienced another fall at Yaninee. This time injuring his knee which he sought treatment for in Adelaide.
Wildlife was also big problem, particularly at night where visibility was poor. Opperman recalled: “It was night and I was riding on a sinuos sand road in deep ruts with the caravan directly behind me lighting the way. In the lights I saw this coiled up snake with his head in the air. Tongue poking out. And his head darting all over the place. I had to make up my mind if I’d hit the brakes. I would have skidded to a stop and the car would have gone over the top of me. The alternative was to run over the snake…… I could feel snakes crawl up my legs for the next couple of hours after.”
Opperman showed great tenacity, riding through the long stretches of ‘unsettled country’. Without communications, suffering sunburn and blinding ‘clouds of swirling dust’. He got lost, overcame crashes, a knee injury, boils, cysts, and survive numerous encounters with wildlife.
“At Nanwarra Sands, I had to pick up the bike and carry it for 10 miles in the soft sand. We learned that I could gain time by sleeping for only 10 minutes at a time, something I have never forgotten.”
During this period Oppy managed to find the time to pause in the middle of the baking Nanwarra Sands to observe two minutes silence for the fallen on Armistice Day.
In remote sections Opperman had to carry his bicycle over sand dunes while the midday sun blistered his exposed skin and in the evenings he suffering from the numbing cold.
Oppy was not suffering alone.
His exhausted support crew struggled to keep up at times. There was an incident where the car and caravan was driven over an embankment into a fence, costing much time.
There were also plenty of times when Opperman was seperated from his support vehicles. The terrain was very difficult to negotiate by car, and many times Opperman would ride off on the cars. With no way to communicate with one another, there were several instances where the team almost lost one another.
No matter what was thrown at him, Hubert Opperman kept peddaling. ‘It has just been one succession of battles . . . and there have been times when I have felt like cracking up, but I have managed to keep on going’.
Oppy arrived in Melbourne almost four days ahead of schedule, was greeted by the Premiere, Mr Dunstan who told him
“you have broken more world records in the cycling world than any other man and as a Victorian we are very proud of you”.
Parliament was suspended so that the dignitaries could welcome him.
Later into the ride, Oppy developed a nasty cyst on his thigh which caused much discomfort. He treated this with hot forments and a lot of HTFU! Something he was expert at.
Between Wangaratta and Chittern he fell asleep yet again riding and fell off his bike. Thankfully only injuring his pride, and forcing some much needed rest.
To the victor goes the spoils
Opperman arrived exhausted and dust grimed and horribly sunburned into Sydney. Reaching the Post Office at Martin Place 10:51 pm. Even at that late hour, a crowd of several thousand greeted the great man after covering 4,402km in 13 days, 10 hours and 11 minutes. This beat the previous record by over five days. Oppy concluded the Ocean to Ocean tradition of dipping the wheels of his bike in the ocean at Bondi Beach. Paying tribute to Bruce Small, who was instrumental in encouraging him and supporting him throughout the ride.
Following the epic journey Opperman took some much needed rest and played a bit of Golf.
Physically this ride took a great toll. When Hubert Opperman set-off on his epic journey, he weighed in at around 64 kg. He lost over 6 kg during the course of the ride.
What was most remarkable aspect of this ride was that Oppy’s record was not broken until 1969. Vic Browne covered the distance in 11 days, six hours and 47 minutes. Over very much improved roads.
- My Heritage
Edward Reichenbach, ‘Ryko’ (26 September 1892 – 2 September 1968)
Ted Ryko grew up on a farm at Glenlee in Quensland and left school as a child to work for his uncle’s engineering business. Part of his job involved cycling around Victoria to deliver parts or fix machinery. Ted started to enter long-distance cycling competitions, and set his sights on one of the countries most dangerous crossings. In May 1914, aged 21 years of age. Ryko, with his mate John Fahey set-off from the Adelaide Post Office, with the intent on breaking Albert McDonald’s cycling record from Adelaide to Darwin. Ted was quite a talented photographer, and planned to use the trip as an opportunity to photograph some of the remote and isolated places along the route.
Disaster struck when Fahey sprained his ankle just before the Northern Territory border. A decision was made for him to stop and rest with Ryko continuing on alone. Ryko followed the old Ghan railway to Oodnadatta, then camel tracks beyond and along the maintenance tracks for the Overland Telegraph line.
The ride was not easy. One night at Barrow Creek an animal got tangled in his water bag and dislodged the siphon hose. Ted was then left with no water, and survived by moistening his lips from a tiny bottle of olive oil which saved his life. He was thankful that this lady from Sydney had given him this advice before leaving.
Ryko learned a number of survival tricks along the way. At the Finke his lighter and matches had become wet and he couldn’t light a fire. He sprinkled some carbine on the grass, poured water on it and fired his revolver into the gas which lit it.
Saving him from freezing to death.
Even stopping to take a number of photographs along the way. Ryko broke the record when he reached Darwin in 28 days and seven minutes, covering 3,000 km of very inhospitable terrain. Finishing at the site of the old Darwin Post Office.
Ted had been inspired to do the ride by Albert McDonald who Ted said “He was a great sport. I was almost sorry to take the honour of the record away from him”.
Ryko opened a photograph shop in Cavenagh Street, Darwin where he sold postcard prints of his photographs. These he sold for fourpence each. He developed and printed his films in a studio at the back. Ryko didn’t remain in Darwin very long. In December 1915 he sold the business and resumed his nomadic lifestyle back on his bike. Extensively travelling across the Northern Territory, to focus on his photography, and documenting Australia’s remote wilderness. He often would visit the Mary and Alligator Rivers, near Kakadu. Where he would photograph the Buffalo shooting camps. Ted Ryko would return to Darwin every few months to develop, print and sell his work.
During the First World War Military Intelligence became suspicious of anyone who might have connections to Germany. Although Ryko was born in Australia, his parents were of German heritage, and he was suspected of being a German spy. Government officials imagined that the travel and photography that Ryko did may have been on behalf of the German government. His name was eventually cleared, but by 1917 he had already left the Northern Territory and did not return to the Top End for nearly forty years.
Life in Sydney
Ted Ryko moved to Sydney, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1919 Ryko was admitted to the Wahroong Home of Health. Where he reportedly recovered from his breakdown.
In Sydney, his flat was robbed and his precious collections of negatives and prints were stolen. This was a massive blow to Ryko. One which he had difficulty recovering from. His photographs were his life and also a source of income.
He managed to move on and fall in love, married and had a son but he remained restless. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Ryko was living on his own and struggling to earn a living amongst the many unemployed in the city.
Around the start of the Second World War Ryko found work with the Commonwealth Railways in remote Central Australia. Here he remained for nearly eighteen years before he retired home to Victoria. In his spare time working for the railways he pursued his passion for botany, seed collecting, conservation and astronomy.
Ted Ryko; a life well remembered
Ryko move to a retirement home in Nhill due to ill health. He passed away on 2 September 1968 just shy of his 76th birthday.
Ted Ryko was an avid photographer and writer. He not only documented his adventures. But also documented the people, the history and the culture of the Northern Territory. He was also one of the first Europeans to document Aboriginal culture, which helped to enrich the world’s understanding of these people.
His collection of images that was stolen has never resurfaced publically. All of his photos which remain comes from the prints he sold and thankfully survived in private collections, museums, archives and libraries. Of the nearly three thousand photographs Ryko took in the Territory, only a couple of hundred are known to exist today.
Joyce Barry is a female cyclist. Who was very athletic and excelled at a number of sports including foot running, walking, rifle shooting, dancing and skating. She is most acclaimed for her cycling during the 1930’s, and set a large number of record breaking times and distance records. Joyce was introduced to cycling at an early age. She was diagnosed with Pneumonia at age 15. The doctor suggested cycling as a way to nurse her back to health.
Born in 1919 Joyce grew up tall, standing 5 feet, 10 inches. Joyce was very focused on a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet., and her natural athleticism was suited for the bike. Joyce came to the notice of Malvern Star bicycles which was run by Bruce Small who offered her a sponsorship. During pre-War Australia, endurance and long distance journeys were very popular. Malvern Star was very much involved in promoting Australian cycling. At the time were sponsoring one of Australia’s greatest cycling legends; Hubert Opperman.
To help develop their latest star. Hubert took Joyce under his wing and offered training and guidance to the up and coming star. Joyce was given the same 3 speed geared Marlvern Star bicycle that Hubert Opperman rode, and at times was referred to as “Missy Oppy”.
“Cycling on my ‘Malvern Star’ in the fresh open air keeps me slim and ensures that delightful bloom which no cosmetic could impart” – Joyce Barry
Bruce Small wanted his brand name to be associated with long distance records and with speed. Joyce was more than happy to deliver. She set a large number of Australian distance records including the fastest time between Sydney to Melbourne. She was quoted as saying after “I almost feel that I could turn round and ride straight back to Sydney”. On this occasion Joyce wore a yellow pullover and black shorts, and the press nicknamed her “The Flying Wasp”.
Joyce Barry’s records included:
Winning 11 open handicap and scratch races in succession during the 1936 N.S.W track season.
Establishing records between:
- Sydney to Wollongong
- Orange to Sydney; 270 km (10 hours, 19 minutes)
- Newcastle to Sydney; 168 km (6 hours 24 minutes)
- Bathurst to Sydney
- Stranthorpe to Brisbane ; 298 km (11 hours 46 minutes)
- Brisbane to Rockhampton; 777 km (79 hours 25 minutes)
- Sydney to Melbourne; 914 km (2 days 2 hours 47 minutes – total 3 hours sleep). Beating Billie Samuel’s previous record attempt by a massive 22 hours 38 minutes.
- Launceston-Hobart-Launceston; 394 km on 19 May 1938 Joyce broke the existing record of the women’s’ record by 2hr 53 mins
- October 1938 Joyce broke two State women’s un-paced road records in Western Australia from Bunbury to Perth
In November 1938. On the eve of attempting a record from Kalgoorlie to Perth. Joyce was riding with Hubert Opperman at a track. They were riding at fast speed when a child crossed the track. Opperman swerved out of the way, and into Joyce’s path. She collided with the rear wheel of Oppermans and suffered abrasions, shock and some concussion and was hospitalized. These injuries kept her off the bike for several months.
In September 1939 Joyce set out to establish a women’s seven day cycling record. This had not been officially done at this time. She rode a circular route around Sydney and its suburbs and ended up riding 1,782 km in total. Joyce may have gone on to be considered one of Australia’s greatest cyclists if it wasn’t for World War II which like many athletes spelled the end of their careers.
Joyce Barry passed away on November 23 1999 on her 80th birthday.
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain”
Historical Vintage cycling
We are used to modern technology & social media dominating the way that we ride today. What was it like for the pioneers of cycling? To go out and brave roads that weren’t fit for a motor vehicle to travel on, let alone a bike. How would it have felt to ride out solo in the desert with only what they could carry. Not knowing if and when they could find any water, and whether they could return home alive.
Who were the pioneers of Australian cycling?
Follow the links below to read about stories of discovery, immense bravery, and even some stupidity.
Wendy Law & Shirley Duncan; the first women to cycle across the Nullarbor
Billie Samuel; set the fastest time from riding from Sydney to Melbourne in 1933
Ernie Old; a man who proved aged held no barriers to riding
Hubert Opperman; Australia’s greatest cyclist
Francis Birtles; one of the first Overlanders
Geoffrey Heintz; the youngest boy to ever ride from Sydney to Melbourne at ten years of age
Annie Londonderry; the first women to ride solo around the world
Joyce Barry; in the 1930’s she was Australia’s greatest women’s endurance rider
Ted Ryko in 1914 set out for the fastest time between Adelaide and Darwin
In 1935, aged 10 years of age. Geoffrey Heintz became the youngest ever rider to ride from Sydney to Melbourne. Completing this epic journey in 4 days 9 hours and 50 minutes. Geoffrey had been inspired by emulating Billie Samuel’s record breaking ride which she did in 1934.
Geoffrey rode daily in and around the Strzelecki Ranges near his hometown of Korromburra in Victoria. He had amazing strength and stamina for someone so young, and asked his parents if he could ride from Sydney to Melbourne. He was inspired to do this ride to emulate a hero of his. “Billie Samuel”. Who in 1934 set the record for the fastest time by a women to ride from Sydney to Melbourne.
The family approached an ex-professional rider; R.W “Fatty” Lamb. Who was one of the few Australian’s at that stage to have ridden in the Tour de France. Fatty was a mentor and coach to Geoff and put together the schedule and the plan for making this ride a successful one. Fatty was instrumental in getting sponsorship for the ride. He turned to Bruce Small. The owner of Malvern Star bicycles, who’s contribution to Australian cycling at the time was immense. Malvern Star sponsored a number of riders who went onto international fame. Bruce Small would have been highly dubious that a 10 year old boy could make such an epic journey. If one could he wanted to be part of it and put the money forward to make this ride possible. Sponsoring young Geoffery Heintz.
Geoffrey Heintz set out from Sydney at 8:20 am on January 1, 1935 (New Years Day). His parents accompanying him in a motor car.
The first leg of his journey he was accompanied by Arthur Gray. An ex-professional cyclist who rode with him out to Goulburn. Riding was tough with a number of dusty roads to contend with. Geoffrey wanted to continue riding, but was told to rest. ”Dad says I must stop here for the night. If I wasn’t so sleepy I wouldn’t be tired at all” – GH
Between Goulburn to Gundagain, Geoffrey rode on little sleep. Copped a fair amount of rain, and did it tough. Least of all having to ride through a swarm of grasshoppers at one point. “The grasshoppers were thick yesterday. Some children said they do not sting but they do. They hurt when they hit you on the face when you are riding hard. One made my eye sore so I put on my goggles. But they still stung my legs” – GH.
Geoffrey didn’t mind. He just wanted to visit the place where the dog sat on the tucker box.
The mini celebrity
Geoffrey Heintz was treated like a mini-celebrity in Albury, greeted by the deputy mayor (Alderman W Colley). Geoffrey was rapt that a number of boys and girls came out to ride with him and presented him with a silver cup.
“That is my first cup. If I show mum and dad I can ride like I do at Korumburra they promised I could be a racer and try to win other cups”. – GH
After leaving Albury Geoffrey was overcome by a violent storm which he bravely rode through. All of his clothes were soaked to the skin. Nearing Seymour he was forced to pull off the road. Shaking like a leaf, his family needed to light a fire to dry his clothes and restore some form of circulation.
“When I started I thought if a girl like Billie Samuel did not get tired, I wouldn’t.” – GH
Leaving Seymour Geoffrey set into a strong head wind. At times he could only manage 10 km/h. So fierce was the wind that on one occasion it blew him off his bicycle. Taking skin off his knees and elbows.
Malvern Star arranged for Australia’s number#1 cyclist Hubert Opperman and Billie Samuel to ride out and meet Geoffrey. They met him eight kilometres out of the city. They led the boy wonder into the heart of Melbourne.
Geoffrey Heintz arrived at the Elizabeth street Post Office at 6.10 pm on Saturday. One of his knee’s stiff from the cold, and most likely hurting from his crash near Seymour.
In 1935 this was an unbelievable feat. Geoffrey went from being a country boy, who was the son of a farmer to a hero. Geoffrey touched the hearts of those that met him throughout his travels. “I wonder if the people who wave to me know how far I am going. I mustn’t stop to tell everyone”. – GH
What did success taste like to Geoffrey Heintz?
“I had some Ice cream and cakes and tea from a flask. That’s why I like riding so well. Gee, no wonder Fatty and Oppy. Like breaking records. It’s great being fed on fruit, ice cream, chocolates, and all that other boys don’t get when they’re not breaking records”. – GH
“Yesterday I saw a swagman and he asked me where I thought I was going. I said to him I was riding to Melbourne. He said I was mad to think I could ride there. I told him I have more chance than he had. I bet he will still be walking when ‘Fatty’ meets me in Melbourne”. – GH
- The Western Argus, January 22 1935
- The Argus, Saturday January 5 1935
- The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday January 7 1935
- The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday January 7 1935
- Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA) January 22 1935
- Kalgoori Miner, January 15 1935
I was able to discover about this amazing ride from newspaper cuttings, and a diary. Which thankfully Geoffrey Heintz kept to document his epic ride. This is where I found the quotes for this piece.
Francis Birtles (7 November 1881 – 1 July 1941)
“Why the idea should ever have occurred to me to risk a ride on a bicycle over eight thousand miles of territory. Much of which was practically pathless would be hard to explain. The desire to do and dare something outside the hum-drum limits of city life urged me to blaze the trail” – Francis Birtles
Francis Birtles was known as “the Overlander” and set out to explore Australia by bike and by motor car in days gone by where much of Australia remained unexplored. Perth and Darwin were only accessible by boat, and in between was a vast wasteland with long stretches of land with virtually no habitation. Francis was born in Melbourne and was an Australian adventurer, photographer, cyclist, writer and filmmaker, who had a thirst for discovery and adventure, which led to him setting many long-distance cycling and driving records.
Francis explored some of Australia’s most remote and desolate places. Not being able to carry too many supplies Francis had to live off the land and used bushman skills to hunt and gather all of his food and water. Danger was a constant companion.
“No matter what happens be it rain, dust, wind, missed waterhole, breakdown or sickness itself. You must keep moving for delay may mean death” – FB.
Francis on occasions ran out of food and water. Had spears thrown at him. Dodged Crocodiles. Outran several bushfires, flash floods and survived several diseases such as Malaria which could have easily led to his death. Just a few of the dangers that Francis faced and survived. What was most remarkable was that he looked death in the face and just moved on. Nothing ever deterred him from his trips.
Francis came to fame on the bike when he set off from Fremantle (Western Australia) on 26 December 1905 to cycle to Melbourne. A journey of over 3,500 km across some of Australia’s most inhospitable area the Nullarbor Desert. This was the first west to east bicycle crossing of the country. Following this ride, in 1907-08, Francis cycled to Sydney and then, via Brisbane, Darwin, Alice Springs and Adelaide back to Sydney, and wrote a book on his adventures which he published in 1909; “Lonely Lands – through the heart of Australia”. A year where he set a new cycling record for the Fremantle to Sydney continental crossing.
The isolation and the unknown dangers that lurked around every corner. Francis spoke of it; “No wonder the place is known as the lonely land. The complete isolation is very depressing and it takes all one’s inner resource to preserve mental balance” – FB. Yet he felt more at home exploring on his own than of the company of a crowded city, and was drawn to the adventure. In 1910-11 Francis Birtles rode around Australia, and for part of this ride he was accompanied from Sydney to Darwin with a cameraman, who filmed a documentary “Across Australia” which was released the following year. On this journey from Fremantle to Sydney, Francis broke his previous records by riding in thirty-one days. His legend grew.
By 1912 Francis Birtles had cycled around Australia twice and had crossed the continent seven times, and had claimed to have ridden over 112,000km. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to explore Australia by bike back when there were no roads:
“in many places I would have to look for a path or push my bicycle though the scrub. Many times I have had to carry my bike, and with all the attached gear was no light task” – FB
One of Francis’s many terrifying experience on the bike was shortly before reaching the town of Gympie. Francis misjudged a bushfire which he couldn’t make out whether it was receding or advancing towards the road ahead. When he realised that the fire was heading straight for him he started to ride like a bat out of hell.
“The whole hillside resembled a city illuminated by night. With the fire gaining on me at every turn of my wheel as the hot breath of my opponent was already beginning to tell upon me. A red hot cinder struck my front tyre and burned it through. A few minutes later my back tyre burst & I was forced to dismount. Turning back was hopeless. Burning limbs were falling in all directions. I must admit I felt scared. I mounted my bike and rode on the rims and made a dash. Fear lent wings as I drove it frantically over every obstacle. My clothes were scorched & hair singed” – FB
Francis narrowly escaped with his life, but his ordeal was not yet over. Stranded 80km from the nearest town Gympie, Francis was forced to ride on his rims where possible. The rest of the time was spent walking or carrying his bike. Francis once said about himself: “for I am as hard as nails“. I wouldn’t disagree with him.
Motor Car Adventures
Birtles was most famous for his motor car adventures. He moved on from cycling and developed a love for the motor car and in the process set many speed records along the way. In 1912 Francis completed the first west-to-east crossing of the continent in a single-cylinder Brush car. Francis made numerous transcontinental crossings and it has been said that all up Francis may have completed between 70 -80 transontinental crossings by bike and by car.
Francis is best known as the first person to ever drive from London to Melbourne in 1928. This journey took him nine months to completed in ‘The Sundowner”, a car which you can see at the National museum in Canberra. In a Post World War I era this crossing was incredibly dangerous, none more-so than the crossing across Burma, who’s population at the time consisted of Cannibals & head hunters. Many explorers had visited the area, never to be seen alive again.
If you want to read about Francis amazing journeys by car click on this link to find out more.
Aged 15, Francis Birtles joined the merchant navy as an apprentice. In 1899 he jumped ship at Cape Town (South Africa) where he tried to enlist with Australian militia, Francis was attached to the Field Intelligence Department as part of a troop of irregular mounted infantry until May 1902. After a brief return to Australia, he joined the constabulary in the Transvaal as a mounted Police officer. He learned to use bushcraft skills in a semi-arid environment and undertook several cycling and photographic excursions, which provided him experience which helped in all of his future adventures. His service ended when he contracted blackwater fever.
Francis was fond of being called the “King of Arnheim Land”.
“Lonely Lands – through the heart of Australia”, copyright 1909 Alfred Cecil Rowlandson
“Francis Birtles – Australian adventures” by Warren Brown, copyright 2012 Hachette Ausralia
The First Woman to Travel around the world by bike
In the 1890’s women were still unable to cast a vote. Their role in society was little more than marry and raise children. To complete domestic duties without question or complaint. Annie Cohen Kopchovsky was one of the most celebrated women the 1890’s. She was not content to stay home and instead set out to ride around the world by bicycle. Just to win a bet.
Annie Londonderry was a Jewish immigrant to Boston, and had emigrated from what is now Latvia. At 18 years of age she married Max Kopchovsky, a peddler. Within the next four years they had three children. She wasn’t happy with domestic life being mother to a husband and three young children. And took upon on a wager to cycle around the world in 15 months and raise $5,000 along the way.
The story goes that two wealthy Bostonians were sitting around their club discussing the fairer sex. One asserted that the modern woman could do just about anything a man could. His companion took the bait. They shook on a wager that a woman could ride a bicycle around the world in 15 months and earn $5,000 along the way. Jules Verne’s 1873 novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” had ignited public interest in such an endeavor. Thomas Stevens had completed a similar feat by bike in 1887. The rules were that Annie had to earn her way around the globe. Had to travel with her bicycle. Could not accept gratuities. And had to do it alone. For proof she was to gather signatures along the way at the American Consulates.
On June 27, 1894, 24-year-old Kopchovsky hopped on her 42-pound Columbia woman’s bike. Annie was wearing the long skirt, corset and high collar of the time. She waved goodbye to her husband and three small children. As well as some fans from the local cycling club and headed to New York. One newspaper reported her departure saying she “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.” She carried with her only a change of clothes. A pearl-handled pistol and a lot of chutzpa.
Undaunted by the financial obstacle. Annie sold “billboard” space on her bicycle to the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. Who offered her the sum of $100. In return for their sponsorship, she agreed to carry their placard on her bike and on her clothing. Annie also had to adopt the name “Annie Londonderry”. This made her one of the first athletes to benefit from product endorsement and advertising. Lithia Waters were a health craze in the 1880’s and 1890’s. They were made commercially by adding lithium carbonate to water. Annie also paid her way by clerking and lecturing.
It took Annie almost 3 months to reach Chicago and she was almost ready to give up. She was heading into the winter season and was not suitable to ride through. Annie needed a new strategy. It was incredibly challenging to ride a bike in women’s clothing. Annie changed her bike for a lighter men’s frame. Then donned men’s trousers (called bloomers at the time) for the remainder of the trip. She also reversed course back to New York and took a steamer to Europe instead.
A masterful self-promoter, Londonderry spun wild and often conflicting tales to newspapers about her route, and even her background. Over the course of her journey. Annie claimed to be an orphan, an accountant, an affluent heiress, a Harvard medical student, a lawyer, the relative of a congressman, and perhaps most curiously the inventor of a new form of stenography. Readers and reporters couldn’t get enough, and she soon became an international sensation. Her tall tales of brushes with death, frozen rivers, German royalty, dangerous superstition, and vicious tigers were recounted in newspapers far and wide. This was all part of the savvy businesswoman’s plan. Along with the Londonderry spring water placard, she sold more ad space on her bike. But that’s not all. Having cultivated controversy and celebrity. Annie Londonderry also arranged for paid appearances, & sold promotional photographs of herself to fans eager to be a part of her adventure.
Annie sailed to Le Havre, France, arriving there in early December. Things did not go well at first. Her bike was impounded by customs officials. Her money was stolen, and the French press declared that she was too muscular to be a woman. Assigning her to the category of “neutered beings.” Somehow she was able to turn things around. Despite inclement weather, she made it from Paris to Marseilles in two weeks via cycling and train. In Marseille, Londonderry (as she was now known) boarded the steamship “Sydney.” Ports of call included Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki and Kobe. To prove that she had actually been there, she had to get the signature of the United States Consul in each location.
From there she caught a steamboat across the Mediterranean. Heading to Asia. Since the wager never stipulated how much bike riding she had to do. Annie covered a lot of the distance on ships, occasionally getting off to ride around ashore. She stopped in Palestine, Egypt and Arabia, before landing in Singapore. Londonderry became a real entrepreneur. She kept herself going with income from displaying advertising banners on her bike and her person and telling her story. Telling the truth was less important than fundraising, and she concocted many stories about her background. In France she intrigued people with tales of being an orphan, an accountant, a wealthy heiress, a lawyer, a Harvard medical student, the inventor of a new method of stenography, the cousin of a U.S. congressman and the niece of a U.S. senator. In addition she sold promotional photos, silk handkerchiefs, souvenir pins and autographs.
Return to America
Londonderry returned to America via the San Francisco harbor on March 23, 1895. From there she pedaled to Los Angeles and then through Arizona and New Mexico to El Paso. She headed north and arrived in Denver on August 12 and then continued on to Cheyenne where she jumped on a train that carried her through Nebraska. From there she hopped back on the bike bound for Chicago, where she arrived on September 12. It’s assumed that she rode the train home to Boston where she arrived on September 24. 15 months from when she left.
During her trip across America. Annie Londonderry captivated audiences with stories from exotic places. She earned enough money from her lectures to supplement the other earnings and make the $5,000 as required in the challenge. Annie described hunting tigers with German royalty in India and a brush with death, nearly being killed by “Asiatics” because they thought she was an evil spirit. She became involved in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895. On the front lines she fell through a frozen river and ended up in a Japanese prison with a bullet wound in her shoulder. Whether true or invented, audiences loved her tales and the press ate them up. Luckily for Annie it was easy to lie to reporters. In the mid 1890’s, it was very difficult for a reporter of the time to verify a story, and often would take people at face value.
After returning to Boston, Londonderry was accused of traveling more “with” a bicycle than “on” one, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for her achievements. On October 20, 1895 the New York World described her trip as “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” Both the newspaper and Londonderry wanted to cash in further on her triumph, so she accepted the offer to write feature articles under the by-line “The New Woman.” Seeing more potential from her peddling adventure than in her husband’s peddling business. Annnie moved her family to New York for her new journalism career. Her first article was about her round-the-world bicycle adventure. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’ ” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”
Annie Londonderry was a one woman travelling show. For its time, and what Annie set out to achieve. Particularly with women’s liberation it was a truly remarkable journey. Annie experienced much success, and became a legend in many regards. Whilst many applauded and revered her. There were also the sceptics that saw through the trail of lies and deceptions that she wove, and saw her for what she was. A charlatan. Annie simply got caught up in her own lies, and did an injustice to all that she achieved. It was hard in the end to discern fact from fiction, which made it difficult to believe anything of what she was saying.
The lies were designed to make her journey all the more epic. This would mean more people would love her, and respect what she was doing, and make it easier for her to make more money along the way. The trouble was she forgot the lies she was spreading and continually contradicted herself.
The biggest lie, may have been the bet itself. Annie never said who had offered the bet, and there was no evidence that a bet had ever occurred. There were a number of people during the time that had lied about similar bets designed to scam people out of money on their journeys. It was also necessary for Annie to justify travelling around the world on her own. It was not seen as proper for a woman of the time to be travelling on their own, by bike around the world. This may explain the lies. If the whole trip was based on a lie, then what difference would it make if the rest was also a lie?
It was in incredibly difficult undertaking for a woman of Annie’s age to travel solo around the world. She was visiting unfamiliar and often dangerous places, and only spoke English, and had difficulty communicating overseas. Annie succeeded in getting fame, fortune and from accounts, Annie became a very strong and experienced rider and you could argue that her trip was a major success.
Annie moved her family to New York where, for a brief time, she wrote a newspaper column under the title “The New Woman”. The fame didn’t last and she soon faded from public attention. The fame and fortune that Annie gained from her ride led her towards being a very successful businesswoman in future years. Annie died in relative obscurity in 1947.
Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, Peter Zheutlin 2007
New England Historical Society
Sir Hubert Ferdinand Opperman
29 May 1904 – 18 April 1996
Hubert Opperman is a legend of Australian cycling, who earned the nickname “Oppy”. He had an incredible 21 year career where he won a record four Australian Road Championships. With more than 50 major road races and hundreds of track events in Australia and Europe. Breaking dozens of world records in the process. Opperman continued riding all the way up until his 90th birthday until his wife convinced him to stop.
Hubert Opperman travelled to Europe during the late 20’s and early 30’s where he achieved much of his fame.
Bol d’Or 24 hour classic
Hubert Opperman’s has done many amazing rides. His most legendary ride was in the The Bol D’or (Bowl of Gold). This was a prestigious French 24 hour event which he participated in 1928. This was held at the Vélodrome Buffalo in Paris. Early on into the ride Oppy took the race lead until his chain on his Malvern Star snapped about an hour into the ride. He rolled to the centre of the track where his manager quickly gave him his spare bike. Soon the chain soon broke on that one too. Sabotage was suspected.
They figured that the chains may have been filed down which caused them to break.
Oppy’s manager had to scramble to find another bike for him to race on. They were able to use Oppy’s French interpreter’s bike. This was a heavy touring bike and as race bikes go was a piece of shit! It had heavy mudguards and wheels. A lamp was attached and the handlebars were upturned which made riding it awkward. Worse of all was that it had very low gears. So he was unable to sustain the kinds of speeds that other riders were achieving. This didn’t deter Oppy from giving his heart and soul to give his mechanic time to fix the chain. By this stage Oppy had lost over an hour to this tragedy and was 20 laps behind the leaders. Things were looking grim.
He was not happy at all about being sabotaged. Which fuelled him to pull something special out and rode 17 hours straight. Smashing out an incredible 950 km’s and not only won. But won by a staggering 30 minutes in front of a 50,000 strong crowd who were screaming out “Allez Oppy”. The legend was born.
The French fell in love with his spirit and tenacity on the bike. In 1928 he was voted Europe’s most popular sportsman in a poll of more than 500,000 readers from the French sporting journal L’Auto.
The Paris-Brest-Paris tour is one of the oldest bicycling events and was first run in 1891. Paris-Brest was an “épreuve,” a test of the bicycle’s reliability. It is a long-distance cycling event which was once a very prestigious event.
Oppy raced in the 1931 edition which was 1,162 km in length. The weather was horrible with riders encountering gales and heavy rain throughout the first day. Opperman later recalled: ‘I was wretched with fatigue….For hours I fought against the insidious onset of sleep. I whistled and shouted; I strove to think of anything so that Morpheus would not clutch me too fiercely…it was agony.’ On the second morning, five men including Oppy had managed to break away. Oppy made several attacks until one finally succeeded. With 56 km to go was hoping to win the race solo. He managed to get a 3 minute advantage at one stage but his lead slowly dwindled down and he was caught with 5 km to go. Sitting back in the bunch as they approached the Velodrome Buffalo. Oppy’s manager, Bruce Small, had been screaming from the car:
“Oppy, ride like the devil!”
Oppy sprinted 200 metres from the line and held enough momentum to win by two lengths. There were forty thousand spectators screaming adulation. Opperman was the first non-European to win the Paris-Brest-Paris race. Setting a course record of 49 hours & 23 minutes in the process. This cemented his reputation as being one of the greatest endurance athletes of his time.
Tour de France
Hubert Opperman participated in two editions of the Tour de in 1928 and 1931.
He managed to finish in 18th place in the 1928 tour under difficult circumstances. Oppy was already at a disadvantage against many of the strong European teams. Australia only fielded 4 riders that year, where most of the other teams were able to field 10. It was a tough race and there was a high attrition rate with only 39 riders out of the original 169 riders finishing that year’s event. Opperman said that the Tour was the hardest ride he’s ever done and nothing ever compared after. He could easily match the pace on the flats, but it was the Alps that brought him undone. He had no experience climbing at altitude. Remarking at how poor the road conditions were and without local knowledge all he could do was watch as riders flew off down the road.
De Latour wrote: “It is the sight of the poor lonely Opperman being caught day after day by the various teams of 10 super-athletes”.
In 1931 Australia teamed up with Switzerland to form a much stronger team. Even though Oppy suffered several accidents and experienced dysentery during the tour he came 12th overall.
World War II
With the outbreak of World War II. Hubert Opperman enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and served between 1940 -1945. Rising to the rank of flight lieutenant. He raced briefly after the war but retired from racing in 1947 and moved onto politics. He joined the Liberal Party and in 1949 was elected to the Victorian electorate of Corio in Geelong. Serving in parliament for 17 years. After his retirement from politics in 1967 he was appointed as Australia’s first High Commissioner to Malta. And was knighted in 1968. In his retirement, Oppy published his autobiography “Pedals, Politics and People”. Opperman was recognised by his achievements being inducted into the Sporting Hall of Fame.
Sir Hubert Opperman passed away a month before his 92nd Birthday whilst riding his exercise bike. His son Ian Opperman said: “They reckon he had a smile on his face. It’s how he would have wanted to die. In the saddle.”
Hubert Opperman died a true cycling legend!
Here is but a small list of Hubert Opperman’s amazing achievements:
- He is the only rider to have won the Australian National Road race title four times
- He won the Warrnambool to Melbourne Classic on three occasions
- In 1927 he won the Dunlop Grand Prix which is a 1,111 km race over four stages
- 18th overall at the 1928 Tour de France
- 1928 won the Bol d’Or 24 hour classic
- He won the Goulburn to Sydney Classic on three occasions
- 12th overall at the 1931 Tour de France
- In 1931 won the 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris tour (1,162 km) setting a then record time of 49 hours & 23 minutes
- Completed 1,000km’s in 24 hours at the Melbourne Motordrome in 1932
- In 1935 he won a 24 hour ride called “The Cycling Ashes” in England, which coincided with the 1935 cricket ‘Ashes’ series’.
- Hubert was given the honor of being the first cyclist to ride over the newly opened Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1933
- In 1940 Opperman set 100 distance records in a 24-hour race at Sydney. Many of these were not broken until decades later.
- In 2000 he was honoured by leading the Sydney 2000 Olympic cycling team through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel
The Sir Hubert Opperman Trophy
Since 1958. The best all-round performing cyclist each year has been presented with a trophy for the Australian Cyclist of the Year. This is awarded to the cyclist who not only has an excellent performance during the year. But also displays a high level of sportsmanship and is an ambassador for the sport of cycling. Previous winners include Robbie McCewan, Simon Gerrans & Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.
Australian Sporting Hall of Fame
Sir Hubert Opperman was Inducted into The Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 . As an Athlete Member for his contribution to the sport of cycling and was Elevated to “Legend of Australian Sport” in 1993.
Cycling Australia’s Tour de France squad of the century
Sir Hubert Opperman was not only included in this prestigious squad. But was named team captain in recognition of all of his cycling achievements
Audax Australia runs an annual event called the Fleche Opperman All Day Trial aka “the Oppy”. This is a 24-hour team time trial for teams of three to five bicycles. To finish each time must ride at least 360km and finish at a designated location in each state.
Museum of Victoria:
Sports Australia Hall of Fame:
The people and Environment Blog:
National Museum of Australia:
Sydney Morning Herald:
I was recently climbing the Burwood Hill on the Eastlink Trail. The climb is about 300 metres in length with an average gradient of 6%. I was absolutely fanging it & flying up that hill sitting on a little over 35kmph. My legs were on fire and my lungs were bursting and I was wondering how much longer I could keep that pace up for. I was in disbelief as a rider glided past me on my right side. I was flying and my first thought was I was getting taken, yet I noticed the guy wasn’t even pedalling & there wasn’t a bead of sweat on his head. He must have been doing well over 40kmph & you could hear the humming of a motor powering his bike. Not happy Jan!
Some people will go to extreme measures for some gain and it made me wonder how long people have been looking for that extra oomph. I began to do some research and learned that this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. I discovered a gent by the name of Richter Raketenrad. We’ve all thought of ways of tinkering with our bikes to get that little extra performance out. Richter had a serious need for speed and went above and beyond to get that extra Strava juice.
So in 1931, German engineer Richter Raketenrad toyed with the idea of a super powered bicycle and added not one or two but twelve rockets (yes, explosive devises) to the rear end of his bike and called his device the “Raketenrad.” A white box was attached to the frame which contained the battery used to ignite the rockets which used solid fuel (which could blow up). You’d hope that that steel frame between the rockets & Richter was pretty strong…….
Today the thought of attaching explosive devises to the back of your bike may seem a tad bit dangerous, and you’d probably want to make sure your will & testament were filled out before you try this. Apparently rocket propulsion was all the rage in Germany back in the 1930’s. People actually attached rockets, which as mentioned may be considered slightly dangerous, to skates (both roller and ice), cars, boats and bicycles.
Well as the story goes “don’t try this at home fellas! I’m a trained professional!”. Richter tested his rocket bike at the Avus racetrack in Berlin. The rockets ignited and he went flying at incredible speeds and reportedly managed to reach a speed of close to 100kmph. You could imagine the adrenaline rush that this would have given Richter. The world would have been flying by at a million miles an hour and Richter was living the dream.
That was until he lost control and was thrown off as his precious rockets exploded (see images below).
Except for his pride, thankfully Richter wasn’t too seriously injured
Author: Aaron Cripps