In the early 20th century cycling changed from a novelty activity for the better-off to an essential part of everyday life – a way for New Zealanders to commute to work, visit friends, deliver goods and even go on holiday.
Bike prices dropped from £24 in 1890 ($4,500 in 2016 terms) to £15 in 1900 and less than £10 in 1930. Technology improved in the 1900s with the free-wheel, which allowed riders to coast down hills with their feet stationary on the pedals, and with better brakes and lights.
Bicycles became widely used for city deliveries in the first decade of the 20th century. Bikes meant a horse and cart were no longer necessary, and boys could be employed to do deliveries – their pay was lower than a van driver’s wages.
The largest employer of cycle messengers was the Post and Telegraph Department, which delivered telegrams and the mail. In 1939 the department had a fleet of about 1,450 bicycles, half of which were owned by staff members who were paid allowances for their use.
Other occupations that used bicycles included lamplighters, chimney sweeps and door-to-door salesmen. Baskets and specially made metal containers were fitted to bikes to carry goods.
Cycle deliveries resumed in the 1980s with cycle couriers carrying parcels in cities.
Services on bikes
By 1905 police in Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington were using bicycles, mainly as a means for sergeants to keep tabs on their constables on the beat. Firemen found them a fast, affordable and reliable alternative to walking or riding horses in the days before motorised fire trucks.
Before the First World War the Nurse Maude Association of Christchurch was given bicycles to help its district nurses get to their patients. Nurse Sibylla Maude personally instructed those who had not learnt to ride before joining the organisation.
During the First World War more than 700 men served in the New Zealand Cyclist Corps – with 59 fatalities. Bicycles were used to transport men and light equipment over long distances. Cyclist corps members also performed tasks such as traffic control, tree felling, cable laying, trench repairs and reconnaissance.
Cycling was adopted as a leisure pursuit from the late 19th century. Restrictions on working hours, smaller families, and a fashion for outdoor pursuits as a way of keeping a healthy mind and body were encouraging factors. The bicycle was seen as a means to escape the city, whether for a leisurely ride with friends and family, a picnic, or a longer cycle tour carrying camping and cooking gear.
In the 21st century cycling is among the 10 top leisure activities in New Zealand. Census results show just under 20% of the total population cycles on a regular basis – but less than 3% bike to work.
Cycle touring and tourism
Cycle touring clubs were formed from the 1880s as men turned their penny-farthings into long-distance vehicles. A New Zealand Cyclists’ Touring Club formed in 1896 to ‘encourage and facilitate touring in all parts of the colony’1, had 740 members within nine months.
Unsealed roads were boggy in the wet and rutted in dry weather. Metalled roads were uneven with sharp stones that could cause an accident. But in spite of bad roads, hills, dense bush and a lack of signage in many parts of the country, cycle touring became a popular way of holidaying from the early 20th century.
In the 21st century cycle touring forms an important part of New Zealand’s tourism industry. This has been boosted by purpose-built facilities such as the Otago Central Rail Trail, where a cycle track has been developed along the old railway route.
In 1884, a Waitemata Cycling Club member, J. Fitton, toured from Auckland to Wellington on a penny-farthing. ‘Nearing Cambridge I overtook the coach from Hamilton and had a race over the last two miles with two horsemen, one of whom I beat … Next day I went on to Ohinemutu, having to walk 11 miles through the bush. In the morning I rode over to Whakarewarewa, the natives being a little astonished seeing a man riding on a wheel in their village’.2
Social impact of cycling
Cycling made it easier for people to travel longer distances. A 1928 Christchurch Press editorial said the bicycle did ‘a great deal to produce the modern generation of modern healthy women’ and allowed people to see ‘a great deal more of their country, and helped break down barriers between classes’.3
Recreational riding boom
Recreational riding boomed after the 1980s, largely because of mountain bikes, developed to be ridden off-road on rough tracks. Hills and forests were converted to parks specifically for off-road bike riders. Mountain bikes also became common on the road.
Rides such as the 160-kilometre Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge, which began in 1977, continue to attract thousands of participants each year.