The ancestor of the modern pedalled bicycle, the velocipede – also known as the boneshaker – appeared on New Zealand roads around 1869. Invented in France, it had a heavy iron frame, wooden wheels, and a pair of cranks and pedals attached to the front wheel.
Velocipedes were hard to ride on New Zealand’s rough roads, but newspapers carried reports of people racing, doing tricks and generally learning to master the new machine.
By the late 1870s, the penny-farthing (also called a high wheeler and an ‘ordinary’) was appearing on the roads. It had been discovered that a bigger front wheel meant a faster machine, because fewer revolutions of the pedals were required to pick up speed. The back wheel needed to be smaller to keep the machine light and make it easier for the rider to mount. The new bicycle was called a penny-farthing after coins of the day – the large penny and the much smaller farthing.
Christchurch even boasted a band that played on bikes. Set up by brothers Fred and Joshua Painter in 1895, the Christchurch Bicycle Band played brass instruments while cycling in formation. They entertained the public, on the stage as well as the streets, for about 25 years – initially on penny-farthings.
Penny-farthings were hugely popular in the 1880s and early 1890s, and thousands were imported or made locally. The expense and dangers of riding penny-farthings made them most popular with younger middle-class men. Others who could afford to cycle tended to stick to a three-wheeled version of the velocipede.
The late 1880s saw two of the most significant developments in cycling history: the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre. The safety bicycle’s lower frame, equal-sized wheels with a chain and more comfortable ride meant it could be ridden by most people. Its pedals and cranks were connected to a large sprocket at the base of the frame, the chain wheel. A chain linked this to a smaller sprocket on the back wheel, and the gearing ratio shifted from the wheels to the sprockets – for every revolution of the pedals the back wheel turned three times. Manufacturers began producing models especially for women, and sparked a cycling boom. The pneumatic tyre softened the ride on bumpy roads.
Bicycles with chains could have gears. Basic 2-, 3- and 4-speed bicycles became popular from the 1930s, and by the 1960s they were the norm.
Christchurch – mostly flat – was nicknamed ‘Cyclopolis’ in the early 20th century. In 1924 the city council’s motor inspector estimated that there were 40,000 cyclists in the city – half the population. A 1936 traffic census found 11,335 cyclists passed one corner of Cathedral Square between 8 a.m. and 5.30 p.m., a rate of one every three seconds. Christchurch was home to 50,000 of the 250,000 cycles in New Zealand in the late 1930s.
The 10-speed, invented in the 1970s, had more gears than previous bikes and was a big leap in the bicycle’s evolution. World oil prices were increasing, and a bike with gearing ratios – allowing even inexperienced cyclists to ride over hills and into the wind – was a boon in a hilly, windy country.
During the 1970s children could choose from a range of new designs such as choppers, with high handlebars, banana seats and a raised bar at the back, and Raleigh 20s, which spawned New Zealand-made imitations Healing Loline and Cruisers. From 1979 the BMX (bicycle motocross) craze took off among children and teenagers.
In the 1980s the mountain bike was introduced. It offered a wide range of gearing ratios, increased stability with smaller wheels and fatter tyres, much improved brakes, and later on, suspension for increased safety and comfort. Riding bikes, both on and off the road, now became a more attractive option in hilly cities like Dunedin and Wellington.
Mountain bikes sparked another cycling boom. Between 2001 and 2006 around a million bicycles were imported, the majority of them mountain bikes. Since then the rise of retro-styled single-speed and electric bikes has ensured cycling remains popular, especially in urban areas.
New Zealand manufacturers were quick to produce their own models of the velocipede, using local materials such as horoeka (native lancewood) for wheels. During the 1870s many ironmongers, coach builders and makers of agricultural machinery also made bicycles. Thomas Boyd & Son, the first business devoted solely to bicycles, was set up by an engineer in Christchurch in 1878. It was followed shortly afterwards by Richard Kent, also in Christchurch.
The safety bicycle led to a boom in cycle manufacturing. In the early 1890s locally produced bikes overtook imports. By 1900 New Zealand had 71 cycle factories, 25 of them in Christchurch. Zealandia Cycle Works, which started manufacturing in 1880, made almost all bike components in its Christchurch factory, which employed 40 people. Other companies imported components and assembled bikes, to avoid tariffs on importing whole bikes.
Cycling took off in the early 20th century. By the late 1930s, New Zealand had one bicycle for every six people. Between 1900 and 1950, nearly 800,000 bicycles were imported and many thousands more were manufactured locally. Learning to ride a bike was part of growing up in New Zealand. As car ownership increased in the 1950s, cycling began to decline in popularity.
By the 1950s bicycle parts were no longer made in New Zealand, and imported bikes and parts tended to be sold and repaired through other shops such as lawnmower businesses.
In 1963 Morrison Industries began producing bikes almost completely from New Zealand-made parts. The new Glenbrook steel mill provided the raw material, and the government helped the local bike manufacturer by reducing bicycle import quotas by 90%. In the 1970s, 90% of all bikes sold in New Zealand were locally made.
Healing Industries started manufacturing bicycles in 1967 and had early successes with the Loline, which, with its 20-inch (50-centimetre) wheel, competed with the imported Raleigh 20. Healing’s Dragster was the local equivalent of the Raleigh Chopper, with a central gear shift and motorcycle-style seat. In the late 1970s Healing Industries produced up to 700 10-speeds a day for the local and export markets.
Morrison and Healing produced some of the first BMX and mountain bikes in the 1980s. However, after the lifting of import restrictions in the late 1980s, allowed in cheaper bikes from Asia, both companies were bought by Masport Group which ceased manufacturing bicycles. Sheppard Industries continued to assemble Avanti bikes from imported parts.
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.
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 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
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 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.
From the late 1870s cycle clubs sprang up around the country. By 1897 there were 64 registered bicycle clubs in New Zealand. They held training sessions, organised group rides and races, and lobbied for cyclists’ rights.
The first all-women cycling club in Australasia was the Atalanta Cycle Club, started in Christchurch in 1892. Social reformer Blanche Lough and rational dress advocate Alice Burn were members of the club, which organised picnics, day trips and longer tours. Women’s clubs became synonymous with the emancipation they sought.
The women of Christchurch’s Atalanta Cycling Club attracted hostility when they wore ‘bloomers’ or knickerbockers on their outings. People shouted abuse and sometimes threw stones. The first captain, Blanche Lough, sometimes got her brother to accompany the group as a result. In 1893 the club decided to revert to skirts for cycling, but that rule was relaxed as the controversial ‘dress reform’ garments became more acceptable.
The increasing numbers of cyclists on urban streets inevitably came into conflict with pedestrians and other road users. Local authorities responded with legislation, including by-laws against ‘scorching’ – cycling fast on city streets. A 1900 Christchurch by-law said cyclists must have a bell and, for night riding, a light, and must not ride on footpaths, no-handed, or faster than 6 miles (10 kilometres) an hour in the central city.
Although accidents with cars were later lethal for cyclists, when automobiles first appeared in the 1900s advocates for both forms of transport often worked together, mapping out routes between towns and lobbying local authorities to improve roads and safety.
Road accidents for cyclists increased alarmingly in the 1920s with the rapid growth in the number of cars. Between 1932 and 1950 motor vehicles killed 449 cyclists. In the 21st century an average of about 10 cyclists are killed, and 770 injured every year.
The rise of motor vehicles and subsequent danger for cyclists meant there were far fewer bicycles on New Zealand roads in the 1950s and 1960s. It was only when motoring became less appealing – such as during the 1970s oil shocks when petrol prices rose – that cycling to work began to come back into favour.
In 1976, 3% of New Zealanders rode to work. By 1986 the figure had risen to 5% – over 10% in Christchurch, Hastings and Whanganui, but still only 1.4% in hilly Wellington.
By the late 1980s the cycle community had begun to decline again as cheap car imports from Japan made cars more affordable. Controversial laws making helmets compulsory in 1994, and increasingly overcrowded city streets were also factors. In 1996 only 3.6% of commuters biked to work, since then the figure has dropped to under 3%.
Bicycle theft was a major problem in the 1920s and 1930s, with about 1,000 reports of stolen cycles a year in Christchurch alone. The amount of police and court time spent on cycle offences, such as riding on pavements or at night without lights, prompted Transport Minister Bob Semple to propose registration for all bikes, like cars, in 1936. But the idea was never acted upon. It was resisted by authorities because of the cost of administration, and by cyclists because they did not want to be charged to register their bikes.
In the the 21st century the Cycling Advocates Network (CAN), formed in 1997, spearheads the cycle lobby. It lobbies local councils and transport authorities for cycle-friendly amenities such as cycle lanes and designated cycle paths, and organises ‘bike to work’ days to encourage cycle commuting.
Kennett, Jonathan, and others. Classic New Zealand mountain bike rides. Wellington: Kennett Brothers, 2002.
Simpson, Clare. ‘A social history of women and cycling in late-nineteenth century.’ PhD thesis, Canterbury University 1998.
Wall, Bronwen, ed. Ride: the story of cycling in New Zealand. Wellington: Kennett Brothers, 2004.
Watson, James. Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996.