Almost as soon as cycles appeared in New Zealand, enthusiasts began racing them. The first known race was held in October 1869 on a one-mile (1.6-kilometre) course along Ōamaru’s North Road. John Haggie and Thomas Woonton raced on ‘boneshakers’ or velocipedes (early cycles) before a crowd of over 200. Woonton easily won the spectacle in seven minutes, at an average speed of 14 kilometres per hour. A month later, Dunedin’s annual Foresters’ Fête featured a velocipede race at the Caledonian Sports Ground. All the city’s velocipedes – four bicycles, two tricycles and one four-wheeler – lined up at the start. The multi-lap course was two miles (3.2 kilometres) long and featured a rough surface and a small hill. Murray Thomson, riding his locally made ‘King Cobb’ tricycle, won New Zealand’s first recorded track race in 16 minutes.
From 1876 clubs were formed to support riders and create rules for riding etiquette and racing. In 1892 clubs split into amateur and professional or ‘cash’ clubs. Many amateurs thought ‘cashies’ were unsporting for racing for money. Cash prizes were often a significant income source for working-class riders. Some cash riders accused amateurs of being purist for racing in a less competitive field. By 1897, 64 clubs were affiliated to either the New Zealand Cyclists’ Alliance (amateur) or the League of New Zealand Wheelmen (cash).
Ready to jump
Racing a penny-farthing carried the risk of riders flying over the handlebars and getting tangled in their machine if the front wheel hit a rock. To avoid such a fate some riders coasted down hills with their legs dangling over their handlebars, ever-ready to be catapulted ahead of their bike.
Penny-farthing to safety bicycle
The high rider (penny-farthing) superseded the velocipede in the 1870s. It was lighter and better suited to long distances, encouraging road racing. But the poor condition of roads meant most races took place on tracks in sports grounds. During the 1890s penny-farthings gave way to ‘safety bikes’ with diamond-shaped frames, chain drives, and pneumatic tyres. For racers, drop handlebars, which drew the rider forward into a more aerodynamic position, and pedals with toe clips and straps became part of the new look.
The new bike led to a cycling boom. Cycle improvements and the use of pacers (non-race riders who rode in front of racers to increase their speeds) on tandems and other multi-rider cycles, ensured that records fell at a furious rate. In April 1892 Tom Clarkson lowered the 50-mile (80.5-kilometre) record from 3 hours 26 minutes to 3 hours 6 minutes. The next week, Harold Pither lowered it by 6 minutes 30 seconds. Bumpy grass track circuits were improved for faster racing. In February 1897 the Amateur National Cycling Championships were held at Wellington’s Athletic Park on a new 520-yard (475-metre) track of cinders and clay, with banked corners. The event included half-mile, mile, five-mile and 10-mile races.
In the 23rd lap of the 10-mile race during the 1897 Wellington championships, H. Reynolds (Auckland) drew away from the Christchurch champion E. Jones and, seeing this, a fresh lot of pacers came on, till the track swarmed with them. Most devoted their favours to Jones, leaving Reynolds to his own resources. But the pacers failed to lift Jones, and Reynolds went on to win the race in a time of 26 minutes 27 seconds.
Women and Māori riders
In the early 1890s women participated in half-mile novelty track races, but were excluded from serious racing because it was considered too dangerous and unfeminine. Māori too faced prejudice. They had to compete in separate races in Dunedin and Christchurch, but often raced alongside Pākehā riders in the North Island.
In the late 19th century track racing became a popular spectator sport. In 1898 Christchurch’s Lancaster Park held races five nights a week, including night racing under lights. Race promoters attracted international stars, and huge crowds paid to see local heroes line up against visiting champions. Motorcycle pacers in the early 1900s ensured unprecedented speeds. The 1914 onset of the First World War led to a decline of racing. Tracks were neglected and Lancaster Park was dug up for a vegetable garden.