Story: Cycle racing

Page 3. Road and track racing: early to mid-20th century

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The classic New Zealand road races

From 1899 the introduction of longer point-to-point (and single lap) road races re-energised this side of the sport. In these events racing is handicapped. Riders start at intervals based on their abilities, with the fastest riders (the scratch bunch) leaving last, often up to 40 minutes behind the first (the limit markers). Ideally, all riders should finish close together. Three classic New Zealand road races stand out.

Timaru to Christchurch

First held in 1899, this ‘cash’ race was 100 miles (161 kilometres). The first winner, Arthur Ralston, completed the course in 7 hours 8 minutes. Between 1909 and 1923 the legendary Phil O’Shea dominated, winning line honours twice and setting the fastest time on six occasions. At that time the roads were gravel and riders had to ford the Selwyn River on foot. In 1998 Robin Reid blazed home along sealed roads in an astonishing 3 hours 24 minutes. The increasing cost of organising traffic management saw the race replaced with a new Timaru to Twizel event in 2009.

A lucrative prize

The Timaru–to-Christchurch race and the Round the Mountain classic usually determined who won the ‘cash’ New Zealand 100-mile national title. In 1954, when the average wage was around £8 per week ($404 in 2012 values), a win in either of these races was worth £200 ($10,000).

Round the Mountain

This was also a ‘cash’ 100-mile race and has been held in Taranaki since 1911. In the late 1920s it became one of the first classics raced entirely on sealed roads so, despite its hills, earned a reputation as a fast ‘century’. Harry Watson, New Zealand’s top professional, was the fastest rider five times between 1925 and 1935. He blitzed the course in 4 hours 8 minutes in 1935 – a remarkable record that stood for 20 years.

Palmerston North to Wellington

This started in 1926 and was an amateur event. Road cycling support had withered during the First World War and this race signalled a revival. At the start and finish and along the route crowds cheered the riders on. In the inaugural event, V. Tippett took both line honours and the fastest time of 6 hours 29 minutes for the 100 miles. In 1985 Paul Leitch finished in an astonishing 3 hours 7 minutes. The last race was held in 2002.

Track revival

Track racing boomed again from the 1920s. Twilight and floodlit meetings provided entertainment between six o’clock when the pubs closed and Saturday night dances. At Western Springs, in Auckland, track cycle racing became a regular curtain-raiser to an evening of speedway. Once again, track stars from around the world competed with locals. Evening track programmes included sprints, pursuits, points, scratch (non-handicap) and handicap racing. Motor-paced events became hugely popular, and spectator support swelled. By the 1930s races for women were a regular part of the track programme for some cash clubs, but amateur clubs excluded them until the 1960s.

Amateur developments

In the mid-1930s the newly formed New Zealand Amateur Cycling Association (NZACA) affiliated with the International Cycling Union (UCI). Soon after, the honour of representing the country at the (amateur) British Empire Games and the Olympic Games became a major motivator for cycle racers. Many cash riders switched codes, which involved a two-year stand-down period. Cantabrian George Giles won New Zealand’s first international cycling medal – a bronze in the 1,000-metre sprint at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney.

Local versus overseas champions

On a late summer evening in 1956, almost 20,000 people crammed into Christchurch’s English Park expecting to watch the World Pro Sprint Champion, Reg Harris of England, pitch his explosive finish against the Australian champion, Colin Shaw. Instead, New Zealand sprint champion Owen Duffy stole the limelight, beating both Shaw and Harris. Such a crowd has not been seen since at a track meeting.

Track decline

After the Second World War, velodromes once again echoed to the roar of fans. At the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland more than 40,000 spectators watched the final track racing event, just before the closing ceremony. But the arrival of television in the early 1960s led to a dramatic fall off in attendance at races. As gate takings plummeted, so did the prize money and the cash ranks dwindled. In 1967 the end of six o’clock closing of public bars led to further decline – no longer could race promoters count on a crowd arriving after the last call for drinks.

How to cite this page:

Simon Kennett, 'Cycle racing - Road and track racing: early to mid-20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/cycle-racing/page-3 (accessed 22 October 2019)

Story by Simon Kennett, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Oct 2015