In the early 2000s cycle racing in New Zealand was divided into four disciplines:
Many riders specialise in a single code, but it is not unusual for road riders to also be track riders, and vice versa. Sometimes riders begin in one code and move to another.
Common interests and goals between the codes led, in 2003, to the creation of Bike New Zealand (BikeNZ), which is affiliated to the International Cycling Union (UCI). BikeNZ acts as an umbrella and advocacy body for national bike and cycling organisations, such as: BMX NZ, BikeNZ Road and Track, Mountain Bike NZ and BikeNZ Schools. These national bodies are made up of local clubs and schools, most of which run regular competitive events as well as local, regional and national championships under UCI rules. A competitor has to belong to a club or school to get a racing licence. In 2012 there were about 50 road and track clubs, 30 MTB clubs and 40 BMX clubs, and 7,000 licensed competitive cyclists in New Zealand.
Ethan Mitchell, aged 21, competed at the 2012 Olympics and was one of the fastest sprinters in the world. His training included working out on a specially built erg – a stationary one wheeled bicycle – which had a bucket permanently attached to the side for throwing up in.
In 2012 cycling was one of nine sports funded by High Performance Sport New Zealand, a government agency that backs elite athletes with potential to excel in their field. BikeNZ’s high performance programme had 61 riders and 21 staff. Its aim was to deliver four medals at the 2012 London Olympic Games. It achieved three.
BikeNZ’s 2011 strategic plan aimed to increase New Zealanders’ participation in cycling, develop talented racing cyclists and enable more of them to win on the world stage. It called for a more coordinated approach to junior advancement and greater support and infrastructure for high-performance cyclists. In 2013 a centre of excellence to provide a development base for all cycling codes opened in Cambridge.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Multi-day stage races or ‘tours’ brought new excitement to New Zealand road racing in the second half of the 20th century. Two events, both originally amateur, stand out – the Tour of Southland and the Dulux Six-day Cycle Race.
The tour started in 1956 as a three-day Southland centenary event. In 2012 it ran for seven days, in eight stages, over 900 kilometres. Early on in the tour’s history, Warwick Dalton and Tino Tabak made a big impression, with three wins each. Between 1985 and 1995 Brian Fowler claimed a remarkable eight victories. In 1995 the tour became a team event and in 2002 it gained UCI status.
This began in 1960 and ran for 25 years. The Dulux was a world-class event, covering a wide range of terrain, through as many cities and towns as possible between Auckland and Wellington. Racers covered an unprecedented 1,000 kilometres in less than a week. To increase the spectacle, race organisers offered sprint prizes during each stage and handed out thousands of small flags to school children and spectators along the route.
Drawn-out battles between great riders such as Laurie Byers, Blair Stockwell and Jack Swart were broadcast throughout New Zealand, helping to make them household names. The withdrawal of Dulux sponsorship led to the tour’s demise in the mid-1980s.
The 1962 Dulux offered 240 prizes totalling over £1,200 ($50,000 in 2018). There were prizes for the top 20 general classification riders and top 10 ‘King of the Mountain’ riders as well as the sprint trophies. As this was an amateur event, prizes were called trophies and had to be engraveable. They included stereograms, silverware and salad servers.
The early 1970s saw increased success on the international stage. Time-trial rider Harry Kent and road racer Bruce Biddle both came away from the 1970 British Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh with gold medals, the first claimed by Kiwis at a games cycling event. Kent was declared sportsman of the year, ahead of All Black captain Colin Meads. New Zealand riders subsequently struck gold on the track in the 1978 and 1982 Commonwealth Games, then four times at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, road and track cyclists won 13 medals, including five golds. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games the medal haul was 15, including two golds; former rowing superstar Hamish Bond won bronze in the time trial..
Not until the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona did a New Zealand cyclist win an Olympic medal, when Gary Anderson from Whanganui won bronze in the individual pursuit. The next Olympic Games allowed professional riders to enter, increasing the level of competition another notch.
New Zealand’s first Olympic gold medal for cycling was won at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games when Sarah Ulmer won the 3,000-metre individual pursuit, setting two world records.
The move towards professionalism had been signalled by increasing commercial sponsorship of amateur elite racers and events. The International Cycling Union (UCI) directed the New Zealand Amateur Cycling Association (NZACA) to set up a cycling federation to govern both professional and amateur cycling, and on 1 January 1994 Cycling New Zealand was formed. Cash prizes replaced trophy vouchers; the feud between cashies and amateurs was over.
English cycling official Barbara Levido immigrated to New Zealand in 1953. Visiting a race in Wellington she introduced herself to a race official and asked if she could help. He replied: ‘There’s no bloody room for sheilas in cycling, but you can help with the afternoon tea.’ In 1980 Levido became president of the NZACA.1
The first NZACA championships that included women’s races were in 1981. Women cyclists were accepted into the 1984 Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games in 1990, at which Sue Golder took third in the sprint and Madonna Harris won the individual pursuit. Later that year at the World Championships in Japan, Karen Holliday won gold in the points race – New Zealand’s first senior cycling world championship gold medal. In 1994, 18-year-old Sarah Ulmer won two junior world cycling championship titles and a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games. Linda Villumsen won gold in the time trial at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and 2015 world championships, and silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where Georgia Williams won gold in the road race.
BMX or bicycle motocross developed in California in 1969 as a pedal-powered alternative to motorcycle motocross racing. A decade later BMX clubs began to spring up in New Zealand and major events started in 1980. The craze took off and by the end of 1981 there were 70 BMX tracks throughout the country. Typically these clay-based tracks are around 300 metres long and have plenty of jumps and tight, bermed corners. Races last about 30–40 seconds. They have usually been held on Sundays so as not to clash with rugby.
In the early 1980s BMX Moto magazine described Ashburton’s Trevors Road track as ‘300 superfast metres of clay coated in fine crusher dust. It had it all – the unnerving dip jump, killer whoopdies [series of small jumps], switchback [a steep hill turn that requires riders to zig-zag], and tabletop [a jump where riders throw their bike sideways in mid-air]’. Riders and spectators loved it.
The first New Zealand BMX national championships were held in Wainuiomata, in Lower Hutt, in 1981. The elite men’s race was won by B. Hickford and elite women’s by S. May. World championships were first held the following year. Top BMX riders who have moved on to excel in track or road cycling include Greg Henderson and Chris Jenner.
In 2008, BMX entered the Olympic Games, with medals at stake for the fastest elite men and women. New Zealand's top ranked male, Marc Willers, crashed out in the semi-finals, while Sarah Walker came fourth in the women’s final. Walker went on to win the BMX World Championship in the Elite and Cruiser classes in 2009 and won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Intrepid cyclists began riding off-road in New Zealand in the late 19th century, some intentionally, some the victims of imaginative road maps. By the 1950s there was the rare off-road bicycle race to be enjoyed and ‘rough-stuff’ cycle tourists were increasingly tackling four-wheel-drive and tramping tracks to connect remote rural road ends. The first purpose-built mountain bikes were made in California in the 1970s and some of these trickled down to New Zealand. By early 1984 local manufacturers were making them.
In 1986 Paul Kennett organised the inaugural New Zealand Off Road Bicycle Race (the first New Zealand national championship race). Run in the rugged Akatarawa ranges near Upper Hutt, it later became known as the Karapoti Classic, now the longest-running mountain bike race in Australasia. The winners of the inaugural race were Tim Galloway and Anne Butler. In the same year the first of many sports mountain bike clubs was formed and in 1988 the National Off Road Bicycle Association was created to oversee national racing events. The International Cycling Union (UCI) sanctioned world mountain bike championships from 1990, for both cross-country and downhill mountain biking. MTB gained full Olympic status at the 1996 Atlanta Games. New Zealand was represented by 39-year-old Kathy Lynch, who came eighth.
Kathy Lynch is a legend within the MTB scene. She won the first of her eight Karapoti Classic titles in 1989, setting a course record in 1994. She also won eight national series titles, came eighth at the Atlanta Olympics and sixth in the 1997 Wellington UCI Mountain Bike Cup. Through it all, her racing trademarks have been loud breathing, even louder expletives and monumental drive.
By the late 1990s there were a few mountain bike races boasting fields of around 1,000 riders (including the 50-kilometre Karapoti Classic and 100-kilometre Rainbow Rage). However, the two most prestigious mountain bike races to be held in New Zealand were the second round of the 1997 UCI World Cup in Wellington and the 2006 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Rotorua.
New Zealand has produced several world-class mountain bike racers since Kathy Lynch. Cross-country stars include Kashi Leuchs (Olympics 2000, 2004, 2008) and Karen Hanlen (Olympics 2012). The two most outstanding downhillers have been 2004 world champion Vanessa Quin and two-time winner of the United States NORBA Cup John Kirkcaldie. Among the most talented MTB racers was Anton Cooper, who won the 2012 Junior XC World Championships. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games he won a gold medal and Sam Gaze a silver; their finishing order was reversed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Gaze was world junior champion in 2016 and 2017, and in 2018 he became the first New Zealander to win a senior UCI Mountain Bike World Cup title.
Grey, Ian. Round the mountain: 100 years of a cycling classic. Wellington: Kennett Brothers, 2011.
Kennett Brothers. Ride: the story of cycling in New Zealand. Wellington: Kennett Brothers, 2004.
Kennett. Jonathan, and Bronwen Wall. Phil O’Shea: wizard on wheels. Wellington: Kennett Brothers, 2005.