Almanac Cycling: The Austral – Australia’s oldest wheel race

The Austral, world cycling’s oldest track event had its origins in either 1886 or 1887. Officially the first race was held on the MCG with penny farthings in 1887. The winner (Harry Lambton off 210 yards) was awarded a cabinet of silverware (some reports suggested it was a piano), whatever the treasure, the amount was of no insignificant value.

There are others who suggest that the race originated a year earlier with W. Brown winning off 230 yards. What is significant is that 30,00 people attended with cash receipts of 1,200 pounds sterling, a tidy sum in those days.

In 1890 when the Melbourne Bicycle Club broke away from the Victorian Cyclists Union to stage its own Austral with cash prizes, the sport of cycling in Victoria and The Austral especially changed forever, as cycling became truly professional. Later events witnessed the formation of the League of Victorian Wheelmen in 1893.

Sport in this era had a significant role in society as it provided entertainment for the growing population. Professional running and Lacrosse were all major drawcards for spectators bookies and punters and pro Cycling with The Austral became a regular feature on the calendar.

Prize money would change your life, allow you to buy a house, a  business or party hard and become very popular.

Tom Finegan, a bike mechanic, won The Austral in 1898 and with the winnings of 240 sovereigns, started his own bike shop in Glenferrie Rd and in 1903 started building his own bike, The Malvern Star. Bruce Small later joined the company and it became a household name. Tom’s descendant continues the bike shop tradition with Finnegans Cycles in High St Northcote.

The Austral is not without its controversies, similar to pro running and Stawell Gift, most of the tales involve the interaction with bookies and betting plunges and the relevant handicaps. In 1901, a 43 year old American rider called Bill “Plugger” Martin was encouraged by a well known bookmaker, John Wren, to encourage the riders with cash incentives to ensure the mature US cyclist would win, which he duly did. The payout was alleged to be close to 8,000 pounds, the money wagered was a record for a cycling race anywhere and allegedly Wren plunged heavily on Martin. It is told that the cyclists were led to Martin’s Hotel room, one by one, advised the nature of this contract and paid a princely sum, with a revolver on the bed to ensure there was no turning back.

The stench of corruption after this event had considerable impact on The Austral and popularity waned and crowds diminishing. To encourage spectator numbers, other promotional events were organised and in 1910 an attempt of getting a plane to launch from the MCG, literally crashed after failed attempts and causing a fair degree of damage and grief to the organisers, The Austral was kicked of the MCG.

Subsequent venues have included the Exhibition Track, North Essendon boards, Olympic Park Velodrome, Brunswick, Coburg and Northcote Velodromes, Darebin International Sports Centre and now Hisense Arena.

The Austral continues as a regular feature on Australia’s Cycling calendar with the roll call of competitor’s a list of Australian cycling legends,  Sid Patterson, Russell Mockridge, Danny Clarke, Brett Aitken, Gary Neiwand and Shane Kelly with Stephen Pate holding the record of most wins with four. Over a distance of 2000 metres the race is a unique challenge for sprint and endurance riders with the handicapper perhaps sometimes favouring the sprinters.

 

The 2016 race was held over the weekend at Hisense Arena, a crowd of 3,000 experienced a great night of track cycling, with Sprints, Keirin, the National Madison Championships and of course The Austral. Stawell Gift bagman John Henry was holding the bags for a mate, adding true authenticity to the sport’s traditions.

Women’s winner of the 2016 Austral was Australia’s Omnium World Champion Annette “Nettie” Edmondson, claiming her second Austral from scratch. The back markers of Georgia Baker (15m) and Edmondson (scr) caught the pack with two laps to go and being cautious and closely covering last year’s winner Brooke Tucker (60m), Nettie almost let it slip when Baker took off leaving Nettie behind. With work to do, Nettie in true style dug deep and pipped Georgia Baker on the line with Tucker coming in third.

The Men’s race is usually an interesting test of sprinters against endurance riders. NSW sprinter Mitch Bullen (50m) won easily but the challenge from place getters Callum Scotson (40m) and Alex Edmondson (Scr) were unable to reel in Bullen who went on to record one of the most dominant wins in The Austral, reminiscent of Gary Niewand’s 2000 win off 70m.

And so continues the tradition of The Austral.

About David Parker

A keen observer of all things sport and a Swans tragic, David likes to dabble in sporting documentaries including the Max Bailey doco for Fox Footy. David is currently filming a documentary on the Australian Cycling Men's Team Pursuit squad as they prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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