Our Hidden Cycling History


Although much of Australia had been explored by 1890, the population was mostly scattered around a few sprawling coastal cities. In these pre-car days there was a need for travel between the widely spaced settlements and isolated homesteads, as well as within low density urban areas.

The invention of the “safety” bicycle proved a landmark in the history of personal transport.
Its speed, safety, ease of riding and low cost captured the imagination of many Australians and the country found itself in the midst of a worldwide bicycle boom. By mid-decade, cyclistes (as female riders were commonly known) were not unusual on our streets; churches questioned the morality of Sunday cycling; doctors debated the effects of riding and bicycle dealers were gaining reputations formerly attributed to horse traders.

Our local cycle industry flourished until after World War II. WA boasted almost 100 bike building shops, the largest of which, Swansea, boasted 60 employees at their peak. This building was home to WA’s first registered cycling club ‘The League of WA Wheelmen’. Thousands of people attended track races, orthe finishes of long-distance cycling events, held co-incidentally (if not mercifully) at popular watering holes.

Transport cycling slowly went out of vogue as car ownership rose. The cycle clubs that once dotted suburbia and country towns packed up the bike racks decades ago. Encouragingly, a recent rejuvenation in recreational cycling has seen gents with trouser clips and gals in breezy skirts cycling through our city streets once again.

Our Hidden Cycling History reopens archives, albums and back sheds to reveal 7 uniquely West Australian stories centred around this wonderful mode of transport – Cycling. 


The Western Australian Historical Cycling Club would like to thank the following people and organisations for their support of our first multi-day exhibition.

The exhibition has been partially funded by Bike Week and the Department of Transport. We would alos like to acknowledge the support of the WA Museum, and Reece Harley from the Museum of Perth.

We are indebted to author Jim Fitzpatrick for the use of his research and for allowing us to quote from his book "The Bicycle in the Bush".

Tracy Graffin is responsible for the superb graphic design of the interpretive panels and publicity collateral.

The Manning Men's Shed built plinths for the four floor standing bikes.

Murray Hall from Track Cycling WA officially opens the exhibition on March 3rd 2016.

Generous gifts and loans to the club for the exhibition have been made by Steele Bishop, George Kingsley, Bruce Hartley and Cliff and Carolyn Garavanta.

A number of club members have made loans as well, Mal and Myrene Bell, Merv and Dawn Thompson, Kym Murray, Tim Eastwood and Robert Frith.

The WAHCC exhibition team was Dennis van Gool, Tim Eastwood, Kym Murray, Robert Frith, Viv Cull and Malcolm Bell.

Margaret Garavanta Malvern Star

“A few months ago the number of Malvern Stars being sold throughout Western Australia necessitated the building of a modern factory at 647 Murray Street, Perth, and today bicycles are being produced at that address under ideal conditions for the workers who are employed there.”
The Sunday Times, 9th May 1937.

Margaret Martin, born in England, was raised in the WA wheatbelt town of Cleary in less than ideal conditions; the Martins were obliged to decamp to Perth in the mid thirties following a devastating drought.

In her twenties Margaret worked for Malvern Star in Perth truing wheels. It’s likely that it was here that she first met Bill Garavanta who worked in the frame building department, in 1943. Around this time Margaret and her sister, Nola, both bought Malvern Star bikes.

Margaret and Bill married in 1951 and moved to 5 acres of bush in Belmont. They lived in a tent for a couple of years until Margaret’s father built the family a house. Without a car at her disposal this bicycle would undoubtedly have meant a great deal to Margaret, granting her some freedom and independence; a clue perhaps to why she would never part with it, even long after she’d stopped riding.

After leaving Malvern Star Bill opened his own cycle mechanic business in the city and rode to work every day. On his “retirement” from private enterprise Bill took a job with the WA Government Stores, something he wished he’d done many years earlier.

Malvern Star opened in a small shop at 58 Glenferrie Rd, in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern in 1902. It was started by cyclist Tom Finnigan who established the shop with the prize he earned (240 gold sovereigns) by winning the 1898 Austral Wheel Race.

Finnigan retired and on 1 June 1920, the business was bought by 24-year-old Bruce Small. His brothers, Frank and Ralph, joined in the business, enlarging the shop (despite a number change, still the same shop - 185 Glenferrie Rd).[2] Small offered prizes in cycle races, resulting in 17-year-old racer Hubert Opperman winning a prize in 1921, and impressing Small so much that he offered him a job. Thus started a long relationship, with Small friend and sponsor of Opperman.

Small began a successful credit scheme, revolutionary at the time, to increase sales. The retail business expanded in 1923 to Gardenvale, and in 1925, the headquarters moved to Prahran. In 1928 a team comprising three Australians, Opperman, Percy Osborn and Ernest Bainbridge and one New Zealander Harry Watson entered the Tour De France. Although they rode French bikes Malvern Star released a Tour De France model in recognition of their efforts. This model incorporated lessons learnt on the Tour including tubular tyres and wingnuts to attach the wheels.

Source Wikipedia

Rover Safety Cycle

In 1885 John Starley, an English inventor made history when he mass produced a chain driven rear wheel drive bike with two similar sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high wheeler designs. His affordable Rover Safety Bicycle, an immediate hit, was copied widely and was responsible for a massive uptake of transport cycling in the late 19th century.

In 1893 on the other side of the planet 26 year old Percy Armstrong undertook what must be one of the earliest endurance rides, pedalling 3200 km from Croydon QLD to Melbourne in 7 days.

Armstrong moved to WA during the gold rush and established cycle courier agencies in Coolgardie and Perth as well as Rover Cycle Agency selling Rovers to the fair citizens of WA.

In 1897 Percy created the Rover Road Race, from Beverley to Perth, a distance of 116 miles (185km). Menzies Bike shop Manager, John Beck, won with an overall time of 6 hours and 47 minutes riding a bicycle similar to the Armstrong over cruddy pre-car tracks. In short order this popular race became the Beverley to Perth. One of Australia’s great endurance races it ran it’s original route until the 1990’s and is now commemorated each October as The Beverley Heroic.

Percy went on to be the first owner of a motorcycle in WA and completed several cross country motorbike runs. He was a founding member of the RAC. His moustache may never be equalled.

The Goldfields

Gold finds around Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in the early 1890’s were followed by a massive population increase. Local demand for postal and telegraph services was not met by the state government for years. Bicycles were the transport of choice proving to be more reliable and faster than horses and camels in situations where large loads did not need to be carried. 

Bikes have the added advantage of not needing to be fed or watered, particularly important in the arid interior. A cyclist uses less water per km than a traveller on foot, much less than horses or camels.

Bicycles remained in common use in the outback for decades after motor vehicles arrived. Up to the 30’s distances of 200km in a day were not uncommon for fit travellers and workers, including prospectors, rabbit proof fence and pipeline inspectors, cycle ambulance services and kangaroo shooters. Shearers and and the clergy both tended far flung flocks on two wheels.

How many bicycles?

From 1895 to 1900 around 100,000 bicycles were sold inVictoria, which was thought to be the most in Australia.  However this, in part was due to the large population, 1,200,000 in Victoria, compared to 190,000 in WA (source - ABS).  The per capita ownership of bicycles was highest in Western Australia, and Coolgardie in the Goldfields is estimated to have trumped every other place in Australia for bicycle ownership.  In the 1890s roadster bicycles, the most common used in the bush, retailed for £25 to £35, (roughly $3000 today) but by 1900 it was possible to buy new bicycles under £5 (roughly $500 today)

How much did bikes weigh?

One (of many!) amazing facts about bikes at this time is that common weights were under 11.8 Kg with a range of 10.2 to 12.2 Kg. This compares well with the weight of modern steel “fixies”  All early bikes (pre 1900s) were fixies – and brakes were not widely used.  Freewheels were adopted after about 1900, but rod and calliper brakes did not become common until around the 1920s.

Reliability and distances travelled

Even more remarkable is the craftsmanship used on many old bikes.  They were used as daily transport in the bush in dirt and on corrugations, and they had to be reliable.  It has been estimated (by Jim Fitzpatrick) that some bikes did more than 160,000 kms and were used daily on average for over 20 years.

Bikes proved to be more reliable and faster than horses and camels in situations where large loads did not need to be carried.  As well as speed – for any distance over 3km a cyclist is faster than a horse and the greater the distance the bigger the margin.  Bicycles were extensively used throughout Australia right up to the 1930s, but nowhere more routinely than the Western Australian Goldfields, an area of more than 770,000 square Kms.

Steele Bishop World Champion

From 1971 until his retirement in 1984 Bishop won numerous Australian professional track titles, including the 5000 metre pursuit eight times. In Western Australia, he won the Westral Wheelrace six times between 1975 and 1984 and won the first two Griffin 1000 road races.   (Wikipedia)

I was in Brisbane for the 1983 Australian Professional Track Championships, where I won two titles and had announced my retirement. I was sitting in the grandstand at the time of this award presentation which I had never heard of before.  I received the Oppy Oscar award for the best performance in Australia by an amateur or professional cyclist. My achievement was being the 1st Australian cyclist to break the 6 minute barrier for the 5000 metre Individual Pursuit . The award was presented to me in person by Sir Hubert Opperman – a return airfare to the next world championships in 1983 in Switzerland. 
I had a two week break off the bike, being the first time in two and half years, to regroup and make the decision to put the team back together and go one more time.

In the 3 months lead up to the (1983) Championships Bishop was living and training in Switzerland. He won all but one race during this time, receiving flowers each time, as was the custom. This lead the press of the day dubbing him ‘Mr Flowers’.

On winning the world Championship of the 5000m Individual Pursuit Bishop recalls

“..  in my mind at the start was the need to focus on the main thing, I knew I was faster than Dill-Bundy, but anything could happen, so I focussed on the strategy of the race agreed with my coach, which was my lap times” 

This meant constant focus on 4 things : breathing, rhythm, line and the coach. 

Bishop’s last professional race was the final of the of the 1984 Westral Wheel Race . He won in record time from scratch and in doing so set a record of six Westral wins, which still stands today.

The Bike

A revolutionary design by Cycles Estermann of Switzerland,  It was first ridden in the 1980 Olympics by the Swiss Gold Medalist Robert Dill-Bundy. Just 3 years later Steele Bishop would beat Dill-Bundy in the World Championships with the same bike design.

The Nicknames

In the European press Steele was dubbed "Mr Flowers" an allusion to the number of winner's bouquets he was given. In Australia he was the "Flying Fireman"; he had worked as a fireman before joining the professional circuit.

Frank Baldoni Swansea

Frank Baldoni was born in Edolo, Brescia in northern Italy in 1940 and arrived in Fremantle with his parents in 1949. From age 15 to 18 Frank worked at Swansea Cycle and Motor Co.’s Fremantle factory. The reconditioning department took in as many as 40 trade-in bikes a week. Stripped of their original branding, they were reconditioned and resold. Frank still has a collection of head badges removed from the trade-ins. 

Frank raced track in this period, mainly at Fremantle Oval. Training took place at the new Lake Monger Velodrome and on the road. One popular circuit was 3 or 4 loops around Canning and Stirling Highways. Frank often trained on the same bike as he raced, fixed wheel, no brakes. Young riders were encouraged not to ride too high a gear, Frank thinks the highest gear he rode would have been about 84”.
He reckons he stopped racing not long after the bike was built when he started shift work.

“I used to start at 4 o’clock so I used to go out training before. So one day I was coming back from Armadale and the wind was blowing a gale and I thought “I can’t do this, I’ve got to get back to work, can’t be late. I had to give it up””

Merv Ellement, Swansea’s frame builder, had a fork crown he’d been saving for something special and built it into Frank’s bike. Swansea’s top of the line custom racers had five swans brazed onto the head tube. Merv brazed an extra swan on this bike for a lark.

“This was built probably ’57 I’d say. I stopped racing just before I left Swanseas, I was 18 so about 1958, and I would’ve had that one or two years before, so I’d say ’57. 5 Swans were all custom built, all the racing bikes were custom built. They used to measure you up.”
“Swanseas and Flash were the main ones. Flash was based in Midland and Swanseas were in Fremantle here. (proprietors) Howard and Les Baldwin were pretty nice people. They had another brother, Rocky, he was the foreman there. He was a very nice bloke. The manager was a bloke called Doug Stephenson. He used to hold the record for Fremantle to Perth. Ever heard of Tommy Norris? He was one of our trainers. He had a son called Ken, a very good rider, he ended up state champion.”

Frank can’t remember the name of the colleague who filed the lugs but says the lug pattern is unique, again done just for this bike. Like most Australian builders, Swanseas prided themselves on using English components; Reynolds tubing, Nervex lugs, BSA cranks and pedals, Airlite hubs and a Brooks saddle dominated the bike with just Fiamme rims and Cinelli headset coming from Italy.

The bike remained in active if occasional service until a friend had a collision with a car on it. Bent forks and a buckled front wheel put it out of commission and it hung on Frank’s back fence for 20 years before being rebuilt by the current owner.

Arthur E Hartley Speedwell

Arthur Hartley.jpg

Arthur E Hartley was a prominent Western Australian educator. Gifted intellectually and musically, he made his own way in life and devoted himself to many passions, among them cycling.

He and his wife Edith (cousin to famous Australian cyclist Hubert “Oppy” Opperman) toured Germany on a tandem, bringing their stories home to the schools where they taught in Perth.

This bicycle, one on which he would have ridden over most of the roads and bush tracks in the South West, shows the hand of an owner who valued performance over fashion. Built on a high quality mid-century Australian made Speedwell it sports high end components from the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Japan and China. 

The Brooks saddle and 4 speed Sturmey Archer hub were personal favourites of Arthur’s. Upright handlebars replaced the original drop bars as comfort took precedence over speed. The frame was painted by Nelson Smith, head painter at Malvern Star cycles in Perth, another cousin of Edith’s.

Arthur kept a regular diary from his arrival in WA until his recent death at age 105. Two excerpts are presented below.

On riding from his teaching post at Warner Glen to Perth;

On Friday 21 December 1928, I set out on my marathon ride to Perth. The journey from Karridale to Margaret River lay through heavy forest country and the shade that the trees afforded from the sun was very welcome. I noticed a sign board which denoted the Lake Cave, but unfortunately the gate was locked and the guide many miles away, so I pushed on past the Mammoth Cave, then up a steep and rough climb at the top of which I was delighted with the glorious prospect of sweeping sand plain and sea, equal to many parts of the Sussex Downs. I pressed on to the 35 mile post where I stopped for lunch.  From there I knocked back the miles with ease apart from a stretch of sand some two miles long.  I stopped for a drink from the school tank at Yallingup and a little further on, when I felt my legs would not go round any more, stopped for tea.  Much refreshed, I enjoyed a glorious run into Busselton in the moonlight, the scenery evoking memories of riding in the old country at night.  Four miles out of Busselton, I heard the whistle of the train and I turned on the speed, reaching there as it was about to pull out.  I met up with some friends, found a bed at Kinsellas and slept the sleep of the just.
Next morning, I sent off a couple of Christmas cards, did of little shopping and set off for Bunbury.  There was heavy sand around Ludlow and the last eight miles into Bunbury were very rough, the journey being made more uncomfortable by the sticky flies.  I passed through Picton and Waterloo arriving at Harvey for tea, and once again had a beautiful moonlight ride into Waroona where I met up with friends.  Len Oakley rode the rest of the way with me and we made good time the next morning, reaching Whitby Falls by lunch time.  When I arrived at Claremont at 7.30 pm, Bill and his fiance, Betty, and Jessie were out, so I went and picked up my luggage and kept myself awake until they came home.

On touring with friends some years later;

Kim (Beazley) and John were keen, but not very practised bike riders and decided to accompany me on a trip to Toodyay.  Previously, they had found trouble in keeping my pace, so they decided to hire a tandem so they could 'show me a back wheel!'.  I had left overnight for Northam and Goomalling where I was to meet with Charlie Staples, now teaching at a little school outside Goomalling.  The following morning I cycled across to Toodyay to meet Kim and John.  They were quite disenchanted with the tandem, for it proved more difficult that they had anticipated.  But when I took the front seat and gave John my little racing bicycle, I was able to show Kim just how, with skilled technique, the tandem could be sent along some miles an hour faster than the single bike.