Bicycles, like motherhood, are universally regarded as a good thing. But recently that status has been challenged: neo-Malthusians contest the desirability of an ever-growing population, and the electrification of the bicycle confounds its once saintly status.
A quick history of bicycles in Australia.
The first modern bicycle, built in Paris in 1869 by Eugene Meyer, had a high front wheel with pedals and a small rear one for stability, known as a high wheeler, but more commonly known by its British copper coin simile as a ‘penny farthing’.
Barely six years later in 1875 the first of these bicycles was imported into Australia and not long after Charles Bennett and Charles Wood opened a small store in Sydney selling high wheelers. Bennett was the Intercolonial champion in 1883 and 1885 on a penny farthing branded Speedwell, and 1887 they produced Australia’s first ‘safety cycle’, the bicycle as we would recognize it: two equal sized wheels and a chain drive. By 1900 the Royal Speedwell was in full production.
In 1898 Tom Finnegan used his winnings from the Austral Wheel Race to establish a bike shop in Melbourne’s Malvern, and by 1903 he had his own bicycle design, the Malvern Star. Finnigan sold his business in 1924 to cycling enthusiast and businessman (and later mayor of the Gold Coast) Bruce Small. Small put a young Hubert Opperman on the payroll and on one of his Malvern Star bicycles.
‘Oppy’, as he became known, was a brilliant rider, who became a household name. He won the Australian road cycling championship four times in the mid-twenties, won races in Paris, placed in the tour de France in 1931 he was voted sportsman of the year by a Paris newspaper. His exploits propelled the Malvern Star as a great Australian design export.
Speedwell’s star rider was Edgar ‘Dunc’ Gray who represented Australia at three Olympic games, winning our first ever cycling gold in Los Angeles in 1932, after which he designed and built the Speedwell ‘Olympic’ model in Sydney.
By the Great Depression, when few people could afford to buy a car, Australia had two highly promoted brands, along with the traditional Sydney-Melbourne rivalry. Sales of bicycles expanded greatly, no longer the province of racing, these were the essential form of transport. A phenomenon about to be repeated in our looming Covid-19 Depression, but with electric bicycles.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s both Malvern Star and Speedwell were sold to overseas interests. Bicycles were now the province of children riding to school and as a weekend escape. By the 70’s this would transmogrify into riding off road, known as bicycle mountain cross or BMX. These specifically designed bikes originated in California as a result of teenagers copying Motocross motorbikes, widely copied from the documentary movie ‘On Any Sunday’.
In the 80’s mass-produced mountain bikes developed and by 2000 sales of BMX bikes outstripped racing, sports and touring bikes combined. Then Australia’s attention turned to racing bikes, spurred on by SBS’s brilliant broadcasts of the Tour de France, starting in 1991.
Australians love the TdF: 60 riders have competed, starting in 1914, including Hubert (later Sir Hubert) Opperman who placed 12th in 1931. Modern interest centred on Phil Anderson who won a stage and the leader's yellow Jersey in 1981 and 1982.
BMX riding was the start for Cadel Evans, winning two world championships and competing in the 2000 Olympics before switching to road racing and winning the 2009 Road World Championship and in 2011 the Tour de France.
Our recent bicycle history has several internationally successful riders on the road and track including Anna Meares, Richie Porte and Stuart O’Grady, the last instrumental in bringing down the greatest of doping cheats, Lance Armstrong. Bicycling in Australia came to be dominated by wannabe TdF riders, particularly middle-aged men in Lycra known as ‘mamils’, whose doping was limited to caffeine, drunk at specially created cafes.
With its sense of freedom many bike riders resisted requirements to wear a helmet when they were made mandatory. This, despite the fact that the world's most agile and best riders in the TdF now wear helmets for every part of the race. Highly customised designed helmets are now a means of individualisation.
Some 20 percent of Australians now use bikes for recreation or for transport, with children having the highest participation rate, and a resurgence in use as transport going to work. Commuter bikes are ridden in a more upright position, less demand for speed and more for safety. Arriving sweaty at work they created the idea for ‘end of trip facilities’: showers and lockers.
Commuters ride in a ‘bike bus’ in Carlton.
In the last 10 years electric motors have increasingly assisted bicycles, both in power and diversity. Early regulations required two controls: the motor be limited to 250 Watts and, being a bicycle, the rider had to continue to peddle whenever the motor was giving assistance.
An average cyclist’s leg power is equivalent to about 100 to 150 Watts, whereas a professional may have at least twice that for extended periods while racing. Given the small size of the legal motor it is an essential to pedal to prevent the burnout of a small motor.
Electric bicycles have taken off (ugh). Traditional bikes are said to be ridden twice a week whereas electric bicycles are ridden for five. It is a largely unregulated industry: bicycles motors have increased in power, with in-built ‘controllers’ designed to nominally meet the 250W limit, or just larger motors.
In most cases electric bicycles are a conventional push bike with a motor added, either at the crank pedals or as hub motors on either wheel. A battery and controller are strapped to the vertical or diagonal frame and controls on the handlebars. Increased speeds mean that disc brakes, sometimes hydraulic assisted, replacing the traditional calliper pads on the wheel rims. These electric bikes, or conversion kits, sell for less than $1,000, up to custom models for more than $10,000.
Although most electric bikes are adaptations of traditional ‘safety bikes’ there is one standout design which rethought the electric bike literally from the ground up. This is the Go-cycle, designed and developed by Richard Thorpe, who had worked on the design of high-end McLaren racing and sports cars.
Thorpe rethought every part of the bike. The chain, inevitably greasy and difficult, was replaced with a completely enclosed rubber belt. The hub motor was mounted on the front wheel to assist when the drive of the leg power was delivered to the rear wheel. The battery is housed inside the frame in a larger section creating the step through design. The wheels, identical front and back, are carbon fibre ‘snap-off’, all of which allowed the bike to be easily folded.
The folding Go-cycle design by Richard Thorpe.
The Go-cycle motor is 250 Watts, a commuter bike built for comfort not speed as Howlin’ Wolf once sang. It stresses safety and low maintenance, with customised mud guards and panniers, however, the Go-cycle has remained a niche designer product throughout the rise of conventional bikes adapted to electric motors.
Electric bikes have become the couriers’ friend. From 1990 deliveries in cities were increasingly made by bicyclists: adventurous riders weaving between the cars, running red lights, mounting curbs, and even up and down stairs, much to the annoyance to car drivers stuck in gridlocked traffic.
Many riders adopted bike designs from Denmark and the Netherlands with longer frames and large box-style front carriers to carry their goods, now used by homeowners to cart groceries or one or two children. A variety of rain protection was added in sub-tropical cities.
As COVIP (Covid-19 pandemic) struck, and home isolation became the norm, bicycle deliveries of take away food became the go-to solution. As the roads cleared out it was increasingly obvious how many bikes were electrified.
Once clogged streets now have electric bikes zooming past at speeds in excess of 25 or 35 kph. The foot paths are blocked with delivery riders, standing beside their bikes, staring at their phones, waiting for food to be brought out for delivery.
Delivery drivers wait on a deserted Crown Street in Surry Hills in COVIP.
Bike electrification, with its consequent increase in speed, combined with the recklessness of the riders, gives pause to ask whether bicycles are still universally ‘motherhood’ admired. There is considerable anxiety about the safety of pedestrians, and other cyclists, given the excessive speeds and dangerous riding these bikes have engendered.
At what point does a bicycle ceased to be a bicycle? When does a bike with a motor becomes a motor bike? A question to be answered before cars and trucks are added back on to the streets post COVIP and commuters and couriers with electric bikes compete with increased traffic. Can bike lanes designed for conventional bikes withstand the assault of mini-motor-bikes?
*Thanks to Phil Jarratt for his history of cycling in Australian Geographic.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].