Words: Daniel Strauss | Photography: Jeremy Shaw & Wade Wallace | Date:
So much about our beautiful sport is about respect. Respect for the road, for the mountains, for our fellow riders. As important as any of these, however, is a respect for history. Just over a century ago, a little-known cycle race took place that demonstrated the potential of the bicycle in a country whose environment can be infamously inhospitable.
In the years after Federation in 1901 (when Australia’s six states came together as a single nation), one of the greatest challenges facing the former British colony was the issue of defence. More than thirty years after the last British soldiers had departed, in 1870, Australia still sought a coherent and affordable military strategy. On the advice of Lord Kitchener, it was suggested that this should include a highly mobile force of around 40,000 troops, to be deployed whenever and wherever needed. Key to its success would be the method of transport used to negotiate the country – one of the leading contenders was the bicycle.
Understandably keen for the military to adopt the bike in large numbers, the tyre manufacturer Dunlop spotted a commercial opportunity. In a bid to prove the versatility of the bike – and more importantly of the tyres on which they ran – in April 1909 they hosted the Dunlop Military Dispatch Cycle Ride. Then the longest dispatch ride ever attempted by bike, the ‘baton’ to be passed was a leather satchel containing a single military communiqué. The ride, running an arc of nearly 1,150 miles, would leave Adelaide and head southeast, crossing Victoria before heading northeast into New South Wales, ultimately finishing in Sydney. Chosen for its variety of terrain, the route would take riders up over the Australian Alps, the highest mountain range in the country, and across the sandy wastes of the Coorong. A team of 126 riders was selected for the challenge and subsequently divided into pairs, with each pair riding one of 63 legs. When the final pair arrived in Sydney, the team’s overall time – 69hrs 35mins – was significantly faster than even the most ambitious estimates had thought possible.
The feat was considered remarkable enough to make the ‘Military Intelligence’ column of The Times in London, yet it was far from the end of the story. Over the next few years Dunlop’s lucrative tyre contracts failed to materialise and there also remained the thorny issue of how the bike might fare against rapidly advancing motorised transport. So three years later, in 1912, they staged the event again. This time Dunlop decided to spice things up a bit, this time pitching the cyclists against a team of cars and a team of motorcycles. At 10pm on a warm April night, the first riders rolled out on what was sure to prove a daunting journey.
The 100th anniversary of the 1912 relay marked the perfect opportunity for the Rapha Continental to tackle the route of the military dispatch rides. To plan our journey, we sought the advice of Go!Alliance, a cycling body working to bring the route of the ‘satchel ride’ back to life. By doing so, they hope to introduce a new generation to Australia’s rich cycling heritage and to reinvigorate tourism in some of those original participating towns, since bypassed by major highways.
Not having 126 riders at our disposal, we set ourselves the more realistic time of five days to explore the route, knowing that changes to the landscape, both natural and man-made, would mean we couldn’t retrace the tyre tracks of the 1912 riders entirely. We would, however, experience the changing landscape, the road less travelled and the camaraderie. And that, in essence, is what the Rapha Continental is all about.
Towards the end of last year, we prepared for a ride that would take us over terrain more diverse than any of us had experienced on a single adventure before. With our own beautifully crafted leather satchel, care of Tailfeather in Melbourne, we set forth from sleepy Adelaide at 5am, rolling out through the hills that, every January, host the Tour Down Under.
The scenery on our first day changed very quickly, from wine-label cliché to arid coastal desert under expansive burning white skies. It ended with the sun disappearing behind the Cape Dombey Obelisk. The pride of the South Australian coastal town of Robe, the landmark still stands sentinel on the cliffs, though it no longer guides ships into Guichen Bay. On then to Victoria, where the scenery slowly became more green and verdant as we headed through the outskirts of Melbourne toward the Australian Alps. The alpine roads which draped over mountains and meandered through valleys were welcome relief from the monotony of the flatlands. We talked about how the mountain passes would have tested riders on their single-speed clunkers of the early-20th century, and decided that we were lucky – and a little soft – to enjoy luxuries such as gears. Otherwise, the basic design of the bicycle has changed little since 1912. Two circles and two triangles. Mechanical elegance defined.
It was as we neared Sydney that the heavens opened for the first time but we pressed on, knowing the 1912 riders would have done the same. Indeed, our predecessors had ridden through the night, guided only by the dim light of a lantern. And while we were not able to trace the original route exactly, we endeavoured to follow their journey closely and respectfully. Numerous roads had, of course, changed over the last 100 years; dirt tracks had become four-lane highways, while natural landmarks, such as billabongs, have dried up altogether. Many of the 63 sectional markers that once lined the route have long since disappeared, while some of the towns have become victims not just of the highways but of dying industries.
With remnants of abandoned mining towns and disused tobacco sheds punctuating our days, we tried to honour the spirit and the difficulty of those original journeys by heading off-track. We diverted on to gravel roads of varying colours – red, white, black. We explored, too, the salt flats of the Coorong. In 1909, this part of the country was sufficiently remote that no reliable maps existed. The maps Dunlop provided for the riders so impressed Australia’s military bigwigs that they requested copies for themselves. Equally remarkable was the fact that the riders charged with covering the sand flats in 1912 managed to pedal, run and carry their bikes more than 56 miles at an average of 12.2mph.
From the Coorong we rode on, to climb the granite-strewn horn of Victoria’s Mount Buffalo and by the time the satchel was delivered to Sydney we had retraced a unique route, crossing three states to arrive exhausted but elated. What remained was the bond that formed between the Continental riders, a unique camaraderie.
It is interesting to reflect on what establishes the connection between riders on trips such as this. Perhaps it’s just the small things, filling each other’s bidons or labelling a pile of dirty bib shorts with a Sharpie before a collective wash. Perhaps, too, it’s the shared understanding of the dark times. We nurse each other through them by keeping the tempo steady, by sharing food and drink, and by sheltering each other from relentless headwinds. One thing we certainly shared with our predecessors was our ultimate goal, the need to deliver the satchel. And that’s a bond that unites us all across the years. That and a respect for the history of our sport.
When, at last, the times for the 1912 military dispatch race were calculated, the result was every bit as impressive as the achievement of the riders three years previously. Thanks to the Australian love of an underdog, the motorised teams had each started with a handicap; 24 hours for motorbikes and 30 hours for cars. Factoring these into the respective overall times, at the final reckoning it was the cars that occupied third place, with a time of 76hrs 44mins. Next, came the motorcyclists, finishing in 75hrs 50mins. The resounding winners were the cyclists, with a time of 69hrs 32mins. Respect indeed. In racing the ghosts of a century ago, we were happy to acknowledge they had proved victorious once more.
There is a small community working to bring the Satchel Ride back to life – to reinvigorate the proud towns who took part in the original relay a century ago, and to introduce a new generation to Australia’s rich cycling heritage. If you would like to know more, or to get involved, contact Omar Khalifa of Go! Alliance
With thanks to the-department.com
With special thanks to:
- Omar and Barbara Khalifa
- Go! Alliance
- Jim Fitzpatrick
- Scottie Neoh
- Tailfeather premium leather goods
- Will Levy
- David Cross
- Donna Little
- Charlie Farren
- Vintage Cycle Club of Victoria
- Ross Walker
- Ansell Limited
- Christian Haag
- Bicycle SA
- Steve Hogg