The recent (and nearly finished) construction of the cycleway’s through the City of Sydney and its surrounding suburbs has stirred up a lot of debate and discussion about bikes using the roads in Sydney. It sounds like bikes are a new idea that should bow down before the real road users, cars. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bicycles have been a feature of Sydney’s streets since the 1870s, when the first velocipede, or bone shakers appeared. These four wheeled contraptions were not quite like the bikes of today, but they were a novel start. These were followed in about 1875 by the new improved imported penny farthings-one big wheel at the front and a little guide wheel at the back, with solid tyres and a tiny saddle.

The pedals were connected directly to the front axle with no chain. Despite their ungainly appearance, penny farthings were all the rage with a number of bicycle clubs quickly springing up. In 1883 the first Intercolonial Cyclist fete was held in Sydney and the following year a Mr Edwards rode a penny farthing between Sydney and Melbourne in 8½ days! One of Sydney’s penny farthing champions, Charles Bennett, went on to import and then manufacture the famous Speedwell Bike. Another, Joseph Pearson rode over 19,000km in 12 years on his penny farthing, measuring the distances he rode with his home made odometer.

Off and racing at the 2nd Intercolonial Cyclist fete 1884

The breakthrough for bike riders came in 1886 with the invention of the safety bike, followed closely in 1888 with the invention of the pneumatic tyre.

Safety bikes are close to what we recognise today, two wheels of the same size, a steady, step through frame and a chain which is attached to the pedals and drives the rear wheel. The addition of an air filled tyre to this little number spelt the beginning of the end for the penny farthing and the horse as a means of city transport and the rise of serious bicycle clubs, racing and endurance events.

Soon people were trying to outdo each other in endurance riding, speed racing and all the same things that hipsters today attempt on bikes. At one point there were over 20 velodromes and racing circuits in Sydney spread across the entire city from east to west, north to south. Quite a few were located inside show grounds and football fields like Henson Park at Marrickville and the old Moore Park showground.

But the last word has to go to Sydney cyclist Sarah Maddock. Maddock had married a keen cyclist in 1886 and by 1890 had three children. Encouraged to ride by her husband, in 1893 she accompanied him on a long distance ride from Sydney to Bega, reported as the first long distance ride by a woman.

This was bettered the following year with a ride from Sydney to Melbourne in 9 days and then another in 1895 to Brisbane and back, a distance of over 2500km. Maddock showed that anyone could ride a bike, and in Victorian times this was a big step forward for women. To help she assisted in the creation of the Sydney Women’s Bicycle club which met in Quong Tart’s tea rooms and she then established the Stanmore Wheelers in 1897, by which time there were an estimated 1000 female cyclists in NSW.

And so it went.

Billie Samuels on her way from Sydney to Melbourne-one of Sarah's fans

So next time some driver gives you the horn or worse patiently turn around to them and calmly explain that its only cause cyclists were such a nice bunch in the first place that we even let cars on the road, which was there for us in the first place.