New Zealanders rattled their bones and risked life and limb riding velocipedes and penny-farthings on muddy and rutted roads in the 19th century. In the early 2000s over a million cyclists plied off- and on-road cycle tracks, mostly for fun.
Full story by Jamie Mackay
Main image: Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge
The Short Story
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The first bicycles in New Zealand were velocipedes. Introduced in 1869, they had a heavy iron frame, wooden wheels, and cranks and pedals on the front wheel. Penny-farthings are bicycles with a large front wheel and much smaller back wheel. They could go faster, and became very popular with daring male riders in the 1880s.
In the late 1880s the safety bicycle arrived – it had smaller wheels, and tyres which were filled with air, and were much more comfortable to ride. They were popular with women as well as men.
In the 1970s 10-speed bicycles became popular. They had more gears than earlier bicycles, which made riding up hills much easier. When the price of petrol increased, more people used bikes.
The craze for BMX bikes took off in 1980. Children and teenagers raced BMXs on motocross tracks. Mountain bikes also became very popular when they were introduced in the 1980s, and between 2001 and 2006 around a million bicycles were imported, mostly mountain bikes.
Ironmongers, coachmakers and machine manufacturers began making bicycles as soon as velocipedes arrived in New Zealand. From 1880 Zealandia Cycle Works made almost all the parts for their bikes.
In the 1950s cycling became less popular and bicycle parts were no longer manufactured. But in the 1960s two companies, Morrison Industries and Healing Industries, used steel from a new mill at Glenbrook to make bikes, including BMX and mountain bikes. But cycle making was only economic because the government did not allow many bikes to be imported. When this changed in the 1980s locally made bikes could not compete against imports and factories closed down.
Bike prices dropped from £24 in 1890 (over $4,000 in 2009 terms) to less than £10 in 1930. As they got cheaper they were used for deliveries and transport as well as for fun. Telegraph messengers, lamplighters, chimney sweeps and salesmen used bikes, as did police and nurses. There was a cyclist corps sent to fight in the First World War.
People enjoyed cycling round the country, despite the terrible roads in the 19th century. They formed clubs, and some undertook some difficult journeys – occasionally astonishing locals when they saw their first velocipede or penny-farthing. Women’s clubs saw the bicycle as a symbol of new-found freedom.
The popularity of cycling for pleasure lagged in the mid-20th century and then took off from the 1980s, when mountain bikes allowed bikers to explore off-road tracks. In 2006 there were over one and a quarter million cyclists.
Some cyclists sped on city streets (‘scorching’) or travelled at night without lights in the 19th century. A bylaw in Christchurch in 1900 made cyclists use a bell and a light at night time, and the maximum speed was 6 miles (around 10 kilometres) an hour.
Between 1932 and 1950 motor vehicles killed 449 cyclists. People used bicycles less for transport as the number of cars increased. In the early 2000s, 750 cyclists were injured each year, but few cyclists were killed – between 2000 and 2006 only 10 died.
In 1994 it became compulsory to wear a helmet when cycling.
In 1986, 5% of New Zealanders cycled to work, but by 2006 it had dropped to 2%. The Cycling Advocates Network (CAN) was set up in 1997 to lobby local councils and transport authorities for cycle lanes on roads, and special cycle paths.