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Exhibition in progress

As part of our Cycling in Australia project, the National Museum is developing an exhibition featuring a range of objects and stories from the National Historical Collection. Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia will tour to venues around the country from November 2014. Keep your eyes peeled for a showing near you. See our Get involved page if your organisation is interested in hosting the exhibition on its national tour.

A young child, right, stands beside a boy sitting on a metal tricycle.
The tricycle in this portrait of two unknown children was probably supplied by the studio, suggesting that bicycles were commonplace in Australia during the later 19th century. National Museum of Australia.

Themes and objects

Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia will feature a wide range of material culture related to cycling in Australia, including different types of bicycles, cycling fashion, advertisements and promotional posters.

Trophies and medals won by successful Australian cyclists, at home and on the world stage, will also feature.

Audio-visual elements will bring the experience of cycling to life in the space and we hope that, as the exhibition travels around Australia, local cycling clubs and interest groups will be able to contribute to the program.

Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia will trace the changing shape and character of the bicycle, and explore the bicycle’s impact on Australia’s social, economic and political life.

Here’s a sneak preview of what's going on show.

Riding high: the cycling craze

The bicycle arrived in Australia in the 1870s. By the following decade, as the difficult penny-farthing was superseded by the more accessible 'safety' bicycle, Australians had fallen in love with the bicycle.


Printed colour poster with an illustration of a man riding a bicycle. Various news clippings and a map detailed in red form a backdrop. Text at the top reads 'MALVERN STAR/THE CYCLE OF OPPERMAN'. Text at the bottom reads 'Famed the World Over'.
'Malvern Star: the cycle of Opperman' advertising poster, 1934. National Museum of Australia.

Endurance and conquest: traversing the continent

The vast distances of the Australian continent have proved irresistible to generations of bicycle riding explorers, adventurers and athletes.

As soon as the first bicycles arrived in the colonies, determined individuals began trekking between the major cities and then across the interior.

They looked to test themselves against the grand, harsh landscape, the punishing climate, difficult terrain and potentially hostile Indigenous people.

These early exploits created a long tradition of Australian cyclists breaking endurance records, created by legends including Francis Birtles, Hubert Opperman and Ernie Old.

The exhibition includes Hubert Opperman's beret, worn after his return from France in 1928, when he was voted the most popular sportsman in Europe.  

Canberra cyclist Peter Heal is a more recent conquerer of long distance cycling, having ridden a recumbent bicycle across the continent from east to west and back again. 

Free, untrammelled womanhood

American civil rights leader Susan Anthony in a New York World interview in 1896 said: 'Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood'.

The feminist and suffrage movement of the late 19th century embraced the diamond-frame safety bicycle as a symbol of their social and political emancipation. The bicycle enabled women to escape from chaperones and the physical bonds of home, bringing them together with men on more equal terms. As bicycles became safer and cheaper, more women had access to the personal freedom they provided and by the early 20th century it was unremarkable to see a woman on a bicycle.

Side view of a bicycle with a brown leather seat. The bike frame is dark in colour, with teh text 'Sutherland' in cursive script on the lower crossbar.
Melbourne bicycle manufacturer Arthur Sutherland made this bicycle around 1913 for his wife, Marion, possibly as a wedding gift. Marion used the bicycle for leisure, to run errands and deliver the shop takings to the bank. The step-through ladies’ frame was one of Sutherland’s own designs. National Museum of Australia. Photo: Katie Shanahan.

More on the Sutherland bicycle in our Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition website

The pulse of breath and heart: mountain biking and off-road riding

Soon after the bicycle arrived in Australia, riders came to see it as a means to escape the city, ‘get away from it all’ and connect with nature. Going for a bicycle ride was also often seen by young men and women as a way to meet and socialise away from prying eyes.

Mountain bikes developed, in part as a continuation of this tradition, enabling cyclists to get off road, into the bush and up close with the sounds, smells and sensations of the natural world.

The exhibition includes a mountain bike from the Cadel Evans cycling collection.

Front left view of a mountain bike with yellow-rimmed tyres. The bike has a pale blue seat and the frame is primarily painted red and dark blue, and the seat is pale blue. The bike frame has several stickers including 'Cannondale' and 'Volvo' on the main frame and 'Fatty' on the front forks.
Cannondale CAAD 4 hardtail mountain bike ridden by Cadel Evans during the 1998 and 1999 world cup events. National Museum of Australia. Photo: George Serras.

Evans, a successful mountain biker before he joined the European road racing circuit, described a good day of mountain biking as being 'close to the feeling of flying'.

The professionals: on the world stage

Professional cycling in Australia began with small races offering cash prizes and has evolved into a heavily-corporatised, multi-million dollar operation celebrating the speed, intensity and drama of the sport.

Australians riding bicycles for a living have long travelled overseas to compete against the best in the world, with Victorians Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro and Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham becoming, in 1914, the first to participate in the Tour de France. 

Some of Australia's mightiest cycling talents, including Hubert Opperman, Russell Mockridge and Don Allan have ridden the Tour. Riders Phil Anderson, Stuart O’Grady, Bradley McGee, Cadel Evans, Robbie McEwen and Simon Gerrans have all worn the leader's yellow jersey. In 2011, Evans became the first Australia to win the race outright.

By 2013, a total of 48 Australians had competed in the Tour. Now, each July, many Australians stay up late each night for three weeks to watch the epic race.


People and the Environment

Cycling in Australia is part of the National Museum's People and the Environment program. Discover more stories about people's relationships with Australia's natural and built environments on our People and the Environment website.