Riding around the dome

11 September, 2011

Plan of the Exhibition Building and Grounds, 1894.
Plan of the Exhibition Building and Grounds, 1894.
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: Why was there a cycling track at the Exhibition Building?

Answer: The Exhibition Building was the focus of cycling events from 1882 when the Australian Cyclists' Union organised a 'Bicycling Tournament' at the Exhibition Building. The event attracted 250 cyclists from metropolitan Melbourne bicycle clubs. The tournament included 'trick' riding as well as a six-day Champion race. All of which were done on penny farthings!

By the late nineteenth century, cycling became even more popular, due in part to the development of the 'Safety' cycle and the pneumatic tyre. It was at this time that cycling sports took off in Victoria. In the early 1890s, Melbourne had about eight thousand cyclists, a number that must have been noted by the trustees of the Exhibition Building who soon responded to this new trend with the development of a cycle racing track in 1891.

The cycle racing track had been developed with grandstand seating for about 3000 people and standing room for thousands more. A coated track completed the development. The track was widened and extra banking added in 1896 after a request from the League of Victorian Wheelmen, who felt the track was too dangerous for the speeds the riders were achieving. Arc lights were added in 1905, making it Australia's premier cycle track with international cycling champions regularly competing in events.

Motorpacing, an event where cyclists closely followed a motorcycle that acted as a pacemaker and shelter, was introduced at the start of 1920s. This event had been demonstrated in the early part of the century by international cycling celebrities, and by 1920 had become a popular event. It was rather dangerous: the young Hubert Opperman, one of Australia's champion racers, was badly injured in a fall after a six-man pile-up. After the tragic death in 1938 of Wally Stuart, who was killed by a motorcycle after falling off his bicycle during an event, Motorpacing eventually lost favour.

Boxing, introduced in the early 1920s by the promoter Jack Campbell (who had the lease on the cycle racing track) had become a big part of the Exhibition Building's ongoing revenue. But this was also to become its downfall: in 1938, local politician Bill Barry opposed the commercialisation of public land. This opposition only appeared after boxing was introduced. It was therefore widely believed that Barry's motivation was not the preservation of a civic facility, but that he was serving the interests of John Wren, a notorious local crime figure who owned a competing boxing venue.

Bill Barry had his way – Jack Campbell's lease ended in 1939, but larger events ultimately finished off the cycle track. With the outbreak of World War II, the Exhibition Building was taken over by the Royal Australian Air Force. When the RAAF moved out in 1946, the track had become completely unusable and was eventually removed in 1948 to make way for a migrant reception centre, ending over sixty years of cycling at the Exhibition Building.

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