Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Saucer Track and the board tracks that followed.

Track racing has alway's intrigued me, particularly its early history. We've had such a history of great track riders and track racing. American and European riders would come to Australia in their off-season  to be rewarded with great financial returns, particularly in the early 1900s. At the beginning of the 1900s, SA, NSW and VIC observed the cycling prowness of Major Taylor, the "Black Flash" against fellow Americans Lawson and McFarland on the big oval tracks at the Sydney and Adelaide show grounds and in Melbourne at the Exhibition oval track. These meetings drew crowds in the tens of thousands and contemporary photos show the crowds more than ten deep.

Through the years, I'd heard rumours of board tracks in Melbourne prior to the Exhibition Board Track that replaced the oval track. Many remember and talk glowingly of the North Essendon Board Track which was the Exhibition track relocated to near the train station. I'm told by those who raced and went as spectators that special trains were allocated to take spectators to the more prominent meetings.

This page (top left) from the Australasian Sketcher, June 17, 1882 depicts cyclists competing in what was the very first 6-Day Bike Race in Australia on their Penny Farthings
Then of course the Olympic Velodrome was rebuilt after the 56 Games from Olympic standard when it was actually a wood track with a concrete covering. I'm sure many riders of my era would be carrying their bike over their shoulder in readiness for the warm-up session. The sound of those vertically slanted boards rattling gave the venue a unique atmosphere that can't be replicated on todays smooth in-line wooden tracks.

I'm still searching the internet to prove that our very first board track was built within the Exhibition buildings during the late 1800s for a very special event. Supposedly from the scant feedback to date, it was built for the very first 6-Day bike race in Australia - not a 6-Day race as we know it today.
These were hardy riders - no rest for them. It was a one man event on Penny Farthings.

Jack Rolfe, winner of the early single man six day bike races rode a singer,
 similar to the Singer above.

Advertisement promoting the 6-Day bike race in the Exhibition Buildings.
 Commencing December 5, 1881
Excerpt from the Melbourne Museum website;
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!
The placings for this 6-Day bike race were;
New Pavilion, Nicholson Street, Melbourne 

The article below is from the South Australian Advertiser - April 15, 1887.
Visiting cyclists from the England were contracted to race in "the Colonies" and this excerpt confirms that they raced on an indoor track at the Exhibition buildings, Melbourne's first.

During an interview one of our representatives had with Messrs. James and Wood some ideas were elicited from them as to their movements in the colonies. Their first race was at the Highland sports at Sydney on New Year's Day; the next at the mixed meeting on February 12; then at Bathurst on January 26, and at Melbourne on Saturday last. They ride here on Saturday next. Their next venture is in the great six days' race in the Exhibition Building on April 25, at Melbourne

Towards the end of the 1880s there was talk of another indoor velodrome inside the Exhibition Buildings but my research to date can not confirm that the project ever eventuated.
Petersburg Times, June 23 - 1899
A Melbourne syndicate is talking about running a series of in-door cycle contests inside the Melbourne Exhibition Building. A special banked batten will be laid if the patronage of the L.V.W. can be obtained. It is proposed to run some twelve hour contests, two hours a. night, also some long distance races. Indoor racing has long been a winter sport in England, and there is no reason why similar contests should not be successfully run in the Melbourne Exhibition provided a suitable banked track is built.

If you look closely towards the back left hand side of the illustration you can pick out the Saucer Track as it was known.  
The second board track in Melbourne that I'd heard rumours of was on the south south side of the Yarra River on a site that is today the Victorian Art Centre. It was known as the Saucer Track
My research has been a little hazy but what I have been able to confirm is that it was on the Princes Park site as it was known back in the first decade of the 1900s. Initially it was used for both cycle and motor cycle racing. The photos below show individual motor cyclists at the Saucer track. Races were run in a pursuit manner with the riders starting on opposite sides of the track.
Although I have located some articles on cycling races being held on the track, the Exhibition oval track was more popular at the time with capacity for larger spectator crowds.

The Sydney Mail – Jan 1, 1908
Splendid progress is being made with the wooden saucer cycle racing track that is being erected at Prince’s Court, Melbourne. The contractor has over 100 workmen engaged in rushing the work along, and there is no doubt that it will be finished in good time for the opening meeting on January 11. A recent inspection of the new track amazed the writer who had no idea that the saucer track as it is termed in America, was to be such a gigantic affair. A glance at the batten track conveys a good idea of speed possibilities and one can easily realise that 60 miles an hour can be obtained on a track of this description by fast motorcycles. The surface is constructed 2 inch Oregon battens running with the track which is 18 feet while banked up to 12 feet on the turns and tapering off to 4 feet in the two straights. At the turns the banking is so steep that it would be almost impossible to crawl up on one's hands and knees but, it is just the thing for exciting and speedy racing. Around the inside of the wooden track a 2 feet strip of flat cement has been laid down from which contestants start preparatory to sweeping up on the banked track. Brilliant lighting is to be installed and every provision made for the comfort of spectators and racing cyclists. The track is oblong shaped, eight laps to the mile, the measurements being 150 feet wide from outside edges of trade and about 306 feet long. Massive structures are now being erected around the arena which will provide comfortable seating for 5000 spectators, every one of whom will be able to see the racing which should prove a real factor in popularising the sport. All told the costs of the new track will be open for training purposes the first week in January, will be about £2500. It is proposed to hold frequent meetings on the saucer and the promoters intend making a big effort to bring back the old time interest in cycle racing and judging from the programmes they intend putting forward, comprising cycle, tandem and motor-cycle racing, they have every chance of success.

During the 1930s, Melbourne’s third wooden velodrome was built at the Exhibition Buildings in a similar position to the old oval track that had served the Melbourne cycling spectators so well from the late 1800s. The establishment of this wooden velodrome only had a short life at this venue before being forced to move to the North Essendon venue.

The move was purely instigated through political reasons and pressure from an underworld figure with strong ties to the local politicians of the time – that subject I will leave for another post in the future.

Below is an excerpt from the Referee Newspaper which was devoted to sport, similar to the "Sporting Globe" in a more recent past.
Messers. Jack Campbell and Jack Lukey, to whose enterprise owes its first board cycling track since the demolition of the old Saucer which was established years ago, where now is the Wirth's Park, have reason to be satisfied with their opening meeting.

The Exhibition Board Track.
Behind the riders is the Melbourne aquarium which was annexed to the Exhibition buildings.
Plan of the Exhibition Buildings and the track.
Nino Borsari, Cecil Walker, Charlie Ritter and Bill Moritz
at the Exhibition board track.

The relocated track to North Essendon was serviced by a train station nearby and from what I've heard, special trains were in service when there were large meetings at the Velodrome. With the advent of Melbourne's successful bid for the 1956 Olympic Games, Cycling and the fifth board track would be located  in central Melbourne.
The relocated Exhibition board track at North Essendon.

Riders at North Essendon board track
This fifth board track actually started life as a concrete surface on a wood base. The 1956 Olympic Velodrome was built to the then Olympic standard but later dismantled and rebuilt to 250 metres.
The boards as the Exhibition and North Essendon Velodrome ran opposing the riders so that they would rattle as the riders travelled around the steeply banked track. As the spectators were arriving at the track they would hear this rattling din as the riders were warming up. It was like a Mexican wave of sound.

Melbourne Olympic Velodrome as a rebuilt board track. Behind the track is the Dog track that caused the demise of the velodrome as the area was required as a car park. The track was eventually dismantled in 1972.
Sid Patterson victorious at the Olympic Velodrome.
As a 15 year old, I had the opportunity to ride in the opening events which Promoter Bill Long added to his program for us budding cyclists, some of whom went on to be future champions of the sport. Two from an old program I still have include John Trevorrow - 2 times Sun Tour winner and Australian Road Champion, and John Nicholson - 2 times World Sprint Champion.

As kids, after our events we remained in the centre if only to watch our heros at close quarters. There were no VIP areas back then and we all just sat on the grass within the steeply backed velodrome.
Nearby could be four times World Champion Sid Patterson or one of the many overseas imports that Bill Long brought to Australia. There were Italians, Faggin, Teruzzi, Turrini, Cardi that come to mind.

With additional attractions such as pop concerts, boxing and running at the Velodrome, Bill Long couldn't save the track from those who wanted more parking space for the dog racing patrons and cycling moved to the concrete banked velodromes of Brunswick, Northcote and Coburg.

Melbourne's Hisense multi-purpose arena.
It wasn't until three decades later that Cycling returned to Melbourne's inner precinct at Olympic Park. It took Melbourne's successful bid for the 2006 Commonwealth Games for a new indoor 250 meter board track to be built. Ironically the track is just opposite the location of the previous Olympic board track and the dog track has long gone - more parking space was required for Hisense multi-purpose arena.

Since the establishment of the arena, it has hosted cycling events for the World Masters Games, 2006 Commonweath Games and the UCI World Track championships of 2010 and 2012.
Unfortunately due to the costs involved in setting up for cycling, the velodrome is only used for major international events.

DISC or Darebin International Sports Centre offers Victorian track cyclists a training and race venue where they can hone their race skills.

Leading up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games a second indoor board track was built as a facility for lawn bowls and as a training venue for the international cyclists. Today it is in constant use for training and major track racing events such as the historic Austral Wheelrace and the Melbourne Cup on Wheels.

So if I've missed a board track built in Melbourne, I figure that my count is seven. Today in Australia we now have six indoor international standard indoor board tracks. Tasmania, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth all have one with Melbourne having two.

In future posts I might take a journey on Victorian outdoor tracks and the major carnivals associated with those tracks. Wangaratta, Echuca, Bendigo, Charlton, Geelong are among the many.