There’s always a gripping last week of the Tour de France, that most famous cycle race of all, yet equally thrilling was an early classic of New Zealand road racing.
The Timaru to Christchurch cycle race was established in 1899, four years before the famous Tour de France.
It was regarded as the greatest cycling test of the year, with the winner acknowledged as the New Zealand Road Champion. The one day point-to-point race was held 87 times over its 109 year history. Each time, the riders zipped through Ashburton.
Initially known as the Great Rover Road Race, and later the Dunlop Road Race, the main prize was the Rudge Whitworth Cup, first presented in 1900. The prize is still awarded today for a similar race from Twizel to Timaru.
112 rough miles
While the French tour is a gruelling three week test of endurance, the 112 mile (180km) road from Timaru to Christchurch presented significant challenges of its own. Especially in the early days of the race when the roads were rough and unsealed.
Wet or dry, it could be hard going.
As the Ashburton Guardian reported on July 25, 1903:
“The weather was fine overhead, but of course the effect of the late snowfall and rain made itself felt on the roads, which were, in places perfect quagmires. For fifteen miles of the journey to Ashburton the riders had to actually wheel, and in some places carry their machines. The places where this was found to be necessary were on the long stretch of road five miles the other side of Rangitata to the Hinds.”
Fortunately for less experienced riders, the race was handicapped. Setting the handicap was a complex task, with up to an hour set between first starter and last. If all was done well, the riders would finish in Christchurch within a few minutes of each other. The first race was won by J Metcalf of Temuka, in a speedy 7 hours, 40 minutes, and 46 seconds.
The Champion Phil O’Shea
Between 1909 and 1923, the race was dominated by the legendary cyclist, Ashburton-born Phil O’Shea (1889-1980), who made the race his own. He twice won line honors and gained the fastest time on six occasions. During that time his fastest time was 5 hours, 14 minutes, 58 seconds. By the mid-1980s that time was down 3 hours 29 minutes, achieved by Timaru’s Colin Ryan. It remains today as the fastest time recorded for the distance.
O’Shea was nicknamed The Champion. It’s estimated he raced 1420 times in both road and track races, beginning in 1909. The Timaru to Christchurch race was also a training and selection race for a highlight of his career, the Warrnambool-Melbourne Road Race covering 266 km’s. Still Australia’s longest running cycle event, the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic it’s now raced in reverse.
That race also granted the winner the title Long Distance Road Champion of Australasia. O’Shea won the title three times, first in 1911, then later in 1922 and 1923. The gap due to World War One made for a remarkably long cycling career and achievement, until he retired from competitive cycling in 1932.
The Timaru to Christchurch was very popular with spectators. It’s said that in the early days of New Zealand road racing ‘nothing drew the attention of the public quite like the classics.’
Ashburton provided a perfect spot to watcher the riders. On August 2, 1902 the Ashburton Guardian recorded:
Never before has so much interest been shown in a cycle event here, the county people of whom there were many in town, being as much interested as their town compeers.
After considerable eye-straining in the direction of the bridge, and peering through field glasses word was passed that the first two riders had passed Friedlander Bros store, Tinwald, the news being telephoned over as soon as the leading pair passed.
From the first race, refreshment stations known as ‘victualling departments’ were sponsored by the Dunlop Tyre Company, who went on to sponsor the race for over a decade. Just the year before, in 1898, Dunlop had introduced pneumatic tyres to New Zealand, which were used by many winning riders.
Refreshments were an important part of race planning. For many years, cups of hot milk were given to riders at refreshment stations at Rangitata and Chertsey. An image of riders sprinting ahead clutching tin mugs of hot milk is a contrast to today’s throw-away bidons. Food bags were also available, which the competitors could grab without dismounting, as they dashed by the Dunlop Company’s officials.
The locals also got into the spirit and did much to assist the racers. As the newspaper described on July 25, 1903:
Mr Archie Lane, of the Somerset Hotel, had his whole staff engaged in preparing for the necessities for the competitors. He had a table laid in the large front vestibule of the Somerset Hotel.
On the table were placed bread and hot milk, chocolate, sandwiches, raisins, and bananas. Little bags of food for the road were also prepared, and each man as he went on, got a bag to keep him going until the next refreshment stopping place.
Adjoining the vestibule in another room, Mr Lane very thoughtfully had a large table, and quite a number of wash-hand jugs and basins, and a quantity of hot water, and the luxury of a good wash was enjoyed by many of the competitors, who were loud in their praises of the thoughtfulness of Mr Lane.
With support like that, no wonder Ashburtonians led the peloton.
By Tanya Zoe Robinson
- Close racing during the Timaru to Christchurch race, October 5, 1929.
- The Champion Phil O’Shea, c.1913.
- Cyclists racing the Timaru to Christchurch Race in 1922. They carry spare tyres strung across their torso.