Getting around

Sydney: a history of cycling through the decades

We look in the archives to explore how Sydney developed a love for cycling from the 19th century onwards.

  • Slow down!

    Sydney was an early pioneer in the world of cycling, with bicycles and velocipedes zooming along city streets as early as the 1860s.

    Due to the danger of accidents, there were calls for Council to consider by-laws. In this letter from 1869, the Inspector General of Police urged the Council to regulate the use of bicycles and velocipedes in the public thoroughfares of the city.

    He claimed that “such vehicles are likely to become a fruitful service of accident to persons riding and driving in the already crowded streets”. He also noted that “several bicycles have been observed going at considerable speed down the King Street Hill”.

    Two years later, a by-law was passed for the “prevention of accidents from bicycles, tricycles, velocipedes and other vehicles in the Streets of Sydney between sunset and sunrise”.

    Credit: ‘Letter – Need to regulate the use of bicycles and velocipedes in the City’, 1869, City of Sydney Archives A-00296667.
  • Cycling craze sweeps Australia by the end of the 19th century

    In 1896, the Evening News newspaper reported that the passion for cycling in Sydney was only growing: "Those who a few years back predicted that the enthusiasm in the bicycle as a means of travelling or as a purely healthy exercise was simply a craze which had seized on the people, and would die out as quickly and completely as the ‘skating craze’, have been much mistaken in their ideas, as there is not the slightest doubt but that it has come to stay.”

    The surge in cycling popularity was helped by the invention of the pneumatic-tyre safety bicycle. Invented by John Boyd Dunlop in Ireland in 1888, this innovation made bicycles faster and more comfortable.

    Locally, Sarah Maddock was a champion for women riding during the cycling boom at the turn of the 20th century. She was an advocate for equality in women’s sport and the founder of the Sydney Ladies Bicycle Club, which met at the Quong Tart tearooms in the centre of Sydney.

    Quoted in the New South Wales Cycling Gazette on 19 June 1897, Sarah Maddock said: “There is a charm in cycle touring which appeals to us more strongly than any other branch of the pastime and few people who have once tried it will be able to resist its fascination”.

    In 1894, Maddock became the first woman to undertake a cycling journey from Sydney to Melbourne.

    Credit: 19th century poster image supplied by Sarah Maddock’s family.
  • Racing in Centennial Park

    Centennial Park has been a popular destination for cyclists for over 100 years and was an early destination for recreational cycling.

    In 1891, the Suburban Bicycle Club wrote to Council to request Centennial Park be closed to vehicular traffic for an hour on 19 September 1891 for a special event.

    The club was planning an open road bike race in the park. The letter notes: “... owing to the popularity of bicycle racing and the want of suitable tracks near Sydney, we are compelled to make the application”. The Council did not have jurisdiction over Centennial Park so the matter was referred to the Director of the Botanic Gardens.

    Credit: ‘Letter - Request permission to close Centennial Park to traffic for race, 1891’, City of Sydney Archives A-00322544
  • First public cycle path in NSW opens in Sydney

    As cycling grew in popularity there was a push to create bicycle paths. In November 1899, a letter to the editor in The Daily Telegraph, written by local bicycle maker Bennett & Wood, leaned into inter-colony rivalry.

    The letter drew attention to the fact that other cities in Australia had great success in opening cycle paths funded by private enterprise: “If this has been found ‘good’ around Melbourne, where the majority of the roads are of first-class order, how much more necessary is it that Sydney should have its special cycle paths?”

    Bennett & Wood then suggested the establishment of a ‘special cycle path committee’ and offered to donate £50 toward building a bike path.

    The Cyclists’ Union, League of Wheelman and NSW Cyclists’ Touring Union went ahead and created a public cycle paths committee in 1900. It lobbied municipal councils and the state government for cycle paths. The concept of a ‘cycle tax’ to raise revenue to help build smoother paths was also discussed with the state government.

    Their efforts were rewarded in August 1900 when the first bike path in NSW opened. ‘Cyclists Avenue’ ran from Centennial Park to Moore Park and was immediately popular with cyclists who turned up to an inaugural ride along the path despite rain. In 1901 the committee opened another picturesque 20-mile path from Manly to Pittwater.

    Credit: The opening of Cyclists' Avenue, Centennial Park - Centennial Park, Sydney, NSW. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, At Work and Play – 06057.
  • Hazards for cyclists

    Long before separated cycleways, the Council was obliging to cyclists and their needs. A letter from the Cyclists Union of NSW in August 1899 suggested that street watering (to reduce dust levels) was causing a potential danger to cyclists, and they requested it be reduced within 3 feet at the side of each road. The Council was happy to agree.

    Credit: Redfern Bicycle Club, 1900. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, At Work and Play – 06036.
  • Cycling threads

    Sydney’s city centre was a destination for cycling fashion as revealed in an 1896 Guide to Cycling in NSW by Joseph Pearson. Within its pages you’ll find advice on the best routes across NSW and ‘inter-colony’, good places to stay, maps and ads for several tailors and bootmakers catering to the 19th century cyclist.

    Pearson gave some interesting advice in his guide regarding the ‘proper’ clothing for serious cyclists: “... discard everything of a cotton substance, let everything be of a woolly nature. The sweaters, now so much used for general riding and touring, I have worn for years and have always found them most comfortable”.

    Credit: Adverts on pages 4, 11 and 111, ‘Cyclists' touring guide of New South Wales’, Joseph Pearson. Published first in hardcopy 1896, accessed online 25 May 2023. State Library of New South Wales DSM/981/P, Davis Sporting Collection No. 2
  • Famed local business supplies the Council bicycle fleet

    From messenger boys to inspectors, Council employees went about their duties on bikes painted a bright ‘royal’ red. By 1908, the Council had a fleet of 30 bikes overseen by the town clerk.

    In 1916, the Council purchased 105 ‘Speedwell’ bikes for its fleet for £1,065 (around $135,000 today) from Bennett & Wood Pty Ltd. Bennett & Wood were located nearby on Pitt and Bathurst streets and promoted themselves as the ‘largest bicycle and motor people in Australia’.

    While the bikes were popular, their stainless-steel frames meant they often weighed more than 12kg. Established in 1892, Bennett & Wood manufactured bicycles locally. After World War 2, a Speedwell Cycle Factory was built at 44-70 Rosehill Street, Redfern. The company eventually moved into the manufacture of motorcycles and automobiles as well as bicycles.

    Credit: Illustrations from ‘The story of Bennett and Wood Pty. Ltd,’ c.1949, National Library of Australia, Npf 332.0994 BEN. Accessed via Trove, 25 May 2023.
  • Employees also brought their own bicycles

    Bicycles became popular for commuting. There were recommendations to build bicycle racks at Sydney Town Hall as early as 1912 for employee bikes and calls for additional lockers for bicycles by 1913.

    Credit: Boys on bicycles in front of commercial premises, 240 Pitt Street Sydney, circa 1909-13. City of Sydney Archives A-00036437
  • Zoom, zoom in Surry Hills

    To support the sports cycling craze, Council approved the construction of a cycling arena in Surry Hills in 1938 – a racing track with grandstand seating. The velodrome was also used for speedway cars and motorbikes.

    The arena was where world-renowned Australian cyclist Hubert Opperman completed his last record-breaking rides in 1940 before he enlisted to fight in World War 2.

    Over a 24-hour period, he set more than 100 solo cycling records at the track.

    The arena was located on Goodlet, Riley, Wilton and Belvoir streets and was demolished in 1948 becoming a factory and later public housing.

    Credit: Hubert Opperman prepares for his 24 hour unpaced world record ride at the Sports Arena, 1940. State Library of NSW, Home and Away - 30351.
  • Post-war riding

    After World War 2, the use of bicycle transport declined as suburban sprawl set in. But for children and young people in Australia, owning a bike has long been a rite of passage and a step towards independence.

    Even now, children’s bikes make up almost 30% of bicycle sales in Australia.

    This photo was taken in Woolloomooloo in the 1970s on Stephen Street close to Forbes Street.

    Credit: Woolloomooloo children, 1970. Photographer: Geoff Beeche. City of Sydney Archives A-00027116. NB: Is this you in this photograph? Or did you take it? Get in touch. Email
  • Mini BMX bandits

    During the 1980s when the number of people riding standard bikes continued to ebb, and before the advent of cycleways, a BMX bikes craze swept Sydney.

    Young riders built their own BMX courses on vacant lots around the city.

    An empty lot on Morehead Street in Waterloo was used by locals as a BMX track in the 1980s as shown in these photographs.

    Nearby Waterloo Park and Oval on the corner of Elizabeth and McEvoy streets has a skate park that is used by BMX riders today. There are also skate parks in Sydney Park and Glebe’s Federal Park.

    Credit: Boys on bicycle at a vacant lot in Waterloo that has been turned into a BMX bike track. City of Sydney Archives A-00019366 and A-00019363. NB: Is this you in these photographs? Or did you take them? Let us know. Email
  • Cycling in the city today

    The City of Sydney released its first cycling strategy in 2007. The take-up and attitudes towards cycling in the city have changed significantly since then, for the better.

    We’re continuing our work creating a network of separated cycleways that provides direct and safe access for people riding throughout the city. We’re making sure the cycleway network is connected to desirable destinations, and is shaded and comfortable to use.

    We want to see more people take up cycling for commuting and recreation, and ensure children can safely use the cycle network to get to school and other activities.

    Credit: Father and baby riding a bike down the Henderson Road cycleway, Alexandria. Photo: Chris Southwood / City of Sydney

In the past year, bike trips at peak times have increased by over 18% across the City of Sydney local area.

And since 2022, we’ve opened new separated cycleways on the following streets:

  • Waterloo: Crystal, Potter and Gadigal streets
  • Erskineville: Macdonald Street, Henderson Road, Railway Parade and Bridge Street. Plus, Ashmore and Harley streets and Mitchell and Huntley streets.
  • City centre: King Street (between Pitt and Phillip), Pitt Street and College Street. Zetland: Portman Street and Zetland Avenue
  • Annandale: Booth Street

Interested in getting on a bike? Check out our program of free cycling courses. They’re designed to give you extra cycling skills and confidence.

Discover more images and information on Sydney's cycling past in our archives.

Published 1 June 2023, updated 6 June 2023