So you thought your morning ride was hard? Did your bike have gears? Did you carry 25kg of baggage? Did you have to fire your revolver to ward off marauding Aborigines? Ha! You got nothing on Donald Mackay!
I confess I’d never heard of Donald Mackay until I saw his bike on show in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. It’s a nineteenth century Dux ‘safety bicycle’. Safety is a relative term in cycling. This bike had no gears, and no suspension.
The ‘fixie’ as displayed had no tyres either, but the Dunlop pneumatic tyres invented in 1896 would have been fitted originally.
It was safer than the penny farthing that preceded it – stability matters when you don’t have roads to ride on, and it’s a long way to fall off a penny farthing.
In 1899 Donald Mackay set the record time for cycling around the Australian coastline, riding 17,703km (11,000 miles) in 240 days, 7 hours and 30 minutes.
He wasn’t the first to do it; Arthur Richardson completed his circuit a month ahead of Mackay, but Mackay was faster.
Interviewed about his feat, Mackay told tales of near-death experiences from hunger and thirst, and encounters with hostile Aborigines.
‘Suddenly a spear came whizzing over our heads, and we at once opened fire on the dusky gents. We took pot shots wherever we saw a head appear above the boulders. For a while things looked rather dicey, but the revolvers had a good effect, and the blacks decamped.’
Er, not quite politically correct, but those were different times.
Mackay also had some advice for those tempted to emulate him:
‘The privations endured are worse than the trip from Earth to Hell. The first thing to contend with is ordinary sickness; next malarial fever or dysentery; last, but not least, your bicycle smashing up, plus the awful perishes for want of food and water. Mosquitos, ants, flies, heat, dirt, and other ‘entrees’ are included without charge. No: there are plenty of other places where the cyclist can enjoy life, without regretting every day that he was ever born to be such a fool as to tempt his Creator.’
Are there any comparable bike feats, ancient or modern, in Australia or elsewhere in the world, that we should know about?