Cycling Australia confirmed in late August the removal of this year’s Goulburn to Sydney from the National Road Series was due to concerns about the inherent risks of the proposed single lane rolling closure of the race’s Hume Highway section.

The safety concerns appear to have been prompted by some of the teams due to start in the 2013 race — with Drapac Professional Cycling, Budget Forklifts and Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers, Search2Retain and Euride Racing reportedly threatening to boycott the event if full rolling road closures were not in place.

But local Goulburn cyclists were disappointed by the Cycling Australia decision, and have questioned the validity of the cited safety issues.

One of the race’s first legends, Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham must be turning in his grave. He won the Goulburn in 1910 and 1911, and went on to be one of Australia’s first Tour de France riders in 1914 with Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro.

Kirkham later entered the 1924 Goulburn to Sydney race as a riding partner and adviser for a new rising star, Hubert Opperman, but he pulled out of the race before the start. Opperman went on to win from scratch. He was to be a two-time winner and three-time fastest rider in the Goulburn.

The 2013 Goulburn to Sydney should have marked the 111th anniversary of the first race held in 1902. It would have included professional teams, plus the usual amateur cycling club entrants from around Australia – as has been the norm in this race since 1913 when the first year amateurs were allowed entry.

As per the early tradition of Australian road racing, the Goulburn was originally a handicapped race with scratch and limit bunches and everything in between. It changed to a mass-start graded scratch race in the early 1990s.

The Goulburn to Sydney road race is a one-day classic with a long and proud history. It is older than the Tour de France. And like many of the iconic events in Australia’s cycling history, the Goulburn classic has rich connections to people and place.

Befitting the Goulburn’s place in Australian cycling history, in 1994 it was the subject of a now much-sought-after book in cycling history circles. Jack Hepher and John Drummond’s book – Goulburn to Sydney: A narrative of ninety years of a cycling classic 1902-1992 – is an important record of this famous race.

Hepher was the son of a WWI veteran who opened a bike shop in Campbelltown in the 1920s. Jack himself formed the Campbelltown District Cycle Club in 1933, and rode in the Goulburn to Sydney six times during the 1930s and ’40s.

Hepher was known by Campbelltown locals as the ‘Penny-Farthing Man’ because of his penchant for cycling history. He passed in 2011 at the age of 96.

John Drummond was made a life member of the Brunswick Cycling Club in 1978 for services to the club and the sport of cycling.

The first Goulburn to Sydney race in 1902 was inspired by the success of Victoria’s ‘Warrnambool’ classic that had been sponsored as an advertising venture by the Dunlop Rubber Company. Dunlop was the first supplier of rubber inflatable bike tyres in Australia, an innovation that transformed this country’s relationship with the bicycle.

Dunlop was instrumental in the birth of NSW’s own one-day classic. The 1902 course began in Goulburn and finished some 132 miles (212 km) later in front of the Ashfield Post Office, after passing through Paddy’s River, Moss Vale, Mittagong, Picton and Razorback.

Of course, according to the times, the road conditions in races like these were far from ideal. Available photographs from the early days show dirt roads and muddy tracks – a collection of images from the 1934 Goulburn by photographer Sam Hood are particularly revealing.

Competitors take to the startline of the Goulburn to Sydney race, circa 1930.

Competitors take to the startline of the Goulburn to Sydney race, circa 1930.

But there were few if any protests by riders or managers about the challenging road conditions. These Australian one-day classics were races to aspire to and be inspired by. The harsh conditions were part of the allure.

As John Drummond said so eloquently: “The Goulburn to Sydney cycle race has never been a contest for dreamers. Rather, it is a race for heroes, pragmatists who recognised reality. Unsealed roads, little more than bullock tracks down the Great Dividing Range, so called professionals with no appearance money, just money prizes for those with the most luck and who could suffer the most for near on eight hours.” (p.13, Hepher & Drummond, 1994)

The Goulburn to Sydney has seen many other changes over the years. It has been varying distances depending on the finish location — from 212km in 1902, to 220km in 1985, to 170km in 2012. It has also included a prologue time trial, and in 2012 a criterium around Goulburn the day before the main race. Periodically, it also carried the 100-mile Australian road championship, for the first time in 1945 up until which it had always been a feature of the Warrnambool to Melbourne race.

From year one of the Goulburn to Sydney Classic it has been an eventful race:

“On August 9 1902, two cyclists bruised and battered after covering the 132 grueling miles, sped wheel to wheel toward the finishing line. Then, with 60 yards to go a dog wandered in front of the speeding machines. To avoid an impending crash, both cyclists swerved violently, missing the yelping dog by inches. A split second later, the race was over.” (p.16, Hepher & Drummond, 1994)

Tragedy has struck the race too. In 1946, a 26-year-old amateur competitor, Frank Rigelsford, died from head injuries after crashing near the race finish in Lidcombe.

While a reliable complete list of past winners is difficult to find (see here for a good starting point), there is no doubt that the Goulburn to Sydney Classic has been one of Australia’s most enduring and popular road races.

Winners of recent times include the likes of Nathan Haas (2011), Jonathan Cantwell (2010), David McKenzie (2005). And a long line of Australian road stars have either won the Goulburn or achieved the fastest time through the years: Eddie Salas (1994, 1988), Rik Patterson (1985), Graham Seers (1982), Michael Wilson (1978), Don Wilson (1967), Eddie Smith (1954) and Richard Lamb (1925-27).

Riders from all over Australia have sought out this NSW one-day classic. International raiders have come too, and had their successes along the way, including riders from New Zealand (Jack Arnst 1905, Barry Ulyatt 1972, Roger Sumich 1983) and Great Britain (John Cosgrove 1989).

After the 67 starters in the first Goulburn of 1902, the fields steadily increased and were as big as 300 plus in years gone by. But recent editions of the race had seen it limited to 150 riders in a bid to make it as safe as possible.

In some ways the cancellation of the 2013 Goulburn to Sydney race was probably inevitable. The ongoing development of new outer suburbs in our cities, increasing traffic and pressure on roads, as well as the financial pressures and insurance requirements of modern cycling are probably all part of this.

Around Australia, local cycling clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to secure the support of residents and officials to get race permits. In the larger cities, some cycling clubs are being pushed further out beyond the sprawling suburban fringes to find suitable road-race venues.

Even our oldest and most prestigious cycling races are not immune to such factors. Indeed, the Goulburn to Sydney classic has been no stranger to interruptions over the years with the race not running between 1914-19 and 1942-43 due to successive world wars, bans in 1939 and 1949 due to concerns about rider safety in traffic, and no race between 2001-04.

Fortunately, Cycling Australia CEO Graham Fredericks has left the door open for the Goulburn to continue from next year by saying: “The Southern Highlands provides some challenging road racing opportunities right on Sydney’s doorstep. We will continue to work with these groups to try and maintain the history and spirit of ‘The Goulburn’ into the future.”

The Goulburn community and others in the cycling world have rallied before in 2004 to save this important heritage event in Australian cycling. Let’s hope the Goulburn to Sydney is reprised in 2014, so that this one-day classic can continue to make history for years to come.

Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. Follow him on Instagram and Strava.

If you have any interesting stories to share, or photos or memorabilia about ‘The Goulburn’, or you know of a complete list of winners and fastest times please get in touch with Craig via email.