Retro review: transcontinental touring bike from 1914
News that the IndiPac Wheelrace of 2018 will not go ahead was published recently. It was an event that captured the imagination of many. The concept isn’t new though, and we take a look back at a retro review of a bike that was used for an amazing transcontinental ride in 1914…
– This story first appeared in #RIDE63 (published in February 2014) –
Overland adventures are part of cycling’s heritage. Records of bygone eras may not be celebrated quite like they once were but the 100th anniversary of one epic ride by Ted Reichenbach inspired the creation of a replica of the bike he used in 1914…
– By Warren Meade
Edward ‘Ted’ Reichenbach and Jack Fahey set out to ride from Adelaide to Darwin in May 1914, hoping to break the record set by Albert MacDonald 16 years before. That time was taken on the same course, but ridden the other way around, Darwin to Adelaide, in 28 days, 15 hours and 45 minutes. On the face of it, breaking this record should have been relatively easy.
One hundred years later, the 3,000km trip from Adelaide to Darwin remains a daunting prospect for a cyclist.
Wide open spaces, not much water, very little shade, very hot during the day, very cold at night. Even now it’s daunting but in 2014, at least, we have a road. In 1914, for much of the distance, there was no such luxury.
It was more like a recognised route heading north, in the general direction of Darwin. The telegraph line had been pushed through the middle of the continent in 1872, and the remains of the access tracks from that time, and other tracks for staff maintaining the line, were the main pieces of ‘civil infrastructure’ to be found on the journey.
Stock routes used by drovers, churned-up tracks used by bullock teams carting supplies, and relatively smooth camel pads made up the other options.
A railway line headed a few hundred kilometers south from Darwin, and north from Adelaide, but there was still a gap of about 2,500km in the middle. The railway to Darwin was not completed for another 90 years, the first trains going all the way through in 2004.
Describing the road conditions, I can do no better than Reichenbach’s own summary, included in a comprehensive story of his trip in the Northern Territory Gazette the week after his arrival: “A general description of the road need not be very verbose. Summed up it was simply sand, sand, rocks, and then more sand, with occasional stretches of good going. The winds were on the whole favourable, but they were not nearly as favourable as I had hoped.”
John Fahey and Ted Reichenbach in 1914 (above).
Fahey had an accident along the way, injured his ankle and could not continue. Reichenbach eventually broke MacDonald’s record, by a mere 15 hours.
He described this aspect of his adventure: “The trip through has not been so rough or so difficult as I had at first imagined it would be, but, looking back on it, I recognise that I held MacDonald’s time too cheaply, and did not lay up the reserves of time against the possibilities of mishaps and bad luck, which I should have done during those stretches of my long journey when running was comparatively smooth. I spent hours of valuable time some days taking photographs, and sometimes did not make any effort to resume my journey the following morning till 11 o’clock. But, by the time that I arrived at Daly Waters, I found that it was up to me to attempt to make better progress, by pushing the bicycle very much harder, and from then on I went all the way to Pine Creek pedalling for all that I was worth.”
Like it is for most overland cyclists, the bike was loaded up with all manner of essential equipment, including in this case a gun for obtaining the evening meal. But when loaded (the bike that is), it was not the same sweet-handling, lithesome machine that it was when Ted used it to win races at sports meetings after he settled in Darwin.
Often, the machine saw service as an ungainly wheelbarrow, with the erstwhile ‘rider’ walking beside it for hours at a time. Slow going, and not good for the back, the whole body being bent over at an awkward angle sideways towards the bike, while quite a bit of force was required to push the whole kit and caboodle through the soft sand.
The Kelly bars (above) were popular, and provided almost infinite adjustment of position to suit the circumstances. The handlebars are shown here in both the ‘down’ and ‘up’ positions… I have a feeling that he raised them up as soon as he hit the back country.
Impetus for replica build…
The restoration of this bicycle came about after a request for information on Turner bicycles from Reichenbach’s descendants, as the centenary of his record ride loomed.
Michelle Adler searched for information about her grandfather everywhere she could. Apart from his cycling exploits, he became an expert on aboriginals, was a professional photographer, and was suspected of being a spy. He was a larger than life character in the Northern Territory.
During WWI, anyone with a German-sounding surname was under suspicion, and Ted’s extensive travels by bicycle and photographic records of his trips gave him an unusually intimate knowledge of central Australia.
With a government and populace filled with paranoia, in the suspected spy stakes, he was a stronger candidate than most. He changed his name to ‘Ryko’ to get rid of the German spelling, but eventually had to leave the Territory for the duration of the war. He was lucky to escape the internment camps, a fate that befell many other citizens of German descent.
See the feature as it appeared in the magazine, click the image above.
The retro review features were a regular item in RIDE Cycling Review magazine. Warren Meade began writing quick overviews of bikes from the past that had a racing pedigree but he also diversified his commentary to include a number of replica bikes such as the one featured here.
(Click here for a list of RIDE Media’s Retro Reviews.)
The heavy duty ‘Bushman’s saddle’ is a remarkable survivor. The actual model used for the replica bike is a Lycett Imperial. Alas, the correct Lycett Lagrande model could not be found. The only difference is in the shape of the main chassis rails.
The family had been looking for his original bike, or any Turner Special for that matter.
A snippet in the Northern Territory Times in 1915 said that Jack Fahey, who had eventually made it to Darwin after Ted, was riding south to attempt to break his mate’s record – and he was using the actual bike that Ted had set the record on, not his own. That is the last thing heard of the Turner Special record bike. We have to assume that it hasn’t survived.
Ted’s descendants were planning to re-enact the ride in mid-2014. They wanted a bike that looked and performed as close as possible to his, and would be in good enough condition to make the journey.
Given that it would take a miracle to find the actual bike, we talked about creating a replica, and given that the full specification of the bike had been described in the NT Gazette, building an accurate representation would be quite achievable. Plus, we had several photos of the fully-equipped bike, showing enough detail to put the jigsaw together with considerable authenticity.
And so the planning began. I had a suitable roadster from the era that could be modified, and the mustering of the correct parts began in earnest.
I had most of the parts in my stash, right down to the early three-speed hub.
The only parts I did not have, and have not been able to find at the time of writing, is the correct BSA three-speed shifter, this being replaced by an early Sturmey Archer ‘quadrant’ shifter in order to make the bike rideable.
The Sturmey Archer quadrant shifter has been adapted to shift the BSA three-speed hub. The BSA hub works in reverse to a Sturmey Archer, so when the lever is in the forward position, it is in first gear with the BSA, not third, as with the Sturmey Archer hubs some of us are familiar with from childhood.
The ‘Turner Special’ of Reichenbach had specially reinforced forks, heavy duty 3/16” wide chain and cogs, stronger spokes, and high quality BSA driveline parts. The three-speed hub was the only mechanical weak link, being the cause of numerous delays.
The condition of the hub would not have been enhanced when the bike was washed downstream during the crossing of the flooded Finke River.
The hub is a mass of tiny, precision components, with no bearing seals as we know them, and water and grit would have made the hub’s eventual demise a certainty.
Ted completed most of the ride with only the ‘normal’ or second gear working, which gave him a ratio of 64 inches. This was achieved with direct drive through the hub, using 46x20 cogs, with 28-inch wheels. When they were working, low gear was 47 inches, and a high of 84 inches.
By 1914, two and three-speed internally-geared hubs were proven devices, but not yet popular in Australia. The three-speed BSA hub had been around since 1907.
Single-speed machines were still the norm, many of these being fixed-wheel with no brakes; some had freewheels and handbrakes, while many had backpedal ‘Eadie’ coaster brakes, also made by BSA.
The oiler port is great for keeping the hub lubricated, and also pretty good at letting water in when the bike gets a dunking during a flooded river crossing. With sprockets of 46x20, and 28” wheels, the three ratios in gear inches were 47”, 64” and 84”.
Turner Bros Cycles had been in business since the 1890s. There were three brothers. Arthur Turner had been a pioneer racing cyclist in the penny farthing and solid tyre safety bicycle era. He won the Austral Wheelrace in 1891, when the prizemoney was equivalent to a year’s wages.
Their headquarters were in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne, with large shops in Adelaide and Sydney, and agencies in many country towns throughout the eastern states.
While Turner Bros provided the bicycle, Dunlop provided the tyres and a generous sponsorship of £50, many months’ wages in 1914. Dunlop were sponsors of big bicycle races and record rides from the 1890s through to the 1930s, by which time they had turned their attentions to the much more lucrative car and motorcycle markets. They publicised Reichenbach’s journey heavily, especially once it was successfully completed, reminding us once again of The Bulletin magazine cartoon of the 1890s, in the middle of the bicycle boom, when the race-winning pro cyclist is asked by a journalist: “What brand of tyres were you using?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t been paid yet,” was the reply.
The bike was equipped with slightly wider than normal 28x1 1/2” tyres.
By 1914, 28x1 3/8” had become the default fitment for most machines, with the much larger 28x1 3/4” still theoretically available, but uncommon since the early 1900s.
The three sizes measured 28” to the outside, but required three different diameter rims.
The Philco centre-pull brake is of the era, and only just met its design brief of retarding progress. As my cycling mentor once said to me, “Why are you spending money on those fancy brakes, they only slow you down!”
The pump is attached to the frame by the normal ‘spring clips’ available at the time.
When analysing the suitability of his machine after the ride, Ted stated that the 1 1/2” tyre was not big enough for the sandy conditions, alluding to the fact that the 28x1 3/4” size would have been the better choice.
For reference purposes, 28x1 3/8” has a 642mm BSD (Bead Seat Diameter), the 28x1 1/2” has 635mm BSD, and the 28x1 3/4”, 622mm BSD. The 622mm rim fits a modern 700C tyre, and is also the same as used in a 29er MTB wheel.
If Ted had used the 28x1 3/4 tyres, he would have been able to ride instead of walk on many occasions, and would have been the first rider to break a record on a 29er!
The Disassembled parts… All parts (above) were polished to achieve a cohesive patina match. The frame and rims were painted with matte black enamel, then royal blue, rubbed back with 1200 wet-and-dry to a matte finish, then polished with cutting compound to achieve the desired finish.
Some of the matte black shows through the blue, on purpose. This can be further cut back to achieve a more threadbare look if desired.
The finished machine is great to ride. With its 1,135mm wheelbase, it is certainly no criterium bike, but it just rolls along nicely, with very little rider input. It is certainly not twitchy.
It feels heavy when you lift it and, at 16.2kg, it is not going to breach the UCI’s minimum weight any time soon.
I had to remove the front wheel and weigh it in two pieces, so as not break my electronic scales! But riding it along a flat road, you don’t really notice it. Once again, it just seems to glide along.
Off the seat climbing? Forget it. Quick changes of direction? Forget that as well. Comfort? Excellent. No hands? No problem.
Ted Reichenbach’s ride distance, with deviations from the shortest possible route, totalled 3,168km. Covered in just over 28 days, this represents an average of 113km per day.
I guess, if someone wanted to cover that distance at record pace today, on a time trial bike, they would be able to cover ±400km per day, and complete the distance in eight days. Or even faster if they were totally committed.
Ted’s time of 28 days would be a comfortable trip on a modern touring bike, on today’s good roads. But cross country, off road? On a 16kg hybrid? With 40mm wide tyres? Even today, 28 days would be a good effort!
A bike ride to commemorate the centenary of Ted Reichenbach’s record is being planned for the Northern Territory in May-June 2014. The organisers are looking for people who would like to do all or part of this ride.
Billed as the ‘Ryko Re-Ride’, it leaves Tenant Creek on 28 May, and will arrive in Darwin on 11 June, at 12.07pm, celebrating exactly 100 years to the very minute.
– By Warren Meade