Pedals of Possibility: Unleashing the Power of Two Wheels


In 1816, Europe found itself grappling with the aftermath of a catastrophic volcanic eruption half a world away. The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia precipitated what came to be known as the ‘Year Without a Summer,’ casting a shadow of agricultural despair across continents. Crops failed, livestock perished, and the very fabric of nineteenth century society, so heavily reliant on equine power, frayed under the scarcity of food and the loss of horses. It was within this crucible of necessity and ingenuity that Baron Karl von Drais, a German civil servant with a keen mind for invention, introduced a creation that would eventually revolutionize human mobility: the ‘Draisine’, or as it is more romantically known, the ‘Laufmaschine’ (which translates as running machine.

Conceived as a response to the equine crisis, the Draisine was a marvel of simplicity and efficiency: a wooden frame mounted atop two wheels, propelled by the rider's own locomotion. With no pedals to speak of, individuals would push off the ground to set the device in motion. It was a statement of resilience and forward-thinking. As the first iteration of what we would recognise today as a bicycle, the Draisine was a testament to the human capacity to adapt and innovate in the face of environmental and societal challenges.

Today, Canberra’s cyclists are at the forefront of innovation. Our bicycles are getting better, with more comfortable suspension, better gears and improved child carriers.

Many have turned to e-bikes to make a hilly ride bearable, or to extend a cycling career for another decade or two.

Cyclists are innovating in other ways too. As we move towards net zero, it’s worth acknowledging that cyclists are no-emissions commuters – getting around without adding carbon pollution to the atmosphere. In an era when inactivity is a major public health challenge, cyclists keep themselves fit by spinning the cranks: increasing longevity and reducing their impact on the health system. And in an age when the bonds of community are fraying, bicycling provides a collegial way to travel – nodding, smiling and waving to fellow cyclists.

Few Australian cities are as bicycle-friendly as Canberra. Bike paths criss-cross our suburbs, allowing many people to ride to work without tangling with traffic. Canberra’s topography is relatively flat, and our climate is fairly dry. So long as you invest in good winter clothing, you can easily cycle all year round. And perhaps most importantly, there’s a thriving community of cyclists. Whether it’s mountain biking in Majura Pines or Mt Stromlo, doing a road ride around the Cotter-Uriarra Loop, or enjoying a calm lap of Lake G, Lake T or Lake BG, you’re sure to find company.

Pedal Power plays a vital role. In 1974, over 50 cyclists staged a protest ride from Belconnen to Civic to raise awareness of the lack of cycle paths. The previous year, the bike path from Dickson to the Australian National University had opened, but the cyclists wanted more to be done to address safety and reduce exposure to car emissions.

One of those who joined the protest was Ken Fry, the federal member for Fraser, and one of my Labor predecessors. As they cycled down Belconnen Way, Fry told a television journalist that there were many Canberrans who wanted to cycle to work, but didn’t feel safe on the roads. He hoped that the result of the protest ride would be that planners would take a more positive view of cyclists.

Pedal Power ACT was born out of that protest ride, and over the past fifty years has played a vital role in making Canberra a more bike-friendly city. Canberra now has over 350 dedicated cycling routes, covering over 1000 kilometres. Recent years have seen new bike paths open across the city, and work is now underway on the Garden City cycle route. No state or territory government is more enthusiastic about cycling than the Barr Government.

In this year’s budget, the Australian Government is committing $100 million to a new national Active Transport Fund that will build and upgrade new bicycle and walking paths.

The Active Transport Fund will boost social connections, promote healthy commuting, and foster liveable communities.

Additionally, when the Australian Government provides funding to states for urban projects under the Road Safety Program, we mandate that one dollar in every five must improve protection for vulnerable road users, which includes cyclists.

For my own part, I’m a proud part of Canberra’s cycling community. As a triathlete, my rides are often preceded by a swim and followed by a run, but the little-told secret of triathlons is that about half the race is spent on the bike. This means that if you want to put in a solid performance, there’s no substitute for time in the saddle. As well as hard training rides, I also love gentle rides through Canberra’s nature reserves with the kids, enjoying the smell of the eucalypts and the laughter of the kookaburras.

In parliament, support for cycling is much stronger than it was back when Ken Fry joined the 1974 protest. A few years ago, I was one of the inaugural co-chairs of Parliamentary Friends of Cycling, which attracted members and senators from across the political spectrum. Thanks to the energy of WeRide’s Stephen Hodge, the group has hosted events on everything from e-bikes to rail trails, and is building awareness of the value of cycling among policymakers.

Two centuries on from the invention of the Laufmaschine, and half a century since the formation of Pedal Power, the pleasure of cycling is as great as it’s ever been. As the title of Jody Rosen’s romantic history of the bicycle sums it up: Two Wheels Good.

A version of this piece was published in the June edition of the Canberra Cyclist.

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  • Andrew Leigh
    published this page in What's New 2024-06-14 11:13:18 +1000

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.