With its temperate climate and wide streets, Melbourne is an ideal city for bicycle riding. More than a million bicycles are in use in Melbourne for transport, leisure and sport. Front-wheel-pedalled velocipedes were raced at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1869, and these early machines quickly evolved into the elegant but dangerous high bicycles known as penny farthings. The first Austral Wheel Race in 1886 was contested in Melbourne by riders on high bicycles. In 1888 champions George Burston and Harry Stokes of the Melbourne Bicycle Club rode high bicycles to Sydney, and then around the world.
There was a bicycle boom in the 1890s when bicycles with pneumatic tyres and chain drive were imported, mainly from England and the USA. The Dunlop Rubber Co. established a tyre factory in Tattersalls Lane. The Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey, and Lady Brassey were keen cyclists. In this period bicycle racing was more popular than football, and huge crowds watched races at a cycle track next to the Royal Exhibition Building. American champions such as Arthur Zimmerman (1895) and Marshall 'Major' Taylor (1902) raced in Melbourne. Cycling champion George Broadbent toured Victoria by bicycle to make the State's first road maps. The first Warrnambool-Melbourne race was held in 1895.
Bicycles were used extensively for everyday travel, and feature in many old photographs of Melbourne. Bicycling continued to be a significant mode of transport during the first half of the 20th century, and the classic pushbike had upturned handlebars and a back-pedal brake. Well-known brands manufactured in Melbourne included Hartley, Healing, Malvern Star and Repco.
Ossie Nicholson set a world record for the total distance covered in a calendar year when he cycled from Melbourne to Portsea and back every day of 1933. When his record was beaten, Nicholson did the same ride twice each day in 1937 for a year-long total of more than 100 000 km. He completed the ride on New Year's Eve at the Melbourne General Post Office to the cheers of a huge crowd. Cecil Walker was a champion Melbourne track cyclist. In 1938 Walker established a shop in Elizabeth Street which today is one of more than 100 bicycle retailers in the Melbourne area. Other famous cyclists of the 1930s who became Melbourne residents were Sir Hubert Opperman and Nino Borsari. In the 1950s bicycle racing at the North Essendon board track remained popular, with stars including Sid Patterson and Russell Mockridge. The annual Herald-Sun Tour, an 11-day race passing through many Victorian country towns and finishing in Melbourne, was initiated in 1952.
With the postwar growth of motor traffic, bicycle use declined in Melbourne until the 1970s, when an increased awareness of the pleasures and environmental benefits of bicycling caused a resurgence of interest. Bicycles with ten-speed derailleur gears became popular. The Melbourne Bicycle Touring Club and many other recreational bicycling clubs were formed. Numerous people including journalist Keith Dunstan, politician Brian Dixon and activist Alan Parker sought to have bicycle paths and lanes built throughout Melbourne. As a result of lobbying by community group Bicycle Victoria, many off-road paths were constructed. A Principal Bicycle Network of 3000 km of bicycle paths and lanes is now gradually being created across the metropolitan area. As part of Victoria's sesquicentennial celebrations in 1984, Bicycle Victoria organised the Great Victorian Bike Ride (GVBR), a nine-day 600-km mass tour to Melbourne. The GVBR is now an annual event. The total number of participants in the GVBR and other organised events, including the Great Melbourne Bike Ride and the Around the Bay Ride, is more than 20 000 each year.
There are some 20 bicycle racing clubs in the Melbourne area. Each Sunday morning thousands of cyclists go training along Beach Road. A program of track and road racing is held throughout the year. Melbourne-based cyclists who have become world or Olympic champions include Peter Bartels, Ian Browne, Gordon Johnson, Tony Marchant, Gary Neiwand, John Nicholson, Stephen Pate, Dick Ploog, and Kathy Watt. Philip Anderson was an outstanding rider in the Tour de France. Other Melbourne cycling clubs specialise in touring, long-distance cycling (Audax) or vintage cycles. In the 1980s fat-tyred mountain bikes caused a further boom in bicycle sales, and now outnumber all other types. When a law was introduced in 1990 requiring cyclists to wear helmets, bicycle use temporarily slumped but has since recovered. According to the Transport Research Centre, each day about 70 000 people ride bicycles in Melbourne, either for weekday commuting or for recreation.