In March of 1934 the Australian press began to report on the plans of a Melbourne resident to ride from the Victorian state capital to Sydney with the intention of creating a record for women riders. Remarkably, Billie Samuel, a diminutive figure at 4 foot 11 inches high and tipping the scales at just over 7 stone, had only learned to ride a bicycle a few months earlier.
Clearly a naturally talented rider, Samuel was trained by the endurance cyclist, Ossie Nicholson, who had set the world record for the total distance cycled in a year when in 1933 he rode from Melbourne to Portsea and back every day, a round trip of some 136 miles. A waitress by profession, Samuel had to fit training around the obligations of her employment, going for a long ride on alternate days before heading off to work in the city. On April 12 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Samuel’s itinerary for the record attempt would see her cover 200 miles in the first day, before pointing out that “to date, her greatest one day performance is an 80 mile journey.” Two days later Samuel began what may have been her greatest test of endurance up to that point when she set out from the Melbourne suburb of Armadale at 5 a.m. on a 180 mile training ride to Wangaratta. She reached her destination in 15 hours, returning to Melbourne the following day in a similar time.
By May Samuel’s training schedule had given her the encouragement that she was ready to make the attempt. Samuel would be riding unaccompanied by officials and carried log-sheets that she could have checked at post offices en route. Her schedule required she reach Wangaratta on the first day, Gundagai on the second, Moss Vale on the third, before finally reaching Sydney on day four. Initial plans were for a departure on Tuesday May 15 but the date was postponed by a week. At 6 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday May 22, 1934, Samuel set off from the Melbourne General Post Office for Sydney with the aim of completing the distance in less than 3 and a half days. Ideally Samuel hoped to cover the journey in less than 3 days, 7 hours, and 32 minutes, the time set by Elsa Barbour when she had cycled in the opposite direction from Sydney to Melbourne in 1932.
She arrived, tired and hungry, in Wangaratta at 8.40 p.m., having suffered a fall near the half-way point for the day which left her with abrasions. Having rested for a few hours Samuel was back in the saddle by the early hours of May 23, crossing the state line into New South Wales at 10.30 a.m. Another fall at Albury forced a stop for necessary repairs to her bicycle. From Holbrook wet, greasy roads caused her pace to slow and Samuel decided to ride through the night to make up lost time. At 2 a.m. heavy cloud cover obscuring the moon reduced visibility to such an extent that Samuel decided to pull over and take a short nap rather than risk accident. Unaccompanied and with no-one to wake her she slept longer than intended. By the time she reached Gundagai at 8.45 a.m. on Thursday May 24, Samuel was 12 hours behind schedule, having lost yet more valuable time searching for someone in Gundagai who could check her in.
With some 235 miles left to ride there was still a slim chance that the time could be won back but fortune was against her. “The roads were impossible” Samuel informed the journalist Claude Spencer from the Sydney newspaper, The Referee. Vicious head winds slowed her down on the Breadalbane Plains and Goulburn was reached at 9.25 a.m. on Friday May 25. Samuel checked in at Moss Vale at 3.15 p.m., where she took a short break before departing at 3.54 p.m.
Riding through Picton, Samuel ascended and crossed Razorback Mountain to reach Camden at 7.15 p.m. After an hour’s break Samuel continued on towards Liverpool where she was met by Eric Moore, of the bicycle and motorcycle retailer Hazell & Moore Ltd., Herbert Druce, of the wholesale traders General Accessories Ltd., the representative of The Referee and photographers, who accompanied her on the final run into Sydney. At 11.07 p.m., Friday 25 May, Billie Samuel arrived at the General Post Office in Martin Place to be met by her father, friends and admirers. Her time for the 575 mile journey was 3 days, 17 hours, 2 minutes. Dogged by misfortune and hampered by bad roads and weather Samuel may have failed to better Barbour’s time but she had created a record as the first woman to ride from Melbourne to Sydney. An achievement that was all the more remarkable when we consider that she had apparently been seriously cycling for little more than four months and had bettered the time of four days set by her trainer, the endurance champion Ossie Nicholson.
Three weeks later Melbourne paper, The Argus, reported that Samuel was “having special physical culture training” in preparation for an assault on Barbour’s Sydney to Melbourne record on June 19. Now under the guidance of T. A. Langridge, Samuel hoped to better the record by 7 hours. The weather, in the form of continuous rain, interrupted her training and it was announced that the departure would be delayed until Tuesday June 26. Meanwhile Melbourne cyclists, having examined the proposed schedule, argued that it was too difficult and sent a revised programme to Sydney that would see Samuel break the record by 3 hours, rather than 7. The itinerary as reported in The Argus proposed the following schedule:
July 3, depart Sydney at 10 a.m., arrive at Goulburn 11.31 p.m.
July 4, depart Goulburn at 3.30 a.m., arrive at Holbrook at 1.10 a.m., July 5
July 5 depart Holbrook at 6.10 a.m., arrive at Seymour at 12.55 a.m., July 6
July 6 depart Seymour at 5.55 a.m., arrive at Melbourne post office at 2 p.m.
This time Samuel was to be accompanied by car throughout the ride with Messrs. Moore and Druce escorting her to Albury, where Messrs, Small and Harrod would take over to accompany her to Melbourne. In a sign of the times Mrs Moore and Mrs Plever, the official chaperon for women cyclists, would also accompany Samuel, presumably to ensure propriety.
In the event the schedule was put back by a day and Samuel left Martin Place, Sydney, at 10 a.m. on Wednesday July 4, 1934, a moment captured by the photographer Sam Hood. With the wind in her favour Samuel made good ground, reaching Camden 1 hour and 3 minutes ahead of schedule after 42 miles of riding. Despite heavy rain and a fall while descending Razorback mountain she continued to gain time, arriving at Goulburn at 9.15 p.m., well ahead of the 11.31 target. Sensibly using the gains to her advantage Samuel rested until 2.45 a.m. when she left Goulburn 45 minutes ahead of schedule.
Maintaining a good pace, despite a puncture at Bowning and a sore tendon, she arrived in Holbrook within schedule, leaving there at 6 a.m. Disaster nearly struck when she skidded and crashed on a poor stretch of road 12½ miles from Albury. A few miles later she was forced to dismount and carry her bike through ankle deep mud. Fortunately the roads, and the weather, improved after passing Albury, though a second puncture at Benalla delayed Samuel for 15 minutes. When she made her scheduled stop at Seymour after 501 miles she was well ahead of schedule.
With 65 miles left to ride Samuel left Seymour at 6.20 a.m. on Saturday 7 July, stopping at Kilmore for breakfast, before riding on to Melbourne where she reached the General Post Office at 11.27 a.m. 565 miles had been covered in 3 days, 1 hour, 20 minutes, breaking Barbour’s record by 6 hours, 12 minutes. Samuel was met by a crowd of 3,000 people and, overcome with emotion, burst into tears when she was lifted from her bike and presented with a bouquet of flowers
While her achievement was impressive Billie Samuel’s time in the limelight was short lived. Shortly after her record breaking rides reports appeared in the press that she intended to attempt the Melbourne to Adelaide record in November and was keeping herself in training, riding 100 miles during the weekend. In October 1934 The Argus reported that Samuel’s name was in the hat with Elsa Barbour and Doreen Middleton for a six-day race at the Chicago Bicycle Show in February of the following year. Neither the record attempt or the trip to America appear to have taken place.
Billie Samuel’s Sydney to Melbourne stood for 3 years until it was emphatically beaten in September 1937 by Joyce Barry, when she completed 568 miles in 2 days, 2 hours, and 47 minutes. An article in the wonderfully named Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate in April of that year may explain why Billie Samuel disappeared from cycling. Samuel’s father on learning that Barry was to make the attempt had called her to offer his support, the paper reported, adding as a seeming afterthought the news that Billie Samuel, “The petite record holder is now married and living in Bendigo, Victoria.” Without further evidence we may only speculate as to the reasons why Samuel did not pursue a cycling career but it is perfectly reasonable to think that, like many of us have experienced, changing circumstances in life led to an adjustment of her priorities. Whatever the truth of the matter was, Billie Samuel deserves to be remembered as part of the rich tapestry of cycling’s history for her record breaking ride.
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