Monday, February 25, 2013

Evandale National Penny Farthing Championships

Sympathetically preserved in an enclave about 5kms beyond Launceston Airport sits the heritage village of Evandale, Tasmania. Evandale would already be unique in Australia for its wealth of historic architecture, traditional English village layout and general lack of glaring modernity, but for pedalling fools the charm of Evandale runs even deeper: The entire village is permanently dedicated to Penny Farthing Bicycles. The businesses feature Penny Farthings, some are named after Penny Farthings, there is even a statue of a man with a Penny Farthing in the centre of town and every summer for the last 30 years, the Penny Farthing passion reaches fever pitch in the form of the Championship Races.

This might seem a bizarre thing for an entire village to fixate upon but Tasmania actually has a rich history of cycling enthusiasts dating back to the days when Penny Farthings were simply known as bicycles, being the first kind ever mass produced. People have long toured the state by bicycle and the first Cycling Club was formed in 1884. So many old bicycles are preserved in various museums around the state, it's all the more sad that much bicycle love was forgotten with the universal adopting of cars. The way bicycles are now spoken of in nuisance terms, you would be forgiven for thinking Tasmania had never cultivated an affection for people powered transportation. Fortunately, those who cherish the history also delight in creating traditions, so the Evandale race was born in 1983. It is officially the largest Penny Farthing race in the world and though it is called the 'National Championships' it attracts international interest.

The lovely buildings of Evandale make a congruous backdrop for the bicycles and along with enthusiastically costumed locals the whole event has an air of time travel. If you ignore the smattering of Lycra and helmets you can catch a very convincing glimpse of the past. The village fair happens in tandem on a central village green, the race itself circles the main streets of town and the entire hub is roped off, requiring an entry fee. For your $12 ($10 for Pensioners) you get a programme and access to the heart of Evandale with the fair, the race route lined with hay bales and safety bunting, ocassional Morris Dancers, human statues, singers and of course other bicycle race spectators. Expect an attractive mash of anachronism and a profusion of hats and you will not be disappointed.

Being just under a two hour drive from the North West coast, we did not arrive early in Evandale and thus missed the more parade-like parts of the day but with 20 Penny Farthing events there was still plenty to see. We saw the tail end of the obstacle race, there were other fun-themed races including a relay and a slow race. There was even a 20 Mile race the next day. We were lucky enough to see a lot of championship events, the necessity of the hay bales becoming apparent once we witnessed the speed and cornering lean of the riders. A crash even made the front page of one of Tasmania's papers, looking at the photographs later I had to agree that face first into a bale of hay is certainly preferable to face first into bitumen. Especially from such a height. Fortunately, the only injury was pride.

The Championships were divided by age, with almost every stage of life accounted for. There were junior races for children, general up to 50 and veteran's races divided by decade right up to the over 70s. The over 70s were counselled by the compère to take it easy. I had slowly made my way round the course during the different races and by the time the 70+ veterans raced I was at the halfway point of the loop, out of sight of most of the crowd and officials. I may have witnessed some defiant bursts of speed and general bad-assery. It was pretty fucking great. My other personal highlights included watching riders mount up at the start of each race, seeing the pushing off action required to begin momentum and the end of each race when they washed off speed on the stretch of empty road past the finish line. I particularly appreciated when people took their feet off the pedals and became beacons of pure joy. I will definitely be attending future championships for as long as I have the privilege of living in Tasmania. May the Penny Farthings reign over Evandale for decades to come!

Bad Assssssss.

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