Every time I delve into the world of Australian cycling around 1900, the pieces of the jigsaw appear before me, as if saturated by the most intense colour, each colour in turn imbued equally with an expansive set of vivid hues.
This very cool picture of an anonymous stayer, at an unidentified cycling track, provides a tantalising vignette into a much larger episode of early Australian cycling history. Once the identity of the anonymous stayer was uncovered an avalanche of cycling intrigue unfolded.
When Thaddäus Robl was a small boy he suffered partial paralysis as a result of typhoid fever. Partial paralysis for Robl was no deterrent to him becoming one of the toughest cycling competitors of his time. Apparently before his racing career he practiced cycling in secret on his dad’s penny farthing. By 1896 Robl had turned professional and specialised in track racing as a stayer, either behind teams of pacers or the earliest of motorcycles, then sometimes called motor bicycles. Robl competed in the Paris-Bordeau road race in 1898, finishing third, and that was the year he began specialising in track racing. By the time Robl arrived in Australia for a three month tour in 1903, he’d become one of the biggest stars in Europe, earning truckloads of cash along with it.
At the State Library of Victoria here was another image, devoid of any details, except for this, “Tandem motor racing machine and Rohl”. By the time I’d researched the Australian Native’s Association bicycle races, it was plain to see that the velodrome in the photo was the exhibition track at Carlton. Delving even further, “Rohl” soon translated correctly into Thaddäus Robl. No coincidence then that Thaddäus Robl’s three month tour of Australia fitted neatly with Melbourne photographer Albert Sutcliffe packing up his gear and heading off to the exhibition track on probably Friday the 2nd of January 1903, to record the demonstration of cycling prowess exhibited by Robl for an admiring public. The occasion that day, the first time in Australia that Robl and his Continental tyre sponsored racing outfit were trotted out in front of the Melbourne fans. The German Continental outfit then, would have been the equivalent of what today represents say an organisation like Sky Pro Cycling.
The Australian racing circuit was a draw-card for international riders during the last decade of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century. The massive crowds and prize-money induced some international racers to stay for lengthy periods. Thaddäus Robl and Piet Dickentmann’s tour of 1903 was going to be a sensation. Besides, motor paced events were something new in Australia and not as well advanced as in Europe, having the two times 100km motor pace world champion Robl tour Australia, at the same time as Major Taylor meant that Australian cycling fans were in for some very special racing.
Robl and Dickentmann’s journey to Australia was organised during 1902 by their manager Rudolf Lehr on behalf of major sponsor Continental Caoutchouc and Gutta Percha Company of Hanover. The purpose of sending two of the best riders for a tour of Australia was to strengthen the companies already successful product promotions. In communication picked up by the Daily News in Perth, Continental stated that “We now have the intention to further fortify our situation, and hope to be successful by influencing the cycle sport and the public with, a thorough success on the track….The presence of these two men on Australian tracks will surely create a new life in cycling circles, and will inspire cyclists with new zeal; and we hope our men will meet all their Australian competitors in best form.” Continental sent together with Robl and Dickentmann, seven of the best human pacers, along with two motor bicycles and four motor tandems, the very best equipment for motor pacing available anywhere. Lehr said “Some of our pacing machines are of 12 horsepower., and can do up to 50 miles an hour. These are universally used on the Continent for distances of three miles and upwards.” The motorised machinery was designed by Robl and Dutch born Dickentmann themselves. Back in Europe Robl owned a 46 horse power machine, which he paced behind at over 70 miles an hour, for which he “wears a fur coat over his clothes, and protects his eyes with goggles.”
Rudolf Lehr left Genoa on the steamer Barbarossa and arrived in Australia on December the fifth 1902, Robl and Dickentmann followed, traveling aboard the Grosser Kurfunst, arriving in Melbourne on Christmas eve 1902. Lehr told The Register of Adelaide that the purpose of the visit was to secure records. Dickentmann was a short distance specialist, winning the world championship 10 kilometre race in 1902. Robl was a distance specialist. Lehr said, “And Robl. – He is 24 years of age, and began riding when he was 11. He went on to the track when he was comparatively a youngster. In 1888 he took part in the youth’s race for the championship of the world and came second….he has three times won and still holds the championship of Germany. Robl has twice – in 1901 and 1902 been champion of the world over 100 kilometres….He is a keen motorist ..we propose to travel to and from the states in a motor car.”
The Adelaide Chronicle described Robl as a tough and resilient racer, “Thaddeus Robl, is 5 ft 11 I/2 inches in height, and is 25 years of age, having being born in Munich on 22nd October, 1877…..In Australia he will ride a 120in gear, and rides from 118 inches up to 144 inches, but the latter he only uses on the very best tracks….That he is a rider possessed of indomitable pluck is shown by an incident that happened in a six hour’s race …in Berlin. he fell so heavily that he was rendered unconscious. As soon as he came to he wanted to continue the race … after an interval of nearly ten minutes he again started. He rode so well that he won with several laps to spare, and despite the time lost, established a world’s record for six hours.”
Robl was paid highly in Europe, more than any other rider in Germany, during the 1902 season earning £1,400, Dickentmann the next highest paid rider with season earnings of £580, driving home the point that Robl was a star of his era. One writer described Robl’s finesse on a bike and why he was such a big earner. Robl was a natural pedaller.
“One needs to watch Thaddeus Robl trailing his pacing motor to properly understand how he keeps up such sustained speed. In the first place he rides a specially constructed bicycle, the most striking features of which are a very short frame, straight front forks, a 24-inch front wheel, a 120 gear and a wide pair of forward handle-bars. Robl thus sits well over the crank bracket with his handle grips no lower than his saddle. This position enables him to ride with all his weight on the saddle and none on the handles, thus rendering steering far easier and steadier than if he’d assumed the ordinary racing position. Robl mounted on his machine is wonderfully like the old-time American champion, A. A. Zimmerman. The same easy seat, and slightly curved back; the same rotary motion of the feet. Splendid ankle action, all the power being derived from the knees downwards. There’s none of the piston thrust style of pedalling about Robl; when extended he appears to spin his feet-his thighs being little in action. Such a style of pedalling does not require brute strength; furthermore, it does not eat up a rider’s energy nearly as quickly as does the plugging style of riding. His position when trailing his motor is one that at first amazes the onlooker, who every moment expects to see the pace-follower touch the back wheel of the motor, and come down with a crash. On all sides one hears “How does he do it ?” The answer is simple. Robl when following his motor with his head well forward touches the back of the rear rider on the pacing tandem with his head before his front tyre is within an inch of the back tyre of the motor.”
One very quirky incident happened immediately after the German Continental team arrived in Melbourne on December 24 1902. Given that Robl loved his motoring, the German – Continental crew must have had a nice long drive up to Brisbane, jumping straight into a car for the drive, for an appearance on Saturday 27th December. Thaddeus Robl, the “Noted Visiting Cyclist” was present at the opening of the South Brisbane Bowling Green where “A corner will be devoted to a picture of Thaddeus Robl.” A week later after their long drive back to Melbourne, the Melbourne Bicycle Club arranged for Robl’s first appearance at the Exhibition track, Carlton. F.S. Beauchamp and C.R Morgan were the locals drafted to race in five, ten and fifteen mile events against the German visitors, ten thousand showed up to watch the European champions race. On the day before the racing, thousands of willing cycling fans paid sixpence to watch Robl and co training from 4 to 6 pm. This would have been a good opportunity for Melbourne photographer Albert Sutcliffe to get his shot. Up in Sydney that month Major Taylor’s pulling power was even greater, 55,000 turned up to watch him race at the Sydney Cricket Ground track.
Robl’s U.C.I medal wins at World Championships are Gold 1901 in Berlin, Gold 1902 in Rome and Silver 1903 in Copenhagen, all motor paced 100km events.
At the A.N.A race meet and Great Fete on the 24th of January 1903, Robl was not on the bill, presumably by contractual arrangement with the Melbourne Bicycle Club who had also contracted him to race against Major Taylor a few days after the A.N.A race meet. Remember the Melbourne Bicycle Club also organised the Austral Wheel Race and there was competition, perhaps even bitter rivalry, between the A.N.A and M.B.C over who ran the Victorian Five Mile Championship a few years earlier, not to mention the A.N.A events eclipsing the Austral on sheer numbers through the gate. All of the events that Robl and Dickentmann attended in Melbourne were organised by the M.B.C. While Robl sat in the grandstands witnessing the spectacle of the 1903 A.N.A Great fete and bicycle races, he wondered about Major Taylor’s poor form. Such was the ability of Robl he’d already beaten Major Taylor previously in Europe, now here he was in Australia watching Taylor produce a lack lustre performance in front of a very disappointed crowd. Robl afterwards suggesting that the next week, he should give the great American champion one lap head-start in a five mile paced event. “Robl, the German champion pace follower, was an interested spectator of Taylor’s riding, and appeared greatly disappointed with his performances. In conversation with an “Advertising” representative, Robl declared that he was willing to concede a lap start to the American in a five mile paced contest.”
The two Europeans raced in many race meetings throughout Australia during their three month visit. The most curious and conspicuous reported was the match up between Major Taylor and Thaddäus Robl, held at the Exhibition Oval. Billed by the Melbourne Bicycle Club as
THE RECORD CYCLING MATCHES.
TAYLOR vs ROBL – 31 January 1903 Exhibition Oval – Admittance One Shilling
Three events of One Mile and Two of Two Miles. The winner of two events, best two of three, who take a purse of 100 sovereigns.“Paced by the wonderful motors! For the first time in the history of cycling in Australia, the World’s Champions have arrived on our shores. The Melbourne Bicycle Club could not allow the opportunity to pass without an effort to bring them together in competition, and have much pleasure in announcing that satisfactory arrangements have been made.”
Dickentmann ran as second fiddle to Robl, placed on the bill in motor paced events against local “crack” McDonald, in races over one, three and five miles.
Taylor hadn’t been well, he couldn’t be bothered to line up for the A.N.A Gold Stakes scratch series a few days earlier. With 105 degree heat, in the shade, Marshall Walter Taylor comically huddled under an umbrella on the start line in the first two mile event. “Some amusement was occasioned by Taylor, sheltering himself on his machine behind an umbrella in the broiling sun….A disappointing race resulted, Taylor was beaten by his pacers and Robl won by a quarter of a lap.” For the era there was quite a small gathering of spectators, the M.B.C “Record Cycling Matches” enticed a “fair attendance”.
Robl V Taylor rounds two and three, a One Mile Event -“Taylor failed to follow the pace of anything like the style of Robl, who won by 30 yds. Two Mile event, – Taylor, who was far from well, again failed to keep pace, and Robl beat him by four lengths.” Three nil to Robl.
Robl continued racing back in Europe, with some ups and downs until he decided in 1909 to stop bike racing. His love of speed and cars transferred to the air as he began a career flying aeroplanes. His life came to a tragic end on the 18th of June 1910, the former champion motor pacer thrown from his plane and killed, one interpretation determined that the plane “fell on him.” Another account described him falling from a height of seventy metres. A street in Munich was named after Robl and there’s a particularly sad photograph of his mother at a memorial dedicated to him, surrounded by the local cycling fraternity.
What a privilege to research the life of Thaddäus Robl, world motor pace champion. Then to discover that the almost anonymous, save for a mis-spelt surname, racing stayer depicted in Albert Sutcliffe’s photograph was a champion of champions, hard as they come, with the finesse of the absolute best. Robl need no longer remain anonymous in Sutcliffe’s picture.