Australia's Long Distance Record Breaking Cyclist Valda Unthank

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"Well ahead of schedule on her attempt to establish a new world record for seven days continuous cycling Mrs Valda Unthank was photographed at lunch with Ossie Nicholson the Victorian endurance cyclist. The image above was shot inside the premises of Austral Cycles where she also ate her meals and posed for the press. During her ride Mrs Unthank is also eating her meals in the window at the Metropolitan Gas Company's premises in Flinders street."

AUSTRALIA'S PARALYSING PEDALLER VALDA UNTHANK

 Valda Unthank breaking the Adelaide to Melbourne cycling record

Valda Unthank breaking the Adelaide to Melbourne cycling record

Under Blood-Red Skies

During the 1930's Australia's record breaking female cyclists pedalled their way through nights without sleep, forging their own two-wheeled tracks into the roads of Australia. A pandora's box of impossibility lay ahead at every turn of their pedals. Riders waded knee deep through flooded rivers, encountered snakes, bouncing kangaroos, storms, strong winds and blazing heat. Each season they covered unthinkable distances, counted and recorded in multiples of hours, days, weeks or entire years! A private battle with only the will of the mind to see each painful long distance test through to it's full and final conclusion. In the name of record breaking and commercial gain, the press reported records set on number of kilometres covered in a specific time, fastest time for a specified distance and point to point or any combination of these three. One example of multiple records falling on a record ride was the "Paralysing Pedaller" Valda Unthank's 1938 attempt from Launceston to Burnie and return. Valda Unthank increased the Australian and Tasmanian 200 mile record and 12 hour record, also bagging the record for Launceston to Burnie and return. To achieve the distance and time of twelve hours, the Paralysing Pedaller had to add a few kilometres to the end of her ride. The flurry of record breaking in the 1930's kept official time keepers from the various cycling unions busy. Recording a time at any distance or location on the map was fair game.

Austral, Malvern Star and others bike company's like Navy Cycles kept Australia's record breaking female cyclists on a hefty schedule of public engagements. Record breaking rides proving to the nation that the sponsors bikes were solid and reliable. Off the bike appearances and commitments for the press involved match racing on rollers, or demonstration rides. Alongside riders like Hubert Opperman and Ossie Nicholson, Australia's top female record breakers became household names. Wet ink on record book pages barely had time to dry, before being erased and replaced with the next hard won record. Spanning the 1930's, to gain a racers edge, overnight sleep periods dropped from six hours to as little as ten minutes.

Typifying the spirit of the period, when Doreen Middleton set her Melbourne to Adelaide record in 1931, the first two ladies ever to achieve the same record, Phyliss Sharman and Melba White, came to greet Middleton at the finish. Along the road a local bicycle enthusiast had asked Middleton a couple of questions,  "Did you have any adventures?' …. 'No' she replied, and then, as an afterthought, 'A kangaroo nearly bowled me over in the Coorong.' 'Would you do it again?' 'Too right. I'm going to ride home." Despite riding 607 miles and almost being bowled over by a kangaroo, nineteen year old Miss Middleton still managed to look "fresh", "Miss Middleton, who arrived in the glare of headlights of cars driven by cycling enthusiasts who went to meet her, was fresh, pink-cheeked, pretty, and unhurried"1.

Valda Unthank Valda Unthank's name stands out on an illustrious list of record breaker's, her contemporaries included fellow Victorians Doreen Middleton from Essendon, the 4ft 11in (150 cm) 7 stone (45kg) pocket rocket Miss Billie Samuel, Dot Edney of Wangaratta, and Elsa Barbour. Joyce Barry came to the fore from NSW, while over in Western Australia Jessie Pengilly and Pat Hawkins created huge tallies on the road. Up in Queensland, Edna  Maggs of Brisbane was pedalling her way into the record books. Other notable riders of the era included Marjorie Smithenbecker, Norma Starbuck, Dot McLaren, Dot Hodgson, Shirley Hillman, Madge Stewart of Hobart, Mrs. M Cameron, Miss May McEntee, plus the earlier trendsetters Phyliss Sharman and Melba White.

 Valda Unthank making jam as well as racing bicycles

Valda Unthank making jam as well as racing bicycles

A bicycle built for two was photographed at Cheltenham in September 1931 after an eighty mile run in the rain, Valda Garnham rode the eighty miles together with Jack Unthank who was a councillor at the Victorian League of Wheelman.  Valda Unthank had married and taken her husband Jack's name by the time she began her six year long racing career in 1934, setting records in track racing and long distance road time trials.2 By 1938 meeting the press was the name of the game for "Flying Valda"3 who by then was a household name, she was also known as "The Paralysing Pedaller".4

The life of a rising star in Melbourne Australia in 1937 was very different to the life a modern day elite cyclist. Valda Unthank was an expert in the art of making orange marmalade. One Saturday in November 1937 Valda did not set off to compete in a club race or participate in a training ride, instead "she set off on her bicycle  for the Whittlesea Show with jars of her delicious golden marmalade tucked in a knapsack over her shoulders. When she rode back at the end of the day she had won first prize for her marmalade for the second time in succession." It wasn't all jam making for Valda,  "She Is busy also with her cycling, because she plans to attempt to establish a women's cycling record to Euroa, and has already obtained the permission of the Victorian Women's Amateur Cycling Association to make the attempt."5

Adelaide to Melbourne 1938 Controversy surrounded Valda's 1938 record breaking ride from Adelaide to Melbourne over a distance of four hundred and seventy five miles. Elsa Barbour created the record back in 1933 covering a distance of six hundred and seven miles, in two days twenty three hours and thirty nine minutes. Valda Unthank rode 133 miles less, in a time of thirty three hours and forty three minutes. Comparatively it took Elsa Barbour an extra thirty eight hours to ride 133 Miles more than Unthank. Barbour said at the time, "I hope Mrs Unthank establishes a record, but I feel that it is right to point out that she will not be breaking my record,"6 even though they did not both cover identical distances, it would be fair to say, with the greatest respect to Elsa Barbour, that Unthank smashed Barbour's record. The Austral Cycles advertisement claimed that "Every existing record between Adelaide and Melbourne for both men and women has been broken by Valda Unthank on a stock model Austral Cycle fitted with Cyclo Three Speed Gear and Leggett's Tyres." One of Unthank's secrets lay in taking less sleep than her competitors who'd set earlier records. Unthank only rested for a total of thirty minutes in thirty three hours, and had no sleep.7

A LONG DISTANCE CYLIST'S DIET IN 1938 "Valda Unthank's diet includes vegetable soup, barley water and egg flip, flavored with orange juice, black coffee, raisin and honey sandwiches, ice-cream and chocolate, also steamed chicken."8

 Rain avoidance techniques for early Australian cyclists, stick a towel over your head and shelter under a tree

Rain avoidance techniques for early Australian cyclists, stick a towel over your head and shelter under a tree

Launceston To Burnie & ReturnEarly in the morning of Valda Unthank's first attempt on the Launceston to Burnie and back records, drovers had run some cattle down a side road, then afterwards at Hagley a flock of sheep were ushered off into a paddock, allowing Valda Unthank to fly towards her goal. Later that day words from her coaches "Keep to the side of the road", echoed through the mind of "Flying Valda", as she plummeted down the ocean side of Stony Rise Hill. Without warning, the deep sandy shoulder on the inside of a sharp bend consumed Valda's front wheel and violently spat her back onto the jagged blue metal. Abandoning the attempt was not an option, yet the blue metal surface had claimed it's victim, Valda's compromise saw her retreat to St Margaret's Hospital in Launceston.9

Eleven days after the Stony Rise crash, Constable Cole of Carrick was back moving farm animals on Valda Unthank's behalf, Constable Cole had to maneuver five hundred head of sheep  off the road near Hadspen, allowing Flying Valda breathing space to attack the records. Valda all the way nursing a painful left shoulder, her memento of Stony Hill. At the end of the day on Monday the 14th of November 1938, Valda Unthank had claimed Joyce Barry's Australasian and Tasmanian 12 hour records, raising the Australasian record from 189 to 198.4 miles. In the process Valda also added the Launceston to Burnie and return record to her own list of accomplishments. Valda's mum Mrs A.J. Garnham who chaperoned her on the record breaking rides witnessed a pain wracked Valda fight the clock, the elements her bike and her injuries, for twelve hours over two hundred miles, to claim her prize.10

 Australian cycling legend Ossie Nicholson

Australian cycling legend Ossie Nicholson

Pretty Sally Hill Ossie Nicholson who'd upped the ante on the World endurance record for distance cycled in a single year, was the current record holder when he was engaged by Austral Cycles to manage Valda Unthank's "One Week's Record Ride" of 1939. Nicholson had covered 62,657 miles (100,837 km) in 365 days, to claim the world's prize in 1938. That's close enough to 276km per day for an entire year. A few months before the One Week Cycling Record attempt, Ossie Nicholson and Valda Unthank had been paired up for a Bruce Small Pty Ltd publicity stunt. Starting at a gap in an extinct volcano on the Great Dividing Range called Pretty Sally Hill, Valda set off  with a rip roaring tail-wind behind her back. Flying Valda covered twenty five miles in fifty one minutes and forty seconds, an average speed of 46.72 kmh, breaking the Australian women's and men's records in one ride. Opinion of the day suggested that a mistake had been made in the time keeping, the records were correct and the tail-wind assisted record stood.11

The World Record for seven days and nights of continuous cycling 1939. Valda Unthank briefly owned the twenty four kilometre stretch of road between Melbourne and Mordialloc. For seven days and seven nights she rode relentlessly back and forth, followed by a car, a caravan and Ossie Nicholson. Ossie managed Valda's brief rest periods, which totalled a mere fifteen hours in the seven day ordeal. Henry Gray a "skating expert"12 was contracted to hand up water bottles to Valda as she lapped backwards and forwards. Windows at the Metropolitan Gas Company and Austral Cycles, afforded the press and public a view as Valda and Ossie stopped by for meals. Austral Cycles installed a kitchen in their window and prepared the meals there for Valda's ride.

A gas kitchen has been installed in the window of 'Austral' Cycles in Melbourne, and in this kitchen food which Miss Unthank will consume on the ride will be prepared. A Sedan car and caravan will follow Miss Unthank throughout the ride, arrangements being made for her to sleep in the caravan. During the ride she will consume wholemeal bread, chicken, milk, eggs, ice cream, chocolate, and fresh fruit — these foods have been especially chosen for their nutrition and energy producing values.13,14

Arthur Dowse kept this Hawthorne Park velodrome race meet programme with an Austral advert for Valda Unthank's world record. With thanks to Joe Cosgrove, programme from his Arthur Dowse archive.
Arthur Dowse kept this Hawthorne Park velodrome race meet programme with an Austral advert for Valda Unthank's world record. With thanks to Joe Cosgrove, programme from his Arthur Dowse archive.

Valda's target was to smash Joyce Barry's record for the greatest mileage covered in one week, for seven days and nights of continuous cycling. Joyce's record was set the previous year and stood at 1107 miles. The no sleep strategy paid off, Valda's record after seven days set the bar at 1,435 miles.15 Four months later, in March 1940, Pat Hawkins from Western Australia increased the distance to 1546 miles.16

During the closing hours of her ordeal, her thoughts were of hot baths and long sleep, …. she lost nearly a stone in weight and a couple of inches off the hips as well.

 Ossie Nicholson ready with the alarm clock for Valda Unthank on one of her marathon bike rides

Ossie Nicholson ready with the alarm clock for Valda Unthank on one of her marathon bike rides

 Ossie Nicholson cyclist and mentor to Valda Unthank

Ossie Nicholson cyclist and mentor to Valda Unthank

The battle between Valda Unthank and Pat Hawkins for the one week record, illustrated just how tough the game was. Flying Valda announced that she would immediately begin training to regain her one week record, she didn't mean it one bit. After six years of relentless training and racing, night and day, the flame had burnt itself out, Valda's desire to compete extinguished with the thought of training for another seven day and seven night ordeal, up and down the same familiar stretch of road. The genuine truth was revealed in July 1940 when Valda Unthank announced her retirement from competitive cycling. Valda rejoiced in joining the Amateur Athletics Union and the girl athletes at Royal Park, stating that she liked the fine sporting spirit and business like way that athletics was conducted. She also looked forward to the strong element of team work and said that she might try her hand at the Javelin. Athletics for Valda became more appealing than tapping out the rhythm on a bicycle, night and day in all weather, her thoughts were that "cycling …. is concerned more with individual performances than team efforts."  Too much time in the saddle and World War Two also changed Valda Unthank's mind, she announced that war work would now take the place of cycling.17, 18

Wally Kerr A Man At the End Of Eras When Wally Kerr saddled up on his penny farthing or high wheel bicycle, to win gold at the Australian and New South Wales championships of 1891 he unwittingly became the man who'd signify the end of two eras in Australian cycling, each fifty years apart. In January 1892 Wally Kerr raced for the first time on a new contraption the safety bicycle, at first he struggled to come to terms with how to steer the thing, soon got the hang of it and set his own Australian records. The era of the penny farthing had ended. In 1940 Wally Kerr was there too, at the end of another era in Australian cycling, the era of the long distance record breakers, but not in a way that Wally may have liked or imagined.19

 Valda Unthank demonstrating puncture repair techniques

Valda Unthank demonstrating puncture repair techniques

Ten days before Valda Unthank announced her retirement from competitive cycling, Wally Kerr had answered the call from the Red Cross to hand in any old gold - To Help Win The War. Wally's old mate Nigel Barker went together with Wally to hand over his own precious gold pieces. Nigel was one of Australia's greatest runners of all time. Forty nine years after Wally Kerr won his gold medals racing on a penny farthing he handed them over to the Red Cross, to be melted and re-born as trophies for a race meeting at Randwick Racecourse. Nigel donated his gold watch and chain, which he'd treasured his entire life, to aid the war effort.20 Both Valda's retirement and Wally's selfless gesture signified a change in Australian cycling that would be amplified years later with the advent of television. The sport we know today owes much to these generations, yet their contributions remain largely unknown and ignored.

World War two guaranteed that the exploits of Australia's long distance record breaking women would fade with the memories of their generation. Beau Ideal, a film of Flying Valda's time was promoted as a

"VAST HIPPODROME OF ACTION … Thousands of fearless riders.. Through Blistering Heat .. Under Blood-Red Skies … Into an Empire Ablaze With Primitive Passions.."

Soon we'll present the complete story of Australia's long distance record riders, and their very own and very special version of, a vast hippodrome of action. It's about time!

 Valda Unthank seven days and seven nights continuous cycling

Valda Unthank seven days and seven nights continuous cycling

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