Rise of the SEMI-RACER

Semi Racer rider 1970 

Semi Racer rider 1970 

As the race neared completion the speed of the contestants and the interest of the audience increased alike. At the pistol shot for the last mile the men set out at a lightning speed with Bullock in the lead. After the fifth lap of the last mile the issue of the contest was in doubt. Ashinger caught up with Bullock and on the long stretches for three laps rode even with him, the handle bars of the champion semi-racersalmost touching. Omaha Daily Bee March 27 1887 Ed Bullock wins Nebraska 50 Mile Championship on a "Champion Semi-Racer".

Before the golden era of the "High Wheel" during the 1880's, machines constructed mostly of wood, with limited means of drive were de rigueur. Wooden era machines were represented by the Celerifere - Dandy Horse and Draisiene and followed in 1867 by front wheel driven Michaudine's. In the 1880's tubular iron, front wheel drive high wheelers shod with solid tyres sky rocketed in sales. Bicycle marketers needed to differentiate their high end "Racers" from the rest. The Semi-Racer was supplied with similar specification to a Racer, yet might weigh a little more and be sold as a slightly lower priced item. A modern example of this type of marketing is the differentiation of Campagnolo Super Record to Record and Chorus, all capable groupsets but delineated by option variations and price - Racers and Semi Racers were no different. The more robust roadster fitted next into the inventory of late nineteenth century bike shops, there were even Semi-Roadsters. Racing cyclists used either Racers or Semi Racers, in Australia at that time it wasn't unusual to see a Roadster or Semi Roadster lined up against Racers and Semi-Racers.

The categories of Racers, Semi-Racers (sometimes called Club Semi-Racers), Roadsters and Semi Roadsters therefore helped aid in identifying specific attributes of different bicycles at the sales counter and race track alike.

The terminology was used from about 1880 in the United States, England, Canada and Australia. Australians took to the concept of using these bicycle categories with great elan, more so than any other English speaking cycling nation. When nominating to line up in a bicycle race in Australia, the rider also had to nominate which type of bicycle he or she would compete on, Racer, Semi-Racer, Roadster, High Wheel, Safety, sometimes the weight of the bicycle was taken into consideration or whether it was a track or road machine. Also there were different tyre choices such as Solid, Pneumatic or Cushion - these had to be nominated to officials before the race. Looking at a spread of different race nominations in the 1890's from Queensland to Western Australia, there were mostly Racers or Semi-Racers nominated with a sprinkling of roadsters. The popular tyre of choice was the pneumatic.

Testimony to the rigors of racing and nominations in the antipodes can be seen in the following extract where Messrs Cutbush and Thomas who were regular race winners, failed to observe the rules when nominating their type of bicycle, for a race meet in February 1893 in Western Australia.


Sirs,-However gratifying it may be to Messrs. Cutbush and Thomas to gain a favourable verdict, on a technical point, in connection with the protest entered against them for furnishing incomplete information when nominating for the W.A. Wheel Race, run at the cycle sports, held on the 28th - Ultimo, it is to be sincerely regretted that, in justice to Mr. Sadler, who entered the protest, the matter was not fully discussed. However, as the general public are not cognicant of the motive which prompted the protest, the following particulars concerning the entry-form of the W.A. Cycling Club and the one filled in by the gentlemen protested against may be of interest. The first, and certainly one of the most important clauses in the Cycling Club's entry-form is as follows: - '. Furnishing false, misleading, or incomplete information will be a ground for disqualification, and will render the competitor liable to prosecution." and another which refers to the ease in question reads : "For Cycle Races. State type of cycle to be ridden, and if any change has been made since your last race. Also if you use a hollow or solid tyre; give size and description." As Messrs, Cutbush and Thomas both ignored the last clause quoted and were handicapped for semi-racer pneumatic machines (known by the handicappers to be in their possession and ridden by Mr. Thomas, in all his previous races in this colony) and appeared on the track with racing machines landed in the colony either one or two days previously, the public may draw their own conclusion as to whether a protest under the circumstances was justifiable or not. The handicappers were no doubt to blame for accepting an incomplete form, but does this exonerate the gentlemen named F Yours etc, GEO. S. CRANSTONE." Thursday 9 February 1893 The West Australian 1

A typical race notice with the handicaps published in Perth in 1893, shows the various bike and tyre choices. This notice was a few months after the above enquiry, you can see Cutbush nominated the correct bicycle this time, after his upgrade from Semi-Racer to Racer.

ROADSTER - SEMI RACER - RACER SPORTING NEWS THE WEST AUSTRALIAN CYCLING CHAMPIONSHIP RACE MEETING. Tho following are the handicaps for the West Australian Cycling Club Championship meeting next Saturday : — Three Mile Open Handicap.— L. Duncan, p. racer, 150yds. : L. Ogborne, p. roadster,. 225yds. ; W. C. Rose, p.r. racer 300yds ; W,M. Atkins, p. roadster, 3OOyds. ; P. J. Sullivan, p. semi racer, 350yds. ; J. E. Harwood, p. semi-roadster, 150yds.: C. W. Salkilld p.road racer, 450yds ; G. H. Francisco, p. road racer, 100yds ; R.J. Brown, p. racer, scratch ; C. H. Carrick, c. roadster 6OOyds; 1 Cutbush, p. racer, 25yds; J. H. Hurst, p. semiracer, 200yds ; F. G. Easton, pneumatic ; 301bs), 150yds ; J. H. Cooper, o. roadster 7OOyds ; A. J. Leonhardt, pneumatic (35.1/2 lbs)- 400yds. The Daily News Tuesday 3 October 2

In Queensland in 1893 they had their own classification for Racers and Semi Racers at the Breakfast Creek Races

"In the handicaps the letter "r" signifies that the rider is riding a racing machine; "s.r" semi-racer; "p" roadster and "g.o" geared ordinary." 3

Examples of the first use of the term Semi-Racer include - Thursday the tenth of June 1880, in Melbourne Australia  a 50 inch Humber Semi-Racer appeared for sale as a "Bargain - All bright, latest improvements". Advertised in "The Wheel" USA 1883 were the Cunningham Company models : "THE HARVARD" Roadster and Light Roadster (introduced in 1978), "THE YALE" (Introduced in 1880) Racer, Semi Racer and Full Roadster, "THE SHADOW" (Introduced in 1881) Light Roadster.

In 1894 you could buy a Semi-Racer from Lovell Diamond in the United States. The Lovell Diamond Racer weighed in at nineteen pounds "a beauty, and speedy." The Semi-Racer weighed in at twenty three pounds and cost the same as the Racer. Obviously splitting hairs between the attributes of the two models was difficult, weight being the only definition. The Lovell Diamond Roadster showed the more utilitarian intent of these bikes, denoted as "Warranted to carry 250 lbs".

In Australia in 1908 the shortcomings of the Semi-Racer for harsh outback touring was noted by one writer, a heavier more robust Roadster in this case would have been a more appropriate choice.

... very evident that some of them knew very little of the roads out here, for they had semi-racers. 4

When the great Australian bicycle boom of the 1890's ended and the automobile took over the dusty Australian roads and city streets the term Semi-Racer gained a new meaning. Rowers, motorcyclists, motorists and aeronauts could now buy their own version of the Semi-Racer. The Semi-Racer bicycle however disappeared into the background and took a three decade hiatus, then bursting back on the scene stronger than ever for a late 1930's redux. The second rise of the Semi-Racer bicycle came with the advent of World War Two, this time round things were different, there was a new found enthusiasm for the bicycle and the Semi-Racer had another two decades under the sun.

Semi-Racers were now even more so, the object of the masses and came in many guises, they could be fixed wheel machines, equipped with derailleurs, have Sturmey Archer three speed gears. Again they were the bike that was still a cut above other types, but now not always strictly a pure lightweight Semi-Racer. The many versions of new Semi-Racers appeared to broaden this time round to include ladies and kids bikes.

Sheldon Brown summed up the 20th Century version of the Semi-Racer with this "Club sports or semi-racer bicycles were the high-performance machines of their time and place named as they were the style of bicycle popular with members of the many active cycling clubs...... Club bicycles would be likely to have a more exotic Sturmey-Archer hub, perhaps a medium- or close-ratio model, 3 or 4 speed. A very few even were equipped with the rare ASC 3-speed fixed-gear hub.Many club bicycles were single-speed machines, usually with a reversible hub: single-speed freewheel on one side, fixed-gear on the other. Starting in the late '50's, derailers (sic) began to be used on this type of bicycle as well. Although primarily intended for fast group rides with clubmates, club bicycles were also commonly used for serious touring, and also for time-trialing."

During 1939 Elliott Cycles in Port Pirie opened a new business at Alexander Street, a newspaper article denoted the type of bicycles output by the firm "The well-known Super Elliott make of bicycle is now on display at 8 Alexander Street ... including racers, semi-racers, and roadster models for both men and women. There are also small machines specially made for children. Mr. Pullman said that Super Elliott had the exclusive rights in South Australia for the famous B.S.A. parts. 5

In Australia, Semi-Racers of the twentieth century weren't limited to Club Racers. An orphan was robbed of his brand new Semi-Racer in 1950.

"A 14-year-old orphan boy at the Salvation Army .. was robbed of his first and only personal possession "a Semi-Racer bike, painted silver with all the gadgets, It has the word 'Dutchey' printed in red on the frame...Olsen, had saved up to buy the bicycle since January, when took up his first job as a messenger boy with a city firm." 6

A Melbourne choir boy Roy Burgess and member of the Melbourne Cycle Touring Club in 1954 reckoned his Semi-Racer was his "magic carpet".

"He thinks of his bike as his magic carpet .....It's a Semi-Racer with special plastic grooved handlebar grips, two bells, dynamo-hub electric lighting, double brakes, Touring-Club flag-even a specially built stand for propping up the bike! It also has a speedometer marked to 40 m.p.h which shows total mileage. (12,000 miles)" 7

In 1952 Club Racer "Peter Nelson, going to the Olympics…joined Sturt Amateur Cycling Club, with his semi-racer model equipped with a three-speed gear....Nelson is in the games team primarily as a road rider, but he may have to take part in the track events too. Lionel Cox (NSW), Geoff Baker (WA) and John Law (SA) are all track riders and fill the quartet it looks as if Nelson or Jim Nevin (Victoria) will be the man. 8

By the 1970's again the term fell into decline, although throughout the seventies and eighties you could occasionally find a Semi-Racer for sale in the classifieds.

During the Twentieth Century, whether you wanted a kids bike, a ladies bike, a touring bike, or you were an orphan, club racer or Olympian. Whether the gearing was three speed, fixed or had a derailleur attached, there was no doubt which type of fast bicycle was available to the everyman - The Semi-Racer. Like Ed Bullock on his winning Champion Semi-Racer of 1887, the Semi-Racer belongs to everyone.

A group of club riders out training. At least two or more of these bikes fit the description of a typical Semi racer from that era, check out the Coppi track bike. Note the different fixed gear and road bikes. 

A group of club riders out training. At least two or more of these bikes fit the description of a typical Semi racer from that era, check out the Coppi track bike. Note the different fixed gear and road bikes. 

1 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/3045048
2 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/77382170
3 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/3563385 Brisbane Courier Monday 24 July 1893
4 1908 The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld : 1875 – 1929) Saturday 18 April 1908 p 29 Article
5 ELLIOTT CYCLES AT NEW ADDRESS. (1939, April 28). Recorder (Port Pirie, SA : 1919 – 1954), p. 3. Retrieved March 13, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article96301236
6 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/44926510
7 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/23435526
8 Saturday 17 May 1952 Barrier Miner Broken Hill http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/49244176


1. Title Image collection Terry Kay, track racing in Queensland Australia early 20th Century

2. Bike Racer pumping up tyres of Semi-Racer Le Dawn Studios Melbourne 1970 - Copyright status: This work is in copyright Terms of use: Use of this work allowed provided the creator and SLV acknowledged. No known copyright restrictions apply. Cited as: Le Dawn Studios archive, State Library of Victoria.

3. Bike Racers training on Semi-Racers Le Dawn Studios Melbourne 1970 - Copyright status: This work is in copyright Terms of use: Use of this work allowed provided the creator and SLV acknowledged. No known copyright restrictions apply. Cited as: Le Dawn Studios archive, State Library of Victoria.