A gruelling event

Collie riders Stephen Pearce, Mark Paget, Erik Mellegers and Stephen Italiano at the 2012 Collie to Donnybrook and Return Cycle Classic.
Collie riders Stephen Pearce, Mark Paget, Erik Mellegers and Stephen Italiano at the 2012 Collie to Donnybrook and Return Cycle Classic.

The Collie-to-Donnybrook and Return race is one of the classic road cycling events in WA.

In its long history, it has been described as gruelling, torturous and hazardous.

The skill of the handicappers has produced some exciting racing, and in the past attracted crowds of 3000 plus to the town.

Special trains brought hundreds of spectators from Perth and Bunbury, and supporting attractions encouraged visitors to make a weekend of it

In its early years, cyclists had to contend with unsealed roads, uncontrolled traffic and doing their own repairs during the race.

The bikes had rigid frames, no gears, and punctures were commong. and had saddles which could be most uncomfortable.

Riders had to carry spares, and make running repairs out on the road.

Added to all this was the weather; ‘Donnybrook weather’ was notorious for being very windy, very wet or both.

In 1943, the press reported that "only eight riders survived" out of a field of around 50.

Of these, five were locals, no doubt used to riding in ‘Donnybrook’ conditions.

The Donnybrook has produced many stories involving attempts to beat the handicapper by riding slow times in the races leading up to the big event.

One year, a group of backmarkers had passed some of the early starters, and decided this would be disastrous for their handicaps, so they hid in a quarry, waiting for the rest of the field to pass them.

When they turned at the finish, they were dismayed to find they were still in front - the rest of the field had pulled the same trick.

Some tried to fool the handicapper by hiding their true identity, assuming a false name.

This was the day ‘a stranger rode into town’, hoping for a good handicap by being extremely modest about his abilities when sharing a beer with the locals.

Unfortunately for him, his true identity and form were revealed before the race.

Winning the Donnybrook could be a life changer, especially during the Depression years and the early post-war years.

Not only was there the prize money, but betting on the result was fast and furious.

One to benefit from winning was 18-year-old Bill Atkinson, who used his prize money to open a bike shop which was a feature of Collie life until recently.

The race used to finish with a lap of the Recreation Ground, interrupting a football match.

Play would be suspended until every rider had finished.