The installation of a suspension bridge at Upokongaro, providing a further link in the Mountains to Sea/Nga Ara Tuhono cycleway, coincides with the 150th anniversary of the bicycle's first appearance in Wanganui.

"The first bicycle that has been imported into Wanganui was brought in by the Ahuriri yesterday." (Herald: September 22, 1869). "It was imported by Messrs Anderson Bros, Taupo Quay, at whose place it is now to be seen."

The new mode of transport became very popular, according to the Chronicle (December 7, 1895): "Thursday afternoon's procession of wheelmen afforded a pretty good idea that bicycling has caught on in Wanganui.

"The forty male riders who put in an appearance did not, however, exhaust the total number of devotees of the wheel in the town and district.

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"The ladies were not represented at all and there must be a full dozen who are either already proficient or are in course of training for bicycle riding," the report said.

"The turnout suggests the enquiry as to whether this new means of locomotion is likely to be permanent. We are inclined to think that it is. It will not always be fashionable, but fashion having 'boomed', it will be found too healthy and convenient and enjoyable ever to be dropped."

The Herald's account (December 5) provides more detail about the event itself, which was such a novelty that many locals turned out to watch as the participants, in strict order of social standing, began their ride. Interestingly, the route taken partly traversed that of the new cycleway.

"The procession started from the Fountain about 2.45, headed by Mr A.D. Willis, M.H.R., followed by Mr J. Goss (Club captain) and H. Henderson (vice-captain), Mr Harold Watt on a gallant ordinary bringing up the rear.

"The cyclists left the Fountain in single file as far as the Bridge, where they turned round and went up the Avenue to the St John's Club. From there they proceeded along Glasgow Street to Kennedy's (Upokongaro pub) and intend returning on the other side of the river."

Punt at Upokongaro.
Punt at Upokongaro.

By this time, as the Chronicle's report suggests, matters of propriety, health and fashion regarding the "weaker sex" had been thrashed out. Women were tentatively taking to the streets on these new-fangled machines, having overcome initial fears that cycling was unsuitable for females because leg movements and pressure placed on the pelvis by the saddle "would arouse feelings hitherto unrealised by the young maiden".

Another critic thought that arguments about whether knickerbockers were more suitable for women cyclists than skirts were of no consequence.

"What is really important," opined Mr Francisque Sarcey, "is whether cycling may not take up too large a proportion of women's time and prove destructive to the individual, the home and the state."

However this did not stop two enterprising local women from opening an agency for the sale and hire of ladies' bicycles: "Misses Statham and Rigg personally superintend the instruction of would-be cyclīstes and tell them how to ride and what to wear."

But there were concerns about safety, with reports coming in of serious accidents, along with several cases (ladies included) of cyclists being fined for "furious riding", although a new innovation promised to mitigate the injury statistics.

"Eyes at their backs for cyclists is now provided by a new invention," reported the Herald (July 7, 1896). "A mirror fixed on the handle-bar enables the rider to see behind him."

And according to the Chronicle the craze gave rise to a disturbing new form of law-breaking: "A number of leading residents including a doctor, a bank manager and the editor of one of the local papers have been fined in the Magistrate's Court for riding their bicycles on the footpath."

At least riders of today will be able to cross the Whanganui River with ease, rather than braving the Upokongaro ferry punt used by our hardy trail-blazers of 1895.