As a young woman, Billie Samuel moved from Sydney to Melbourne, where she found a job in the cafe at the Argus newspaper office on La Trobe Street in the centre of the city. Finding her daily commute long and inconvenient, she decided to teach herself to ride a bike. One day at work, some of her colleagues offered the opinion that women could never succeed in endurance sports such as long-distance cycling. Billie contended that a woman had as much endurance as a man – no matter her stature (Billie herself was only 4 feet 11 inches tall). To prove her colleagues wrong, she resolved to become the first woman to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney – a distance of over 870 kilometres.
Billie’s story captured the attention of media across Australia, taken by the courage of this diminutive young woman who was a novice in the sport. She departed from the General Post Office in Melbourne on the morning of Tuesday 22 May 1934, riding a Malvern Star bicycle fitted with a three-speed Cyclo gear to help with the steep hills. Strapped to her handlebars was a stuffed toy koala, her only companion for the journey. To track her time she carried a logbook that would be checked at the post office of each town she passed through.
Billie set off at a cracking pace, hoping to make the trip in just three and a half days. She even rode through the night, only stopping to sleep by the roadside if it became too dark to see. When she began to tire, she simply said to herself, ‘I must do it, I must do it’, over and over. With epic endurance and determination, she arrived in Sydney in just three days, 17 hours and two minutes, having slept only 13 hours along the way. She was met by her father, who placed a laurel wreath – a symbol of triumph – around her neck. Billie told waiting reporters that she was ‘happy to have completed the long journey … All I want now is a warm bath, a good meal, and then bed!’ When someone suggested that she must be exhausted by the journey, she responded, ‘I’ll do it again if anyone thinks my spirit is shaken!’
And, quite incredibly, she did! After a few weeks spent recuperating in Sydney, Billie decided to cycle back to Melbourne. The journey from Sydney to Melbourne had already been cycled, by 20-year-old Elsa Barbour, an experienced Melbourne cyclist, with an official time of three days, seven hours and 42 minutes. Billie was determined to beat this record.
Billie set off from Sydney’s General Post Office on Wednesday 4 July. The return leg proved more perilous – heavy rain and strong winds made the road slippery, and she suffered a heavy fall, hurting her hip. She also strained a tendon, and was slowed by a tyre puncture. At one stage, the road was covered in mud, and she was forced to carry her bike through the ankle-deep slush. The record seemed unattainable, yet she pushed on. Somehow, she reached Melbourne in three days, one hour and 25 minutes – slashing more than six hours off the record. Overwhelmed by the cheering crowd of 3000 wellwishers who were waiting for her, Billie burst into tears. ‘One of the pluckiest and most astonishing rides I have ever seen’, commented one cycling official.
The morning after her record-breaking ride, Billie was interviewed at her flat in Brunswick, wearing her pyjamas and dressing-gown. She’d already taken her bike for a ride around the backyard, just to see how she felt, and reported not being the slightest bit stiff. This young woman with soft blue eyes and a kindly face had, in her unassuming way, inspired numerous young girls to believe in themselves and to challenge assumptions about the abilities of women in sport.