Thursday, October 25, 2007

History of British Cycle Racing: Part II, The British League of Racing Cyclists

In Part I of this series, I explained how in Britain, a ban on mass start road racing that would last for fifty years or more, came about.

In 1942 during Britain’s darkest hours of WWII, a racing cyclist named Percy Stallard wrote to officials of the National Cyclists Union (NCU) and asked permission to run a massed start road race on public roads.

He pointed out that Britain’s roads were pretty much empty of traffic, due to petrol (Gasoline.) rationing, and road racing continued in certain parts of the continent of Europe, even though there was a war. His request was flatly turned down.

Percy Stallard (Right.) went ahead and organized the race anyway. He managed to obtain the cooperation of the police, and he got a newspaper from his home town to sponsor the event. He rode in the race himself, and recruited another forty riders. The 59 mile race was staged from Llangollen in Wales to Wolverhampton, Stallard's home town in the West Midlands of England.

The event was a hit with thousands of spectators, no doubt pleased to have a free sporting event in those tough wartime years. Percy Stallard and everyone who competed in the event were immediately suspended by the NCU and the RTTC. Later that year 24 people met at the Sherebrook Lodge Hotel, in Buxton, Derbyshire on Sunday, November 14, and the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC.) was formed.

From these early beginnings the BLRC grew throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. New clubs affiliated to "The League" were formed throughout Britain. Cyclists had to choose between NCU, RTTC clubs, or BLRC clubs. Membership of a BLRC club meant an automatic ban from events run by the other two.

The League promoted some pretty impressive road races, including a Brighton to Glasgow stage race, which later grew to become the "Tour of Britain" race in 1951, with a sponsorship of the "Daily Express," a leading British newspaper.

In the early years the BLRC was not sanctioned by the UCI, the governing body of world cycling; this made competing in international events difficult. However, starting in 1948 the League sent a team, (Managed by Percy Stallard.) to the Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, stage race; otherwise known as the “Peace Race.” This was behind the Iron Curtain and no doubt, the promoters of this event were pleased to have a team from a Western Nation compete.

In 1952 the Peace Race was won by the BLRC’s Scottish rider Ian Steel; the League also won the team prize. In 1955 the BLRC sent a British team to the Tour de France.

This included Brian Robinson, who won a stage, and with Tony Hoar, together they became the first two British riders to finish the Tour de France. Brian Robinson’s success paved the way for other Britons such as Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban, and later Robert Millar, Chris Boardman and David Millar.

The NCU and the BLRC would finally put aside their differences and they amalgamated in 1959 to form the British Cycling Federation, (BCF) which is the governing body of cycle racing in the UK today. The ban on mass start road racing on public roads was finally and completely lifted.

Percy Stallard never forgave the NCU, or the BCF which he saw as a reincarnation of the NCU. He was snubbed by the BCF and was never invited to manage an international team; even though he had proved himself with success of his team in the Peace Race.

He also felt that the BLRC had sold out; maybe he was right. The League was negociating from a position of strength; I am not sure if the League had UCI membership by then, but they must have had some UCI regognition to enter a team in the Tour de France. They should have gone out for full UCI membership and left the NCU to continue with their piddling little curcuit races on diss-used airfields, and private parks.

The NCU was an organization with elected officials who were supposed to be acting in the interest of cyclists, the members. The question I have is why did they continue with the unnecessary ban on open road racing, even into the 1950s when the BLRC had proved that road races could be held with full police cooperation?

Percy Stallard died in 2001; British racing cyclists have a lot to thank him for, had it not been for him and those early pioneers, there would still be no road racing in the UK, and no British riders competing on equal terms in the Tour de France and other world events.

The timing of the formation of the BLRC was perfect. They started road racing during WWII when there was very little traffic on the roads, and by the 1950s they were established and accepted. Had they waited until the 1960s as traffic increased the concept of cycle races on the open road may never have been considered.

In the final Part III of this series I will talk about my own experiences and perspective of the British road race ban.

Here are some other BLRC related sites:
Old School Cycles
Independents. Bikeracers
Viking Cycles


Anonymous said...

"Sold out"? Reminds me of the current division between cycling advocates. Instead of working together for the benefit of all cyclists, they are arguing with each other. Looking forward to part III and your insights, thanks Dave.

db said...

It seems like politics has always been a part of cycle racing. Which probably discourages a lot of folks (like me) from ever doing it.

What blows me away is the fact that one group (NCU) had the power to ban racing on roads. In a highly stratified society where some groups are given that sort of power, Mr. Stallard deserves even more credit.

And thanks for the links. That Viking site is wonderful.

Kevin Cartwright said...

This is a fantastic article series on a fantastic blog! Being a young American cyclist, I am fascinated by this detailed look at British bike history.

I greatly look forward to more articles, Dave!

P.S. Do any readers have suggestions for French cycling history resources on the web?

paul copper said...

Your History of the BLRC brings back so many memories. I live in NZ now but started my cycling racing life as a member of the League. The names the races you recall, such fabulous times even with the political lows. Thanks Dave

Paul C

Rich Gift Of Lins said...

The League Of Veteran Racing Cyclists (LVRC) still keeps the flame burning with a season long Percy Stallard series of events. I managed a silver medal in my age category last year. Competitors like Les West and Mick Ives are still very successful in their respective age groups. The BCF (now BC) have no interest in cyclists over the age of thirty and seem only interested in developing the grass roots to world class standard selection programme. The RTTC (now CTT) is still steeped in tradition, the structure promotes riding with heavy traffic on drag strip courses in order to achieve elusive personal bests and fast times for the BBAR. There is still a strange division between the tester and the roadman! There have been attempts to promote safer sporting TT events such as the Rudy Project Series, but riders still prefer to chase the fast standard distance courses. It's difficult not to get involved, I had to do my annual 20 min 10TT and a PB at 25m this year ~ both on traffic assisted courses!

Anonymous said...

Great article! Terrific stuff as usual Dave. If you take requests, I have been wondering for a while now about the history of fixed gear, oops fixed wheel road riding in the UK, both as part of time trials and hill climbs and for training. I'm sure there are lots of others out there who would appreciate a good article on this subject.

Yokota Fritz said...

Dave, I'm a little late commenting but I want to let you know that I really appreciate the history of British cycling that you're posting here. Excellent work!

Any progress on that coffee table book yet? :-)