Monday, October 29, 2007

History of British Cycle Racing: Part III. The Ban from my Perspective

That’s me, bottom right in the picture above, proudly wearing a British League of Racing Cyclists badge on my blazer. I was 18 years old and a guest at a local cycling club dinner and prize giving. This was my first season as a League member, before that I had experienced the other side of British cycling, and the road race ban.

I started cycling seriously in 1951 at age 15; I lived in Luton an industrial town some thirty miles north of London. I joined a local cycling club called the Luton Arrow, they were affiliated to the NCU and RTTC; I was not able to race until I was 16.

When I started racing the only events open to me were time trials; there was no velodrome nearby, and no circuit races either. My heroes of the day were the Tour de France riders, and I dreamed in the naiveté of my youth of one day being one of them. However, this was never going to happen on a training regimen of British time trials.

The BLRC was somewhat of a mystery to me; "Cycling" magazine, the main publication of the sport in the UK was very anti BLRC and published nothing about them or their events. The nearest League club was in the next town, and it was made clear that if I had anything to do with them I would be suspended from my present club.

My first season racing was all time trials; I had some success and at age 16 even beat local riders much older than myself. I realized if I was to advance I had to ride mass start events, and the following year at age 17 I entered the NCU sanctioned National Junior Mass Start Championship. It was held on an old WWII airfield at Church Lawford, near Rugby, in Warickshire.

I had to catch a train there, and then ride my bike to the event. There were 150 riders from all over the UK; most of them totally inexperienced at riding in a bunch like me. I was immediately amazed by the speed, I was riding faster than I had ever ridden in my life before. Of course the best riders were the ones who lived close to the course and rode it every week end.

We were riding on the old runways of the airfield; the surface was full of pot holes and grass growing in the cracks. There were glass domed landing lights along the edge each runway, 24 inch diameter, raised up 6 inches. If you found yourself on the inside of the pack you were forced onto these.

As we turned onto another runway the glass domes went across the intersection, and were hard to see in the middle of a 150 rider field. Needless to say there were numerous crashes; I was lucky enough not to fall, but was forced to stop behind a huge pile up and spent the rest of the race in a small group chasing the main pack.

I rode the train back home that day disgusted with myself and my performance. Looking back now, I realize I could not have expected to do any better. I had entered a National Championship Race with no prior experience of riding in this type of event on this type of course.

How was I to gain experience? My parents didn’t own a car, and it was not practical to catch a train to ride 80 miles to Church Lawford every weekend. So I returned to time trialing for the rest of the season.

The following year I was 18 and now classed as a senior rider. I started riding with two local racing cyclists who were in their mid twenties, good riders, and both had recently finished serving in the Royal Air Force. They were both former BLRC members.

They asked me if I would be interested in joining them as a three-man team and race in League events; one of them had a van, so traveling to races would not be a problem. We formed a new club called the “Luton Racing Club.” We recruited another two non-racing members as we needed a minimum of five members to form a club.

I discovered what real road racing was all about. League races back in the 1950s were long usually 100 miles or more, often as much as 150 miles. My two years spent riding long distance time trials was not entirely wasted; it gave me a lot of stamina.

I was never good at short distances, and I was not a sprinter, but I could climb hills, and road races were always over hilly terrain. Whereas, time trials where always run on the flattest course possible. I eventually reached category one status, but never achieved any international or professional success. I realize to reach the top as an athlete; one needs not only dedication, but also the right physical attributes and gene structure. The rest of us do the best we can with what we have.

There was camaraderie and an unwritten code of ethics among League riders, that carried on in later years after the BLRC and the NCU became the British Cycling Federation. Riding on the open road with normal traffic, we all looked out for each other. A parked car by the roadside, or an approaching vehicle, and the riders at the front would call out a warning, which was passed down through the bunch.

On occasions I have unshipped my chain while shifting gear, and two riders one either side would grab my jersey and push me along while I reached down and replaced the chain. These were complete strangers to me, and I have done the same for other riders. I would hate to see someone out of a race because of something as simple as a chain coming off.

In English road races there was always a lot of banter, conversation, and joking going on during a race. Of course, this would decrease when the pace got fast and serious, but it was always there. I missed that in the few races I rode when I first came to the US. Moreover, criteriums reminded me of the old NCU circuit races back in the early 1950s. Fast and furious, and a lot of crashes.

The BLRC always put a lot of work into publicizing events. The “Tour of Britain” race in the early 1950s was sponsored by a national newspaper and the daily coverage it received brought out spectators in their thousands. It was a tremendous boost for the sport of cycle racing.

After the merger in 1959 and the formation of the BCF, I noticed there was gradually less seeking of publicity for races, and the only spectators at events were local cyclists. Cycle racing in Britain had gone back to being a "Cinderella" sport.

To sum up the British road race ban, and why it went on for so long? People don’t like change; if a system appears to be working, unless there is a huge number of people against it, things tend to stay the same.

Back in the day, there was not the information network that we have now. With “Cycling,” a weekly magazine being the only source of information about the sport, and with that publication being pro NCU and RTTC, I really did not know what was going on at the top of these organizations. I don’t suppose other cyclists of that era knew either.

Officials of individual cycling clubs were pretty much of the same mindset as those running the NCU and RTTC. These were the delegates who went to the annual general meetings and voted the top officials back in each year.

It is easier to do nothing than to invoke change. Those who see that a change is needed, are often outnumbered and give up in frustration because of stonewalling by the other side that would rather remain with the status quo.

This is the last of a three part series of articles. Here is a link to Part I and Part II.


Anonymous said...

Stonewalling, going with the flow, lazy people, irresponsible media, etc. all contribute to making change difficult. Auto-dependency is still increasing and bikes are still too often characterized as toys instead of solutions. No doubt that the system isn't working but addiction is difficult to address, particularly when it is not acknowledged. I hope you're right in concluding that the abuse will just "last a little longer".

Anonymous said...

"I have a UK blogger friend who is adamant regarding NO helmet use while citing dated results from a two-decades old rider safety study."
Why the commentary, this individual blames helmet wear on diminished bicycling popularity within the UK.
Any thoughts?

db said...

What an interesting history the UK has with road racing. You might have another book on your hands.

Dano said...

Very entertaining! Good reading

Anonymous said...

my thoughts exactly!,a BOOK!,great stories,how exacting it must have been right sqaure in the middle of this!,love the ol'school stories.UNCLE DAVE please tell us another storie before bed time..:>)...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting reading. I had no idea that the UK had a ban on road racing.