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Rule Britannia

From issue 14 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Hprton Collection

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A personal journey through Britain’s roller-coaster cycling history

In the austerity years before World War II, my parents courted on a tandem, just like the couple in that evergreen love song: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do/ I’m half crazy all for the love of you/It won’t be a stylish marriage/I can’t afford a carriage/But you’ll look sweet upon the seat/Of a bicycle made for two.”

My Mum’s name was Dorothy, not Daisy, but she did look sweet on the back of her bridegroom’s tandem after their Saturday morning wedding in the backyard of her parents’ home in Surrey, England. She changed from a long white wedding dress and veil into brown shorts and white blouse to ride 100 miles on the tandem that first day of their honeymoon.

There weren’t many cars on the English roads back then. My parents never owned or drove a car, and though they were working class (Dad was a gardener, Mum a maid at a small manor house) they had a strong social life with the East Surrey section of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. And after the war—during which Dad helped build bombers in an aircraft factory and Mum had three babies—a racing branch was added to the touring club and resulted in the founding of the Redhill Cycling Club.

As I was growing up, Dad raced in Sunday morning time trials all over southern England. He rode his bike to every event, carrying his racing wheels attached to short metal bars fixed to the front forks. He competed at all distances, from 25 miles to 24 hours. My brother and I were more interested in playing cricket and football, but our mother would sometimes take us to see Dad race on the local time-trial course near Gatwick Airport, which was then a little-used airfield. We also went by train to South London’s Herne Hill velodrome to see the Good Friday track meets.

That’s where on a typically damp, gray March afternoon I saw my first real bike racing, with Britain’s multi-time world sprint champion Reg Harris competing against his Dutch rivals Jan Derksen and Arie Van Vliet, along with the elegant Oscar Plattner of Switzerland and flashy Antonio Maspes of Italy. At the time, Harris was the only cycling star in the British Isles, and a household name like Sir Chris Hoy is today. We marveled at Harris’s amazing thigh muscles—and the tan he picked up at his pre-season road-training camp in the South of France!

One regret I have is not attending the famous Coppi Meet at Herne Hill in September 1958—that’s because football season had started and my brother and I attended every game of our local team. But that’s another story. What we missed at Herne Hill that day was joining thousands of bike racing fans, most of whom rode their bikes to the velodrome, to see an Italian quartet headed by the legendary Fausto Coppi race against a team made up of pioneering English road pro Brian Robinson (who’d later win two stages of the Tour de France), Irish road pro Shay Elliott (who’d wear the yellow jersey), and Aussie six-day trackmen Reg Arnold and John Tresidder. Coppi was near the end of his career and would die tragically from malaria less than two years after that London appearance.

My brother and I may have missed the Coppi Meet, but a couple of months before that we experienced one of the more outstanding weeks of our teenage years. With Dave riding his own bike and me on the back of the sturdy family tandem, riding stoker for Dad, we cycled from our home in southeast England to Wales to attend the British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. It was my first long bike trip—wearing leather sandals with crepe rubber soles! My dad provided most of the horsepower, while I had the luxury of taking in the beautiful views across rural England on our 160-mile, two-day ride that included crossing the Severn Estuary on a small ferry—another first in my life.

We camped by a river right outside the velodrome, where we had tickets for the track cycling. The highlight was the final of the 4,000-meter individual pursuit between two Englishmen, the 1955 world champion Norman Sheil and his 20-year-old teammate, Tom Simpson. On the slow concrete track, they fought a fierce battle that ended with Sheil edging Simpson by a second. Within a year, the ambitious young Simpson was racing on the road in France and quickly became Britain’s greatest European-based pro.

Simpson didn’t ride in the Cardiff road race, where we saw England’s all-conquering time-trial champion Ray Booty, the first man to break four hours for a 100-mile RR (cycling’s equivalent of the four-minute mile) ride away from the Empire Games field to win the 120-mile race by almost three minutes. That was a big thrill for my dad, who managed to fit in one of his early-morning time trials that week. My strongest memories of the week came in track and field, watching Milkha Singh, an Indian Sikh running in a turban, take gold over 440 yards (400 meters), and then seeing Australian distance runner Dave Power win the marathon.

Through my later high school years, I imagined being Power in cross-country running, and in football I started out as a forward and ended up playing in goal for the school team, though cricket was my favorite sport. I may have grown up in a cycling household, but I was far more interested in those other sports. And despite the fame of Reg Harris, cycling remained a minor sport in mainstream Britain. I didn’t even own a bike—and so when some classmates asked me to join them on a 100-mile ride to the coast and back, I borrowed Dad’s “second” bike from the shed. I suffered a severe case of the bonk and later discovered from my not-too-pleased father that I shouldn’t have used the bike because the front wheel needed a repair: ball bearings were missing from the front hub!

The only real cycling I did in my teenage years was riding a heavy, balloon-tire delivery bike on Saturdays, taking boxes of groceries along country lanes and farm tracks to houses outside my village. But I got to know quite a bit more about the sport from my dad after he joined the Veterans Time Trial Association (for over-40s) and he became the organization’s national recorder. The unpaid job entailed assembling the results of every VTTA event in the country and working out the standings in its annual best all-rounder competition, based on riders’ fastest performances over 25, 50 and 100 miles, and 12 hours. We didn’t have calculators back then, so I helped my dad do the various computations by hand, in between doing my math and science homework.

Time trialing was the only form of racing on the roads of Britain for the first half of the 20th century because cycling officials in Victorian times feared that all facets of the sport (other than track) would be banned by the authorities after there were public protests against “furious riding” in mass-start races that endangered travelers in horse-drawn carriages. As a result, English time trials are still held at daybreak to avoid as much conflict with road traffic and to uphold the sport’s “private and confidential” philosophy.

Those Victorian-era attitudes toward bike racing greatly hindered the development of British cycling, particularly at the international level. In the late-1930s the sport’s governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union, decided to allow some massed-start races, but only on motor-racing circuits and the runways of airfields. Then, in June 1942, a group of cyclists who’d seen the popularity of cycling on the Continent decided to hold a European-style road race. It was wartime and so there was almost no traffic, which helped the group get police approval for a 59-mile point-to-point race from Wolverhampton in the English Midlands to Llangollen in North Wales. The NCU threatened to ban all the riders in the “new” style of racing, and so they formed a “rebel” organization, called the British League of Racing Cyclists.

English-style time trialing remained at the heart of the sport however. This branch of cycling was developed by the Road Time Trials Council, which oversaw a season-long series of events on approved, precisely measured courses over the various set distances, from 10 to 100 miles, along with the 12- and 24-hour events. For record purposes, and to allow every rider to compare his or her personal bests at each distance, all the events were “out and back,” meaning that the finish had to be close to the start to minimize the effect of favorable winds or downhill gradients.

Besides shooting for personal bests over each distance, a rider has a handicap, much like a golfer, based on his or her previous year’s best performance. As a result, there are prizes for the fastest times, the handicap-adjusted times, and (in the veterans’ events) the best time compared with each rider’s age standard.

I wasn’t interested enough in cycling to switch sports. But then my dad died suddenly, and my brother and I began riding his racing bikes. In the summer, we took weeklong cycle tours all over England, Wales and Scotland. My brother still preferred cricket, but I stuck with cycling. I became a member of Dad’s old club, the Redhill CC, where I soon got hooked on the Sunday club runs. These take place in the autumn and winter, when perhaps a dozen club members would ride pretty hard on scenic routes, always stopping for lunch at a roadside café or pub. That’s where, like most British cyclists today, I got my grounding in the sport before trying out racing.

A first step was usually a club time trial, held on a midweek evening, and restricted to riders from your own club. My first racing venture however was a criterium around an industrial estate in Crawley, Surrey. I got lapped. Then I did one of the club 25-mile time trials on the same Gatwick course where I’d seen my dad compete. I ended up with close to the slowest time after going off-course (no marshals or arrows!).

That was my inauspicious introduction to competitive cycling, but I was more encouraged by a couple of hill climbs I rode at the end of that year. Hill climbs are uniquely British, including the oldest one, first held in 1886, the Catford Hill Climb, which I competed in a couple of times. These are individual time trials and you normally ride a fixed gear of about 42×21 because most hill climbs are shorter than half a mile, but very steep, between 15- and 20-percent grade. On finishing one of these, up a mile-long hill called Horseblock Hollow, I put myself in the red so bad that I threw up and collapsed on the road.

I was under no illusion how tough cycling was going to be, but I didn’t get a chance to train much as I started racing when I was already doing a degree course at the University of London. I was keen to learn as much I could about the sport, and so I attended some weekend training courses and rode out of London to see a major amateur race, then organized the club that Brad Wiggins ultimately joined when he was a teenager. Not surprisingly, without a training base, I had a hard time even finishing road races, so I did the occasional time trial to retain my need for racing.

Over time I got to appreciate the strong British club scene. The sport was still almost 100-percent amateur back then, but the clubs have given strength to British cycling, as any of the current top pros like Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Wiggins will attest.

Even though Britain had only outdoor velodromes, it did produce a few world-class riders such as Harris, Sheil and Simpson. And we even did grass track raving on 400-meter-long ovals marked out around a fairly smooth English cricket ground. There were no bankings so you had to be a good bike-handler to stay upright going fast around the turns—it didn’t take much to slide out on slick grass!

In my second year of racing, I used holiday breaks to ride some short stage races; and on one occasion I combined a weeklong cycle tour with watching the Tour of Britain Milk Race, then the country’s major event. One day, I watched the peloton climbing Cheddar Gorge, a famed hill in southwest England, and then got on my bike to take a shortcut to the finish in Weston-super-Mare. When I rode down the finish straightaway, some 15 minutes before the Milk Race field arrived, I was announced by the speakers who’d seen me earlier out on the road. (One of the race announcers was David Saunders, whose TV commentary job was inherited by Phil Liggett after Saunders died in a one-vehicle road accident in 1978).

A month or so after my Milk Race moment, I ventured to watch the Tour de France for the first time. I rode 200 kilometers a day on a bike weighed down with a saddlebag containing a tent, spare clothing, maps and tools, and climbed mountain passes such as the Tourmalet in the Pyrénées and Glandon in the Alps. That trip ended in eastern Switzerland, where I worked a summer job and “bagged” a dozen major cols in the Swiss Alps.

It was in the spring after that trip that I began winning road races back in England, and so I decided to spend a couple of summers trying my chance with racing on a French team in Brittany. I was blindly hoping that I could repeat what Simpson had done when he went to race in that same part of France before turning pro. By the time I went there, Simpson had won a couple of classics and would go on to take his world title, and I was again following the Tour by bike on the day he died on Mont Ventoux.

My story is typical of dozens of British amateur racers who aspire to becoming Tour de France riders—but most of them, like me, didn’t have the natural ability or the degree of training needed to reach such an elite level. Since those days, cycling in Britain has grown enormously. The national federation, British Cycling, unlike its predecessor, the NCU, created every opportunity for young riders to progress to the top. It built the sport using the most scientific and sophisticated preparation methods and kept the inherently strong club system. In the 1990s, British Cycling started to get funding from the national lottery, which enabled the development of its now brilliant national team system on both road and track. And by the early part of the 21st century the sport shook off his Victorian past and set about winning Olympic gold medals, rainbow jerseys and, ultimately, the Tour de France. It’s been quite a journey!

From issue 14. Buy it here.