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« History of British Cycle Racing: Part II, The British League of Racing Cyclists | Main | Cyclists: The Redheaded Stepchild »

History of British Cycle Racing: Part I, The Ban

My previous post mentioned the ban on bicycle road racing in the UK that existed from the late 1800s until the 1950s.

This is Part I of a three part series going into details of the situation.

Some of it is my own opinion based on first hand experience of coming into the sport in the early 1950s while the ban was still very much in place.

The rest is factual knowledge that I have gathered from various sources, and most of these are linked.

Cycle racing was banned on the public highways in Great Britain in 1890. What was peculiar about this ban was that it was not by the government or any law passed, but by the governing body of cycling in the UK, the National Cyclists Union. (NCU)

Even stranger was the fact that this ban would last until the 1950s, while the rest of Europe had always had road racing on its open roads, France had the Tour de France, and Italy its Giro d'Italia, Britain had nothing to compare.

To understand the mindset in which this ban came about, one has to understand the class system that existed in the British Isles at the turn of the nineteenth century. The upper classes, the wealthy, were the ruling class; they pretty much decided what the laws of the land would be.

By the 1890s the bicycle had become the transportation of the working classes, and cycle racing their sport. The bicycle had freed the working man, and he was able for the first time venture outside the city and explore the surrounding countryside.

The rural areas had always been, throughout history, the domain of Dukes, Earls, gentleman farmers, and other people of substantial wealth; in other words the upper class.

These people did not take kindly to a bunch of riff-raff working class people invading their space, and nothing will disrupt a quiet Sunday morning drive to church, like a bike race on country roads. It was not long before the police were out in force, bicycle races were constantly interrupted and cyclists harassed.

The NCU brought about the ban on road racing out of fear that cycling would be banned altogether. I can understand that the threat was very real at that time; no doubt officials of the NCU had been told so by the police or some government official.

The only racing allowed would be track racing on banked velodromes. This limited racing to the fortunate few who happened to live near a track, and even so not everyone is suited to track racing, many are long distance endurance athletes. In later years, the NCU would allow mass start circuit races in private parks.

In 1895 Frederick Thomas Bidlake, a racing cyclist, thought of a way to hold races on the open road without riders drawing attention to themselves, and thus avoiding police harassment. Riders would start at one minute intervals, and be timed over a set course; there would be no racing against each other, the winner would be the rider with the fastest time.

This was the beginning of the Road Racing Council that would later be known as the Road Time Trials Council; (RTTC.) at first banned by the NCU, but later cycling clubs would be allowed to affiliate to both the NCU and the RTTC.

The RTTC was run like a secret society even until the 1960s. Events were not publicized, so few spectators, and events started at daybreak when very few people were around.

Initially riders would dress in black from the neck to toe; black alpaca jacket, and black tights, no doubt to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and also not to offend public decency. (See picture at the top.)

When I started riding time trials in the 1950s, black shorts were allowed, and they did not insist on a black jersey, but a really bright, colorful jersey would result in the wearer not being allowed to start.

No numbers were worn by riders; we would call out our race number to marshals on the course, and to the timekeeper at the finish. I would enter an event and my start sheet would arrive in the mail marked "Private and Confidential."

What I cannot understand is why the NCU continued with this ban for so long. By the 1930s just about every working man owned a bicycle; it was the way he got to work each day. The bicycle manufacturing industry was a huge part of Britain’s economy; there was no way the government could, or would bring about a total ban on cycling.

In addition, why did the RTTC continue with its clandestine operation for so long? Did they really think for 60 years the police didn’t know what was going on? There were many police officers who were racing cyclists themselves and rode time trials.

British time trialing is in many ways a good thing; it is a sport that anyone can compete in at any level, and at any age from Junior to Veteran. There are many events that a person can compete most weekends throughout the spring and summer months, all within reasonable traveling distance. However, it is not conducive to producing racing cyclists who can compete at international level.

Today the RTTC encourages bright clothing in the interest of safety; but, I cannot understand why an organization with over a hundred years of history, has a website with records that only go back a few years, and no galleries of old photos, and history, etc. Maybe present day officials of the RTTC would rather forget the past.

In Part II, I write about a small group of British racing cyclists, and one man in particular, who brought about a change in the sport that eventually led to the ban being lifted.

Reader Comments (13)

This looks like the start of a very interesting series of articles.

But one thing caught my eye that I found almost as interesting.

What was the thinking behind that extra curve in the lower part of the forks?
October 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Marrock
I knew someone would ask that. That is a Bates frame and that style of fork was their trademark.

When you saw one in a photo like this one you knew it was a Bates frame. The Hetchins curly stays was done for the same reason.

Frame builders could not advertise that a top rider was riding on their frame, but a distinctive feature like this one did just that.
October 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
Ah, thanks for the information.

It wasn't what I expected either.

I was thinking smoothing the ride or somehow it effected aerodynamics or something, I know some wacky things were tried over the years.

Another thing that strikes me is the imperialistic attitude you get from motor vehicle drivers today and how it compares to the thinking that helped get road racing banned back then... not a whole lot has changed it seems.
October 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Marrock
Fascinating! Thanks for posting.

Gene in Tacoma
October 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Great article. Looking forward to the rest!
October 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter db
Thanks for this article. As a UK timetriallist it is interesting to know how some of the quirks of the sport have arisen
November 25, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Tejvan Pettinger

Back in the 1950's I was a member of a BLRC (British League of Racing Cyclists) Club. We organised road races on the open road and offered to organise a race in association with a local carnival. They were delighted until another (NCU) club approached them and offered to organise the race instead. Later the NCU club told the carnival organisers "We cannot tell you the date of the race or who will be competing in it. We also cannot tell you the course of the race. Needless to say they came back to the BLRC club and our race was a great success.

April 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbikedunc

Great article !!! Looking forward to know more about British racing cyclists !!!

progressive cycle coaching

I think the CTT Web site is created and run by volunteers on a very limited budget - hence the lack of a historical perspective. These articles will certainly help spread the story. Looking forward to the next one.

July 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLance Woodman

Argh! Just noticed that it's a 2007 posting. A great series of articles.

July 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLance Woodman

Wonderful page , You've hit the
nail on the head, I just don't think that people quite get it.
I don't know how many people I've talked to about this very
thing in the past week, and they just can't get it.

Now I won't have to battle aimlessly for hours with people about it, I'll just have to send them copy of
to your page.

Never the less, Excellent post!

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristy Johnson

Just wondered if anyone remembers my dad John (Jonny) Welch, who I believe was in on the ground floor of the BLRC??

August 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNick Robinson

Dave, your knowledge of history is greatly appreciated. I'm an officer of Space Coast Velo Sport , club in Florida. I initiated a 'sister club' relationship with Blarney Cycling Club( founded 1890's), in County Cork and we correspond regularly. I've asked them abput the UK ban on road racing and expect a response shortly. Thanks for your insight. My great grandfather raced bikes in County Cork around 1900.

October 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRob Downey
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