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The British Club Run

The British Cycling Club Run is a tradition that probably started around the 1920s; a group ride that would usually take place every Sunday throughout the year. There would be a set time and place to meet, and participants would just simply show up.

Cycling clubs all over the British Isles would hold club runs. Don’t ask me why it was called a club “run” when everyone rode bikes; it is just one of those peculiar Briticisms.

Some would be all day events covering up to 100 miles, sometimes more. Others would be a shorter afternoon ride that would usually end at a country pub somewhere, followed by a ride home in the evening.

The shorter, more leisurely Sunday afternoon ride was popular through the summer months, because many riders had ridden a time-trial in the morning. In addition, the summer evenings in the UK are long and it doesn’t get dark until 10 pm.

The picture above from the mid 1970s shows me (Third rider from left.) on a club run with The Worcester St. Johns Cycling Club. It is mid-winter as you can see by the way we are dressed.

The Worcester club is one of the oldest in the UK, it was founded in 1888, the year John Boyd Dunlop invented his pneumatic tire. Early photos from the St. Johns club show a mix of the high wheeler “Ordinary” and the new fangled “Safety” bicycles in use at the same time.

Participants in club runs always rode, two by two, in an orderly fashion. The great thing was no one had to be instructed to do this, it was such a long-standing tradition, that newcomers would automatically see what everyone else was doing and follow suit.

Often the club run would operate like a pace line; two riders would ride on the front for a mile or so, then the inside line would drop back, the front outside rider would move to the inside, and the next rider would move up to the front.

It was a social event as much as anything; you would chat with the person next to you as you rode. With a pace line going, you got to talk with a different person every mile. In a group of twenty riders, you would only hit the front for two miles in every twenty, so some pretty fair average speeds could be maintained.

The club run was one of the reasons for the popularity of fixed gear riding in the UK continuing through the early 1950s. A fixed gear made it easier to control the bike while riding at close quarters. Most people rode around 65 or 69 inch gear. (48 T chainwheel with a 19 or 20 T sprocket.) which kept everyone at the same level.

A gear like this made it possible to maintain a steady pace, and at the same time climb some pretty steep hills. In 1933 Sturmey-Archer came out with a 2-speed fixed hub gear. (Above) The high gear was direct drive and the low gear was a 25% reduction. Later there was a 3-speed Sturmey-Archer fixed hub gear which remained popular with club riders through the 1950s. I believe it was discontinued around 1959.

By the mid 1950s, most riders used derailleur gears, but often switched to a single speed fixed gear for winter riding. Offering less maintenance and more control on wet or icy roads.

It has been almost 29 years since I left the England for the US; I am not sure if the Sunday club run tradition continues. I would be interested to hear from readers in the UK.

Reader Comments (18)

Our club has a healthy club run scene, up to 3 groups dependant on ability and a cafe stop. It's not as popular as it was 20 years ago though. Now it is me that has to tell the newcomers to slow down because it is still the social season. I always used to be getting in trouble for "half-wheeling"!
November 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Colin Griffiths
Still plenty of club runs in NW London (Kenton RC, Willsesden CC etc.). Similar 'rules' to the ones you mention. Is that Paul Finch riding next to you in the WSJ photo?
November 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter lancewrite
It is great to see I have a good UK following, and that club runs continue.

Yes that is Paul Finch and he was riding one of my frames in the piture.
November 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
Rumor has it that the new owners of Sturmey-Archer are considering a production run of a 3-speed, fixed gear hub, similar to the model ASC that you mentioned in this post. Let's hope they do!
November 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
My club here in the states has a similar type of weekly ride, usually with some sort of name, and with unspoken (though sometimes spoken) rules about double pacelines and speed. The main differences seem to be that there is a leader with our rides, and they tend not to be year 'round. Some are only winter, some only in nice weather. Maybe I will try to start the club run tradition.

What happens if it's raining? Do club members call each other?

Also, Dave, what are you all wearing? Looks like wool tights and knee socks - probably about 5 sheep had to get shaved for the wool in that photo alone!
November 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Rags
Great photo. That's what it's all about: goin' for a ride with the crew. It doesn't get any better than that.
November 20, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Tim
"What happens if it's raining? Do club members call each other?"

Back when I rode with a club in the UK in the 1950s, few people had phones. Besides, if club runs were cancelled due to rain, there would not have been too many of them. A rain cape and fenders were standard equipment.
November 20, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter johnb
Speaking from an Israeli point we have Sabbath on a Saturday so our Sunday "run" moves a day earlier. Lovely open empty roads. Thanks for yet another interesting article
November 20, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Hilton Meyer
I'm runs secretary for our local CTC section(Cheam & Morden)and I go out every Sunday with 11's,lunch and tea
very much part of the itinery(CTC-cafe to cafe!!!!).
November 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Tartan Socks(long)
It is how I began cycling 15 years ago - with Otley CC. All day cycling up the Yorkshire Dales, 3 tea stops. - Very civilised.

Such a shame club runs are more difficult with the ever increasing traffic volumes.

I would happily swap my 18 speed lightweight bike for a fixed speed, just to be able to ride on quiet roads
November 25, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Tejvan Pettinger
Hi Dave
Only recently found your blog - very useful and thought provoking indeed.

The Club Run - this was the staple when I started riding at 14, back in 1964. It was still going when my new RAF career forced me out of racing in 1973 and hence, due to monumental stupidity, out of cycling for around 30 years.

I started in Hull, up in Yorkshire, from 1964 to 1970, then a couple of part seasons in '72 and '73, in Licolnshire and Somerset. The club run was much as you described, though our front pair would go to single file and let the rest go past two abreast, then tuck in at the back.

Being as Hull had five active racing clubs, all town and village signs were hotly contested. I still recall one tear-up for the Hull boundary sign with a guy on a fully laden camping bike mixing it with the rest!

Nowadays, I live just outside DC, after a degree of excitement and some wandering, and am back riding, though just for fun. By one of life's ironies, the touring club I ride with is forever bemoaning the lack of spirit of what we knew as clubruns!

Notwithstanding that riding two abreast on roads around DC qualifies as suicidal mostly...


December 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Dereck

Since coming to Canada I really miss the UK club run, which as Dave says was a nice orderly outing, if riders got dropped the group would slow down until they caught up, you needed a good ride captain for that.

All the club runs I've done in and around Toronto, including the infamous "Donut Ride" are out and out hammers, no mercy given, no waiting for stragglers. I have seen promising young riders give up the sport because of this attitude, no encouragement given to younger riders, it's survival of the fittest. What we need over here are good ride captains who will instill a bit of order in the group. Unfortunately at 61 years old I'm no longer fast enough to fulfill that role. But yes, I really do miss the old UK when it comes to an active club scene.

I still ride fixed gear in the spring and fall on my old Reg Harris track bike that I've had since 1962, but now I use 44x18, so I'm looking forward to the SunRace ASC 3 speed fixed hub!

Brian Booth
ex Manchester Wheelers

June 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Booth

When I was 12 (in 1972), I won 25 pounds on the Premium Bonds (a kind of early state-run lottery). I really wanted a 'racing bike (i.e. a 5- or even 10-speed derailleur gear bike). But my mother thought these dangerously speedy, and made me buy a green Raleigh 'sit up and beg', with a 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hub gear. So they didn't stop making these in 1959, I can assure you. I didn't get to buy a 'proper' racer until I was 14 and had earned my own money in a holiday job.

July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

The British Club Run started well before the 1920s. At least as long ago as 1897 in fact.

October 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Taylor

You forgot to mention the tea stop! Almost always at a garden center.

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYankindaUK

I was introduced to the club run while stationed in Newbury in 1957, and it was one of the best experiences in my life. I was rotated back to the states after only a few months of the season, but brought back an Elswick Lincoln Imp, which I still ride on occasion. It was many years years before I was able to find any cycling club around here, much less one with an orientation more towards social riding. For the last several years I've been a ride captain with the Jersey Sore Touring Society, and usually lead "C" pace rides (12-14 mph). At age 78, and a survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, its the best I can do! I ride an average of about 60 miles a week, having logged 3100 miles in 2012. I have several vintage bikes, and ride whichever is appropriate for the ride, using fixed gear, friction shift or indexed shifting equally, to the amazement of some of my fellow club members, and am known for my ability to keep a steady pace.
I just discovered your blog this morning, and enjoy the articles and comments, and look forward to reading more. By the way, I still communcate with the Newbury Road Club after all these years, and sometimes contribute articles to their magazine.

Best regards

Pete Benton
Brick NJ USA

January 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPete Benton

Dave, I remember you and my father (John Horton) in the UK doing the Sunday club run most weekends, covering 100 miles! As a female cyclist and a teenager, I could not even dream of covering those kind of miles.

September 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaire T

Thanks for post. these were my reminiscences of the traditional club run from the early 1990s. Traditional club run

October 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTejvan
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