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Wednesday
Jul232008

Off to the Races

Up until the mid 1960s many cyclists in England did not own a car; to get to a race they had to ride their bike. Just like the cyclist in the picture above, sprint rims and tubular tires (Sprints and Tubs.) were too expensive for everyday use, and were reserved for racing only.

Training and commuting to work were done on HP tires. (Clinchers.) The racing wheels were carried on two wheel carriers attached to the front wheel axel; the wheels then fastened to the handlebars with a pair of toe straps. These wheels and tires were only used for the duration of the event.

Time-trials always took place at the crack of dawn, so it was usually dark when the cyclist left home; the rider above has a battery lamp clipped to his handlebars. Also note the bike has mudguards and a rear luggage rack; these would be removed before the race, and re-fitted after for the ride home. Below is another innovative way to get to an event.


The pictures are from the Bernard Thompson collection. Bernard, who died in recent years, was a freelance cycling photographer whose pictures appeared in Cycling Magazine, from the 1950s through the 1980s. More great photos can be seen on CyclingInfo.co.uk/blog.

Bernard Thompson probably made most of his income selling prints to non-famous club riders. There would be 120 riders in most open time-trials; his strategy was to stand at a point where riders slowed to do a u-turn in the road and had to call out their race number to an event marshal.

He took a picture, noted the rider's race number, and then got the rider's names and addresses from the race organizer. Sending out a mass-mailing, he probably sold close to 120 prints every weekend. It was special for a regular club rider to get a nice picture by a professional photographer.

The picture above is of me riding in the National Championship 12 Hour Time-Trial in 1953. You won't find it in this collection, but it is a Bernard Thompson photograph. It is one of the many thousands taken by him over the years.
I remember Bernard Thompson taking that picture as clear as if it were yesterday. I was about an hour into the event and this was the first turn. (On the Great North Road somewhere near Biggleswade, I think.) I was out of the saddle picking up speed again when I saw him take the shot.
Right after he took it, I nodded and gave him a little smile. I had no idea who he was, so I was thrilled the following week when I got a note in the mail from Bernard Thompson, the famous “Cycling” photographer.

Reader Comments (9)

Hi Dave, thanks for mentioning the photos. I really enjoyed looking through the whole collection, I understand why people often refer to the 1950s and 60s as the 'golden age' of cycling.

Speaking to some of the 'old timers' who still race time trials they often say how they would think nothing of riding 50 miles just to race! - often camping overnight.

July 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTejvan Pettinger

Makes me wonder if the guy carrying his race wheels is still around, and still riding.
As for your 1953 race, I have an older friend that was racing in Canada and the US in that same time period. He still rides and races.

July 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGrump

I love stories and photos about cycling in the "good-ole" days! Great fun! thanks for sharing it.
Jennifer
http://cyclingeurope.wordpress.com

July 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Sage

What a memory!

Thanks for sharing.

July 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkubuqi

To be current, a picture of a competitive cyclists with his tricked out CF ride on top of his SUV with a half dozen spare wheels should have been provided. Many new riders keep telling me how cycling is exploding in popularity but I remember the 60s & 70s as when cycling was somewhat purer. But I'm glad to see it blossom once again.

July 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJack

I remember the first time I saw mention of such versatile cycling in a racing mag. It was in maybe 1987 in a VeloNews editorial by then-boss John Wilcockson. He suggested the same thing that Dave mentions: that it would be more wholesome if more cyclists biked to races, like John said he did as a kid in the UK. I recall being shocked. I was living in Boulder and races were often quite far away. I would ride to races in town, of course. I also rode my bike for errands and transit in town---unlike many racers. Still, I was surprised---if a race was more than 15 miles away I'd surely want to spare my legs and drive. But the notion stuck with me. It also started making me realize that cyclists, when their bikes are on/in cars, can be as much of the car-traffic problem as anyone.

Dave's story also reminds me of the children's book "Off to the Races" by Phleger which is full of wonderful artwork showing convivial bike culture in nice detail. One page shows a group of friends as they arrive at the day's racing and are taking off their fenders and racks. --I have several copies of this unique and refreshing book for sale at my website, OutYourBackDoor.com.

July 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Potter

...great old fotos, dave...particularly cool to see you 'back when' & the first foto showing the wonderful practicality that grew out of britain's war effort & it's inherent shortages...

...as i recall, british cyclist's had to endure a 'certain lack of cooperation' from authorities regarding mass start events...throw in such factors as racing trikes & the preponderance of oddly configured frame-sets that usually seemed to find their origins in the british isles & while it may be considered somewhat "quirky", there has always been a deep & rich cycling heritage from "old blighty"...

...enjoyable post from the past...

July 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbikesgonewild

Cycling photographers still exist and because of digital photography, they are booming!

The UK is experiencing an upturn in interest in road cycling, leading to mass turnouts on 'sportive' events (semi-organised c.100km+ road rides, or rebranded audax events, if you like!).

Photographers frequently set up camp at the top of hills and take your pic just as you are in most pain!

July 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertom

Great post, my Dad remembers Bernard from his time invovled with racing and is enjoying the photos! You and your readers maybe interested in some more tales and photos of racing in the 40's, 50's and 60's on my fathers memoirs here:

http://alfbuttler.blogspot.com/

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Buttler
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