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The 1st Tour of Britain: 1951


In 1951 I was 15 years old and had my first lightweight bike; I would have to wait another year until I could race at 16 years old.

It was also the year the first Tour of Britain was held; I remember riding with a school friend, 40 miles to watch the final stage as they passed through Baldock, Hertfordshire on the A1, on their way to London.

The event was run by the “British League of Racing Cyclists,” (BLRC) a “Rebel” organization that had broken from the National Cyclists Union (NCU) in the 1940s when they organized a race on open roads from Llangollen in Wales to Wolverhampton in the West Midlands of England.

The 1940s was of course during WWII and there was very little motor traffic on the roads; in spite of this the NCU refused to sanction the race, and a group of riders lead by Percy Stallard from Wolverhampton ran the race anyway.

The NCU, recognized at the time by the UCI as the official governing body of cycle sport in the UK, had upheld a ban on mass start cycle racing on the open road since the late 1800s. By the 1950s the BLRC had proved that massed start races could be held on the open roads, safely and with full cooperation from the police.

The first Tour of Britain was sponsored by the “Daily Express” a major national newspaper. As these old British Pathe Newsreel clips show there were huge crowds of spectators out to watch the race. It shows hundreds of club riders following the race on bikes as the riders leave London.

Also these Pathe Newsreels of the race were shown in theatres throughout Britain, creating more interest from the general public. The TOB was a huge success and has been held every year since 1951. It became known as the Milk Race for a number of years when the Milk Marketing Board took over sponsorship from the Express.


The race brought about credibility and acceptance for the BLRC; eventually the BLRC and the NCU would reach agreement and amalgamate in 1959 to become the British Cycling Federation. (BCF) I wrote a three part series on the History of British Cycle Racing.

In the first TOB the roads were not closed and the riders had to deal with normal traffic as they raced; although at that time not anywhere near as heavy as today’s traffic.

In the first video there is a shot of Dave Bedwell sprinting to win the second stage with cars coming in the oposite direction. Dave Bedwell would later be part of a British team to ride in the 1956 Tour de France. Pictured below (Left.) riding along side none other than Fausto Coppi.

The second video shows Scottish rider Ian Steel who was the eventual overall winner of the 1st. TOB; it also mentions Derrick Buttle in a break away over “The Shap” one of the bigger climbs. I recently read that Derrick Buttle is still riding to this day, now aged 81.

One thing always stands out when I see these old clips from the 1950s and before; the high cadence these riders pedal at. 14 teeth was the smallest sprocket you could get back then, the largest standard chainring was 51 teeth. The highest gears were reserved for downhill or sprinting; on the flat sections they would be riding 51 x 16. (86 inches.)

People riding road races in the UK today can thank these early rebel pioneers, without them there would be no Mark Cavendish or Bradley Wiggins competing in the Tour de France. Time Trials on flat courses are not condusive to developing world class riders and that is where the UK would be stuck if it were not for the BLRC, “The League” as it was affectionally known


This final clip has nothing to do with racing but shows Oxford in 1950. Note that no one locks their bike; they just park it and leave it and the bike is there when they return. But few people locked cars either back then; these were simpler times.

My thanks to regular reader Mark Frank who turned me on to the Pathe News website. The videos do not play live here, but click on the pictures and they link to the Pathe News site. If you type in "Cycling" in a search you will find other old clips from the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, the Classics, Cyclo-cross, etc., some dating back to the 1930s. All great stuff.



Reader Comments (3)

Thanks! Yes great stuff!

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJack

this is classic.
thank you so much!

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLawn Care Roswell

Very cool thanks for sharing those vintage videos

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

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