That’s me, bottom right in the picture above, proudly wearing a British League of Racing Cyclists badge on my blazer. I was 18 years old and a guest at a local cycling club dinner and prize giving. This was my first season as a League member, before that I had experienced the other side of British cycling, and the road race ban.
I started cycling seriously in 1951 at age 15; I lived in Luton an industrial town some thirty miles north of London. I joined a local cycling club called the Luton Arrow, they were affiliated to the NCU and RTTC; I was not able to race until I was 16.
When I started racing the only events open to me were time trials; there was no velodrome nearby, and no circuit races either. My heroes of the day were the Tour de France riders, and I dreamed in the naiveté of my youth of one day being one of them. However, this was never going to happen on a training regimen of British time trials.
The BLRC was somewhat of a mystery to me; "Cycling" magazine, the main publication of the sport in the UK was very anti BLRC and published nothing about them or their events. The nearest League club was in the next town, and it was made clear that if I had anything to do with them I would be suspended from my present club.
My first season racing was all time trials; I had some success and at age 16 even beat local riders much older than myself. I realized if I was to advance I had to ride mass start events, and the following year at age 17 I entered the NCU sanctioned National Junior Mass Start Championship. It was held on an old WWII airfield at Church Lawford, near Rugby, in Warickshire.
I had to catch a train there, and then ride my bike to the event. There were 150 riders from all over the UK; most of them totally inexperienced at riding in a bunch like me. I was immediately amazed by the speed, I was riding faster than I had ever ridden in my life before. Of course the best riders were the ones who lived close to the course and rode it every week end.
We were riding on the old runways of the airfield; the surface was full of pot holes and grass growing in the cracks. There were glass domed landing lights along the edge each runway, 24 inch diameter, raised up 6 inches. If you found yourself on the inside of the pack you were forced onto these.
As we turned onto another runway the glass domes went across the intersection, and were hard to see in the middle of a 150 rider field. Needless to say there were numerous crashes; I was lucky enough not to fall, but was forced to stop behind a huge pile up and spent the rest of the race in a small group chasing the main pack.
I rode the train back home that day disgusted with myself and my performance. Looking back now, I realize I could not have expected to do any better. I had entered a National Championship Race with no prior experience of riding in this type of event on this type of course.
How was I to gain experience? My parents didn’t own a car, and it was not practical to catch a train to ride 80 miles to Church Lawford every weekend. So I returned to time trialing for the rest of the season.
The following year I was 18 and now classed as a senior rider. I started riding with two local racing cyclists who were in their mid twenties, good riders, and both had recently finished serving in the Royal Air Force. They were both former BLRC members.
They asked me if I would be interested in joining them as a three-man team and race in League events; one of them had a van, so traveling to races would not be a problem. We formed a new club called the “Luton Racing Club.” We recruited another two non-racing members as we needed a minimum of five members to form a club.
I discovered what real road racing was all about. League races back in the 1950s were long usually 100 miles or more, often as much as 150 miles. My two years spent riding long distance time trials was not entirely wasted; it gave me a lot of stamina.
I was never good at short distances, and I was not a sprinter, but I could climb hills, and road races were always over hilly terrain. Whereas, time trials where always run on the flattest course possible. I eventually reached category one status, but never achieved any international or professional success. I realize to reach the top as an athlete; one needs not only dedication, but also the right physical attributes and gene structure. The rest of us do the best we can with what we have.
There was camaraderie and an unwritten code of ethics among League riders, that carried on in later years after the BLRC and the NCU became the British Cycling Federation. Riding on the open road with normal traffic, we all looked out for each other. A parked car by the roadside, or an approaching vehicle, and the riders at the front would call out a warning, which was passed down through the bunch.
On occasions I have unshipped my chain while shifting gear, and two riders one either side would grab my jersey and push me along while I reached down and replaced the chain. These were complete strangers to me, and I have done the same for other riders. I would hate to see someone out of a race because of something as simple as a chain coming off.
In English road races there was always a lot of banter, conversation, and joking going on during a race. Of course, this would decrease when the pace got fast and serious, but it was always there. I missed that in the few races I rode when I first came to the US. Moreover, criteriums reminded me of the old NCU circuit races back in the early 1950s. Fast and furious, and a lot of crashes.
The BLRC always put a lot of work into publicizing events. The “Tour of Britain” race in the early 1950s was sponsored by a national newspaper and the daily coverage it received brought out spectators in their thousands. It was a tremendous boost for the sport of cycle racing.
After the merger in 1959 and the formation of the BCF, I noticed there was gradually less seeking of publicity for races, and the only spectators at events were local cyclists. Cycle racing in Britain had gone back to being a "Cinderella" sport.
To sum up the British road race ban, and why it went on for so long? People don’t like change; if a system appears to be working, unless there is a huge number of people against it, things tend to stay the same.
Back in the day, there was not the information network that we have now. With “Cycling,” a weekly magazine being the only source of information about the sport, and with that publication being pro NCU and RTTC, I really did not know what was going on at the top of these organizations. I don’t suppose other cyclists of that era knew either.
Officials of individual cycling clubs were pretty much of the same mindset as those running the NCU and RTTC. These were the delegates who went to the annual general meetings and voted the top officials back in each year.
It is easier to do nothing than to invoke change. Those who see that a change is needed, are often outnumbered and give up in frustration because of stonewalling by the other side that would rather remain with the status quo.
This is the last of a three part series of articles. Here is a link to Part I and Part II.
In Part I of this series, I explained how in Britain, a ban on mass start road racing that would last for fifty years or more, came about.
In 1942 during Britain’s darkest hours of WWII, a racing cyclist named Percy Stallard wrote to officials of the National Cyclists Union (NCU) and asked permission to run a massed start road race on public roads.
He pointed out that Britain’s roads were pretty much empty of traffic, due to petrol (Gasoline.) rationing, and road racing continued in certain parts of the continent of Europe, even though there was a war. His request was flatly turned down.
Percy Stallard (Right.) went ahead and organized the race anyway. He managed to obtain the cooperation of the police, and he got a newspaper from his home town to sponsor the event. He rode in the race himself, and recruited another forty riders. The 59 mile race was staged from Llangollen in Wales to Wolverhampton, Stallard's home town in the West Midlands of England.
The event was a hit with thousands of spectators, no doubt pleased to have a free sporting event in those tough wartime years. Percy Stallard and everyone who competed in the event were immediately suspended by the NCU and the RTTC. Later that year 24 people met at the Sherebrook Lodge Hotel, in Buxton, Derbyshire on Sunday, November 14, and the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC.) was formed.
From these early beginnings the BLRC grew throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. New clubs affiliated to "The League" were formed throughout Britain. Cyclists had to choose between NCU, RTTC clubs, or BLRC clubs. Membership of a BLRC club meant an automatic ban from events run by the other two.
The League promoted some pretty impressive road races, including a Brighton to Glasgow stage race, which later grew to become the "Tour of Britain" race in 1951, with a sponsorship of the "Daily Express," a leading British newspaper.
In the early years the BLRC was not sanctioned by the UCI, the governing body of world cycling; this made competing in international events difficult. However, starting in 1948 the League sent a team, (Managed by Percy Stallard.) to the Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, stage race; otherwise known as the “Peace Race.” This was behind the Iron Curtain and no doubt, the promoters of this event were pleased to have a team from a Western Nation compete.
In 1952 the Peace Race was won by the BLRC’s Scottish rider Ian Steel; the League also won the team prize. In 1955 the BLRC sent a British team to the Tour de France.
This included Brian Robinson, who won a stage, and with Tony Hoar, together they became the first two British riders to finish the Tour de France. Brian Robinson’s success paved the way for other Britons such as Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban, and later Robert Millar, Chris Boardman and David Millar.
The NCU and the BLRC would finally put aside their differences and they amalgamated in 1959 to form the British Cycling Federation, (BCF) which is the governing body of cycle racing in the UK today. The ban on mass start road racing on public roads was finally and completely lifted.
Percy Stallard never forgave the NCU, or the BCF which he saw as a reincarnation of the NCU. He was snubbed by the BCF and was never invited to manage an international team; even though he had proved himself with success of his team in the Peace Race.
He also felt that the BLRC had sold out; maybe he was right. The League was negociating from a position of strength; I am not sure if the League had UCI membership by then, but they must have had some UCI regognition to enter a team in the Tour de France. They should have gone out for full UCI membership and left the NCU to continue with their piddling little curcuit races on diss-used airfields, and private parks.
The NCU was an organization with elected officials who were supposed to be acting in the interest of cyclists, the members. The question I have is why did they continue with the unnecessary ban on open road racing, even into the 1950s when the BLRC had proved that road races could be held with full police cooperation?
Percy Stallard died in 2001; British racing cyclists have a lot to thank him for, had it not been for him and those early pioneers, there would still be no road racing in the UK, and no British riders competing on equal terms in the Tour de France and other world events.
The timing of the formation of the BLRC was perfect. They started road racing during WWII when there was very little traffic on the roads, and by the 1950s they were established and accepted. Had they waited until the 1960s as traffic increased the concept of cycle races on the open road may never have been considered.
In the final Part III of this series I will talk about my own experiences and perspective of the British road race ban.
Here are some other BLRC related sites:
Old School Cycles
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.
Cyclists have always been society’s “Redheaded Stepchild;” unloved and abused throughout history.
Since the invention of the ordinary, or high-wheeler in the late 1800s, when horse drawn carriages were the transport of the day. It was the wealthy classes who owned carriages, and bicycles scared the horses.
It was not uncommon for a coach driver to lash out at a passing cyclist with his horsewhip, and pedestrians were not above putting a walking stick through a rider’s wheel.
Bicycles were expensive and initially cycling was a sport of the wealthy, but it was a young man’s pastime and even wealthy young men were viewed with disdain by the older generation.
Cycling was initially banned in places in England as being too dangerous. However, being a “rich man’s sport,” the ban was short lived. By 1880 there were 213 established cycling clubs in the UK. Remember, this was before the invention of the “Safety Bicycle” in 1885, and the pneumatic tire in 1888.
With the invention of the “safety” bicycle, and mass production that followed, it really changed the face of the sport, and people’s attitude to it. Cycling became affordable to the working classes and it quickly became both a pastime and a mode of transport of the masses.
In England the wealthy who lived on large country estates, suddenly found their space invaded on the weekends by the working classes on their bicycles as they ventured outside the cities for the first time to explore the countryside.
Cycling was no longer a pastime for the wealthy, in fact to ride a bicycle was now a definite sign of being lower class. The privileged upper classes looked for new ways to reclaim the highways again; of course, they found it in the form of the automobile. The resentment towards cyclists, by the upper classes, was already established long before the automobile arrived.
The invention of the pneumatic tire meant there was an explosion in the sport of cycle racing. This led to a ban in England of mass start road racing in 1894; a ban that would last until the 1950s.
The result was road racing never developed in the UK as it did in the rest of Europe. In countries like France, Holland, Belgium, and Italy cyclists receive respect and toleration because of the popularity of cycle road racing in those countries. The general public has become used to seeing cyclists racing and training on the highways.
The only competitive events open to British cyclists were track racing, of course limited to those close to a track. A few mass start circuit races in private parks, and individual time trials, which would become the mainstay of British cycling competition.
It is interesting to note that in 1894, as road racing was banned in England as being too dangerous; the first motor race was held on public roads in France. This led to almost ten years of absolute carnage as racecars quickly developed to reach speeds of 100 mph (Without the brakes, steering and road surfaces to match these speeds.) and there was wholesale slaughter of both spectators and drivers.
The attitude of the wealthy was no doubt one of, what were the deaths of a few of the peasant class, as long as they could enjoy their sport? Much the same state of affairs existed in the United States; it was the privileged who initially drove cars. They set the rules of accepted behavior and attitudes, which still exist today.
Is this not still the attitude now? “What is the death or injury of a few, as long as I can drive as fast as I like, and in a manner that suits me?” Of course, no one intends for people to die, but behave in a certain way and the inevitable will happen. And if a cyclist or pedestrian gets hit, no real concern, just the question, “What were they doing on the road anyway?”
When Henry Ford made cars available to the masses, naturally they expected to drive to the same standards set by their wealthy predecessors. All road safety legislation since has been aimed at protecting the person inside the car, with little thought going into the protection of other road users, namely pedestrians and cyclists.
Those of us today exercising our rights by riding our bike on the public highways should not despair. However, we should be realistic and recognize that current attitudes of the general public have been formed over a 100 years, or more, and things will not change overnight. We will remain the redheaded stepchild, and should expect the abuse to last a little longer.
Footnote: My thanks to Bruce Chandler from Tucson, AZ who emailed with a link to TheBikeZone.org.uk that prompted and helped me put this piece together.
Because I was fortunate
To build a bike or two
Doesn’t mean that what I say
Is absolutely true
I try to write about the things
I've learned throughout the years
And stimulate the gray stuff
That's in between your ears
Sometimes I will write a piece
On this, that, or the other
Some of you will share my view
And then there’ll be another
Who express a different opine
With words that are quite strong
But often there’s no black or white
There is no right or wrong
And if I make you think about
Your safety when you ride
Then does it really matter
Our opinions collide
Better our opinions
Than your head on solid metal
And you are a statistic
When the dust has settled
I'm not some safety guru
With advice bike riders seek
I’m just the Devil’s Advocate
On a muddy two-way street
If my simple inane writings
Touch one reckless soul
Make him think about his safety
Then I’ve reached my goal
May the rest of you be entertained
And even crack a smile
So I know my time’s not wasted
It all has been worthwhile
Just get out and ride your bike
Be safe along the way
Live to ride, but ride to live
And enjoy another day
So may you be protected
By St. Christopher or God
And if you don’t believe in that
At least you’ve read my blog
Prompted by my last post and the reader’s comments. Seriously, I’d like to thank all for their intelligent, and thought provoking comments. Please keep reading even when I have nothing.