I can’t think of a more controversial subject to write about than bike helmets and the wearing thereof. Nothing will get a cyclist’s anti-bacterial padded shorts in a knot more than saying they should or should not wear a helmet.
To borrow a line from my own novel, “It’s like trying to peek at a snake in a pool cue case.” Let’s see if the bastard will turn around and bite me.
I believe the subject is like religion or politics; an individual should do what they believe is right, but should not necessarily try to force their beliefs on others. I wear a helmet when I ride, but it is not my place to tell others to do the same, anymore than it is my place to say others should wear a seat belt when they drive.
People get extremely passionate on both sides of the fence, and get very upset when others oppose their view. I wouldn’t say I am passionate about the issue even after my accident last December when an SUV made a left turn in front of me. I slammed head first into the side of the vehicle.
I was wearing a helmet, but still came away with a hairline skull fracture; I also damaged a nerve in my right eye. This has left me with double vision that persists even after almost a year has elapsed.
The helmet broke, and it is my view that it did absorb some of the impact. Without it, my injuries might have been worse, even fatal. On the other hand, I could argue that I hit the vehicle at 20 mph and the helmet failed to protect me.
I continue to wear a helmet when I ride, but because they don’t offer total protection, I wear it only as a last line of defense when all else fails. Far more important in my opinion is avoiding the accident in the first place.
A recent report on child related bicycle accidents stated that there are 10,700 children hospitalized each year in the US because of bicycle accidents. The report goes on to say a third of this number had traumatic head injuries, and wearing helmets would reduce these head injuries by 85%. I guess I was one of the unlucky 15%; that is if you consider a skull fracture a traumatic injury.
The report states 30% of the accidents involved automobiles. However, there is not a single mention of safety training for children, or drivers of automobiles. So in other words, buy a kid a bike, put a helmet on their head, send them out on the streets, and they’ll be fine. I don’t think so.
Try to get children and teens to wear helmets by all means, but proper road safety education, I believe, would cut these numbers far more than helmet use, even mandatory use. Of course, this is the parent’s responsibility, but it is the parents who need educating first. Most of them don’t ride a bike themselves, so they don’t have a clue.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-helmet use; I just think some of the pro-helmet advocates would be doing more to help the cause of cycling, if they put their energy into pushing for road safety education, with helmet wearing as part of that.
Bicycle helmet use is still very much an American thing. It began in the US in the 1970s and is slowly spreading to the rest of the world. However, it is not practiced, preached, or accepted in other countries at the level it is in the United States. Certain countries have more of a cycling culture where almost every car driver is also a cyclist; I would feel perfectly comfortable riding there without a helmet.
Many people will not ride a bike if they are forced to wear a helmet, or even if they are made to feel like some social misfit if they ride a bike without one. Helmets have been accepted by roadies because they have been accepted by the pro racers. If you wear the Lycra jersey, shorts and shoes, then the helmet goes with the whole ensemble.
But, put a road helmet, with its bright colors and duck’s arse styling on a guy in a business suit commuting to work, and he looks a total dork. Some will say putting appearance over wearing something to protect your head is stupid, and it may be.
However, try telling that to the teenage kid who is wears a helmet as he cycles to school, and has to run a gauntlet of abuse from other kids. He will quit wearing the helmet, and if forced to wear it, will quit riding his bike. And that is a damn shame.
Some kids are wearing the round skateboard style helmets while riding their bikes, because they “look cool.” This should be encouraged and helmet manufacturers should take note. Produce some plain oval shaped black helmets.
Forget for a moment the safety issue of bright colors and being seen. Get people to ride a bike and feel comfortable about wearing a helmet first; they will come around to wearing bright colors later. Look how many motorcyclists when legislation forces them to wear a helmet, they will opt for a small, plain black one.
I hope I never see the day when there is widespread mandatory wearing of bicycle helmets, for the simple reason they do not offer total protection; manufacturers need to keep working on that one. I realize it is difficult to make a bicycle helmet light enough to be practical and offer full protection.
However, bring in mandatory helmet wearing, and before long governments will push for full protection standards. Then we will all be wearing motorcycle style helmets and dying of heat exhaustion.
Okay, just my point of view and it is not my place to force it on others. Feel free to disagree and even put forward an opposing viewpoint; all I ask is, please be civil about it. But just in case, I’m going to get my snake bite kit ready.
I can’t think of a more controversial subject to write about than bike helmets and the wearing thereof. Nothing will get a cyclist’s anti-bacterial padded shorts in a knot more than saying they should or should not wear a helmet.
Lone cyclist, breathing hard
drawing in the cold night air.
Yorkshire moors, late October
up ahead a dim light flickers.
Wondering what the light could be
for all the world looks like a flame.
Descending now and closing fast
a coach and horses, team of four.
Not a sound from coach and team
tries to reason, must be real.
Reaches out and grabs a hold
coasting now, being towed.
Two oil lamps, one each side
bright when fanned by evening breeze.
Cyclist wonders, eyes play tricks
decides to stop and wait a while.
Feet on ground, astride his bike
blows on fingers growing cold.
Watching light not far ahead
cyclist ponders on his options.
Riding on a circular course
he’d gone too far, no turning back.
Night air chilling, must move on
in minutes he’d caught up again.
Eyes straining in the dark
looking up to see who’s driving.
Coachman outlined, moonlit sky
cyclist can’t believe his eyes.
A shiver runs, not from cold
a headless coachman driving team.
Cyclist slows, dropping back
trying hard to think things through.
Riding slowly, growing colder
stay behind and wait his chance.
Road will widen up ahead
changes up to higher gear.
Out of saddle, sprinting hard
slight downhill assists his speed.
Flashes by the ambling coach
startled horses rear in fright.
Cyclist feels the biting pain
of horsewhip on his shoulder blade
Silence gone, now the sound
of thundering hooves and cracking whip.
Cyclist riding for his life
uphill climb, lungs are bursting.
Coach is gaining, muscles burning
as he crests the final climb.
Down below the lights of home
shining in the misty night.
Cyclist spinning, highest gear
flashes past the first street lamp.
Listens now but hears no sound
turns to find the coach is gone.
Home again, bike inside
stumbles as he climbs the stairs.
Morning light, he awakes
lays there thinking of his dream.
Bathroom mirror, turns to look
a bright red weal across his back.
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.