Dave Moulton

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History of British Cycle Racing: Part II, The British League of Racing Cyclists

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
Independents. Bikeracers
Viking Cycles


History of British Cycle Racing: Part I, The Ban

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: The Redheaded Stepchild


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.


I have nothing today

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.


Cyclists and POBs

I have been a cyclist since my early teens; most regular readers of this blog are also cyclists.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of my reputation being tarnished by another group who should not even be categorized as cyclists.

Owning a set of golf clubs does not qualify someone to call themselves a golfer. A person might own a musical instrument, but they are not a musician unless they can play it. Yet anyone who throws their leg over a bicycle is immediately labeled a cyclist.

“As easy as riding a bike, anyone can do it,” is a common expression. Riding a bike in today’s heavy traffic is anything but easy; it requires considerable skill and a lot of moxie.

As a cyclists I am always lumped together with what I call POBs; (People on Bikes.) there is a big difference. I read in the paper of a “cyclist” killed in a traffic accident; I am left to wonder, is this really a cyclist or a POB? (Person on a Bike.)

They could be called "Pedestrians on a Bike," which is a contradiction in terms, but POBs behave like pedestrians. Most pedestrians don't follow too many rules; they wander around willy-nilly all over the place.

Some places have jaywalking laws, but apart from that, there are not too many rules enforced on a pedestrian. They will be on the sidewalk on one side of the road, when suddenly they will see a gap in traffic and without warning or signal will dart across the road to the opposite sidewalk.

As for traffic lights, most pedestrians don't even look to see if they are red or green, but rather look to see if there are any cars coming, and will cross with complete indifference to the color of the light. Sometimes they will not even look, because cars tend to give way to a pedestrian.

The result is, when a person gets on a bike they behave like a pedestrian; they ride on the sidewalk, they ride on the wrong side of the road against the flow traffic, and they ignore traffic signs and signals. At night they don't use lights, because after all, most pedestrians don't carry flash lights after dark.

Cyclists see themselves as a vehicle on the road, whereas, POBs see themselves as a person just trying to get from point A to point B and it’s too far to walk. They are often focused only on their destination, oblivious to everything else around them.

Sadly, statistics show that when a bicycle rider is killed on the road, it is often the victim’s fault. Running red lights, riding against traffic, or suddenly entering a road without warning in front of an oncoming car. This gives a false impression that cycling is dangerous. It is POBs that are getting killed, not cyclists.

A cyclist and a POB may look the same; what they wear or the type of bike they ride does not necessarily distinguish the difference. Some POBs even think they are cyclists.

These are a splinter group known as APOBs. The “A” is for Anarchist, Arrogant, or Asshole, pick any one. They grew up as POBs, later bought expensive bikes and started hanging out and riding with cyclists. However, they never became true cyclists because they disregard the laws of the road, at all times.

Worse, they somehow see themselves as above the law; they give all cyclists a bad reputation. Being ignorant of the law is one thing, but knowing better and still disregarding the rules and laws of our society is anarchy plain and simple.

If you know someone who is an APOB; then maybe you need to get together with a few other cyclists and hold an intervention. Tell them they can’t be a cyclist part of the time, and POB the rest; they have to pick a side.

The strange thing is many POBs drive cars, and when they do for the most part they follow the rules of the road. This furthers my belief that POBs see themselves as pedestrians on wheels, and think the rules on the road don’t apply. As “Motorists,” they suffer the same fate as cyclists; lumped together with PICs. (People in Cars.)

Motorists get in their cars and do nothing else but drive. Their full attention is on the road; they are the good and careful drivers. I see motorists as being the same as cyclists; they are just using a different form of transport.

PICs, on the other hand, drive as if they are still at home or at work. They talk on the phone, eat, drink, shave, and put on makeup. Another way to describe it; POBs ride their bike as if they are walking, and PICs drive their car as if they are sleepwalking.

Organizations who put out accident statistics should adopt the term POBs and PICs, in addition to the terms cyclist and motorist. We would then see that cyclists and motorists sharing the road is not the problem. It’s those SOBs the POBs and PICs.