The North Cotswold Cycling Club
Club cycling in Britain had its origin in the great cycling mania of the late 1860’s and 70’s. The Pickwick Bicycle Club, founded in Hackney in 1870, is generally reckoned to be the earliest of its kind, and proved to be the first of many. Within fifteen years of its formation there were upwards of five hundred clubs in Britain, ranging in membership from just a few dozen to many hundreds in the larger cities. Among the vanguard in the Midlands was the still extant South-Birmingham-based Speedwell Bicycle Club, which today proudly proclaims itself ‘the oldest continuously active cycling club in the world’.
Almost immediately, clubs began to organise themselves nationally. The Bicycle Union – later known as the National Cyclists’ Union (NCU), and today part of The British Cycling Federation - was formed in 1878, with the aim of promoting competitive cycling. The Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) was established that same year to serve, as the name suggests, that other important aspect of cycling, namely touring. This the CTC advanced by issuing handbooks, guides, and a series of county road maps that indicated cycling hazards such as steep hills, and the location of recommended eating places; the symbols T.H. for Temperance Hotel and C.T. for Coffee Tavern appearing to show a certain bias in favour of non-alcoholic refreshment. The CTC also provided safety advice, the names of places where cycles could be repaired, and where ‘consular’ advice could be obtained from registered CTC representatives. In addition, it provided automatic third party insurance to any cyclist who belonged to a CTC affiliated club.
In the decades that followed, interest in cycling both as a sport and a pastime grew rapidly. The bicycle also increasingly became a practical means of going about ones daily business, be it as postman, delivery boy or village ‘bobby’. The early cycles such as the appropriately named ‘boneshaker’ and the penny-farthing or ‘ordinary’ tended to be unwieldy and uncomfortable, although that did not apparently affect their popularity. It is estimated that by the mid-1870’s there were as many as 50,000 ordinaries on Britain’s roads. Nor did the inherently unstable nature of these machines prevent their owners causing regular upset and alarm to pedestrians, horse riders and coachmen, by furious riding; the most detested of them being the so-called ‘cads on castors’ (the boy-racers of their day). In the early years, prosecutions for reckless riding were commonplace, even though the best speed that any recreational cyclist could then reach was little more than ten miles an hour.
Competitive cycling made a faltering start in Britain because from its inception the governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union, set itself constitutionally against road racing, believing that it would provoke hostility from other road users, which would in turn drive the Government to place severe restrictions upon the activities of cyclists. It therefore favoured, though apparently did little to promote, stadium riding as the chief form of competitive riding, and refused to countenance any other. This was despite the fact that there were very few stadiums, and that those that existed were a wholly inadequate outlet for the ambitions of the many thousands of amateur riders who wished to engage in regular competition. Cycling was very much a working man’s pursuit, and one of its attractions was that it was easy on the pocket. The majority of club cyclists did not live close to a stadium, nor could they have afforded the time and expense that was required in order to participate in stadium racing.
The NCU’s blanket opposition to road racing meant that public opinion in Britain was never properly tested. Across the English Channel a different attitude took root, and the various governing bodies actively supported and promoted road racing. They discovered that far from being hostile, people were very responsive to the needs of cyclists. France was in the forefront and witnessed the first staging of the legendary Tour de France in 1903. By way of contrast, this country had to wait until 1945 for the first Tour of Britain; the race being a somewhat pale imitation of its French cousin.
Frustration among British cyclists with the NCU’s inflexibility led eventually to the formation of the Road Records Committee, which in turn became the Road Time Trial Council (RTTC). Employing a clever piece of lateral thinking, this breakaway body decided that instead of attempting to run road races, on the continental model, with all of the practical difficulties and resistance that might ensue, it would organise timed road trials. Participants in these trials would not compete against one another in a mass start, as they did abroad, but would depart from a fixed point at one minute intervals; the race winner being the rider to achieve the fastest time over a measured distance. The great advantage of this over a mass start was that roads did not need to be closed to other traffic during an event, or even officially policed. Consequently there was very little disruption or obstruction to other road users. Whilst this was only intended to be a stopgap measure, until a more enlightened view towards road racing prevailed within the NCU, time-trialling in fact became the established form of competitive cycling in Britain, far outstripping the popularity of stadium riding.
The First World War (1914-18) brought a virtual halt to club cycling, as efforts were redirected towards the rather more urgent task of defeating the Kaiser. After the War there was a swift renewal of interest in cycling, buoyed by the fact that, year on year, bicycles were becoming lighter, easier to ride, and more affordable. Roads, too, were being improved in order to accommodate the growing weight of motor traffic, and this was of more than incidental benefit to those who enjoyed cycling and time-trialling. During the 1920’s and into the 1930’s, with leisure time steadily increasing, cycling became an ever more popular recreation, especially among the young, who discovered in it a pleasant, healthy, sociable and inexpensive diversion which allowed them to escape the narrow confines of their town or parish.
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