The North Cotswold Cycling Club
Summer has arrived at last – or at any rate the clock has been put forward an hour – and with it the official cycling season may be said to have commenced. Actually the pastime has been enjoyed throughout the winter months by numbers of wise wheelmen, but the extra hours of daylight brings on to the road once again those other riders who still look upon summer as the only season to be spent pleasurably out of doors.
A large component of club cycling was, and of course remains, competitive riding. Whilst the club runs were mainly for fun and diversion, the racing element of club cycling was usually in deadly earnest. When it came to competition, the rivalry between riders was fierce, and quarter was seldom given.
For reasons principally of weather the racing season ran from around March through to September or October; the standard events for most clubs being the ten mile, twenty-five mile, fifty mile and one hundred mile time-trials, and the twelve hour measured distance race, all of which took place on the public highway. In addition, some clubs organised special challenges to suit their location and landscape, such as twenty-four hour races, hill climbs, tandem time-trials, and events between specific points, of which the C&C’s Cheltenham to Oxford time-trial is just one example.
At this period, track racing was very much the junior partner to road racing. The few purpose-built cycling stadiums that existed were run-down and inconveniently located, whilst the wooden tracks used to temporarily adapt local sports grounds were often dangerous to ride, with ill-fitting boards and inadequate banking at the sides. Attempts to use the grass or cinder athletic tracks unmodified were not successful either, for the simple reason that they were poorly suited to bike racing; the straights being too short, and the corners too sharp. Cyclists riding against one another at speed on these tracks would often come to grief.
To cycle in safety at speeds in excess of thirty miles an hour required a track constructed to a very high specification. But although cycling was a popular activity, it was not really a spectator sport in the manner of football or cricket, and it therefore generated very little money beyond what participating cyclists were able to put into it themselves. The appeal of cycling lay in the doing rather than the watching. There were attempts during the 1930’s to promote interest in stadium racing by staging a series of Six-day Endurance Races at Wembley’s Empire Stadium. These attracted an international calibre of professional rider, but ultimately proved unprofitable, not least because they remained remote and inaccessible to the bulk of amateur riders who were their natural audience.
For club cyclists, the events held at regional sports grounds were invariably second best to time-trialling on the open road. The attraction of being able to engage in personal combat against another rider was far outweighed by the expense and inconvenience of having to attend a distant ground, and to risk damage to yourself and your machine. Several North Cotswold members did attend an open event at the Wagon Works Ground in Gloucester, organised by the Gloucestershire Constabulary Sports Association: the police were always keen to promote this form of racing because it shifted things away from the public highway. On another occasion club members participated in a sports event at Banbury. But these were rare exceptions to the normal business of time-trialling, and seemingly not a great success.
It is not generally understood that cyclists who took part in road races did not actually compete against one another, but against the clock. Unlike stadium riding, or continental style competition, there were no mass starts, and no racing man against man.
The start of a road race or time-trial was invariably staggered, with riders typically departing at one minute intervals. All trials were ridden in accordance with the rules of the Road Time Trial Council (RTTC) which set a maximum limit of one hundred riders in a trial. At the start point the normal practice was for one official to hold the riders ready for the off, while a second official counted down the final seconds to their release. If the entrant was lucky he might receive a small push for a flying start. If he was unlucky, he would have to bear down quickly on his pedals for a standing start.
In the early days of time-trialling the convention was that the fastest man would leave first, with subsequent riders departing in accordance with their time handicap; the one with the largest handicap - in essence the weakest man - leaving last. This practice tended to extend the overall time that it took to hold a trial. But the arrangement was thought less likely to result in accidents or bunching because it reduced the likelihood that faster men would catch and overtake laggards. However, the practice seems to have been discontinued, and by the 1930’s a rider’s starting position was allotted regardless of his handicap, with no apparent detriment to safety.
Nearly all time-trials were ‘unpaced’, that is to say riders were not permitted to have a car, motor cycle or another cyclist help them with their ride. Considerable advantage could be gained from slip-streaming a vehicle or other cyclist, and it was standard practice with mass starts. But anyone discovered doing so in a time-trial would have been branded a cheat and instantly disqualified. With track events it was permissible to be paced, allowing speeds of forty miles an hour and more to be achieved for short bursts, whereas thirty miles an hour would have been considered excellent in time-trialling. Over a distance of twenty-five or fifty miles the better club riders managed to achieve an average speed of twenty-three to twenty-five miles an hour, depending on the weather, the terrain, and the obstacles encountered along the route. A disadvantage of using the public highway was that because courses and weather conditions varied enormously from one time-trial to another, the National Road Records were a somewhat imperfect guide to the true relative performances of riders.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about road racing was that it was illegal, and that even time-trialling was of dubious legality. The governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union, only reluctantly relented in its opposition to time-trialling in 1921, and remained hostile to mass start road races, despite the fact that every other European cycling nation allowed them, and that they were normally trouble-free and supported by the public. In the 1940’s the NCU went so far as to expel dozens of riders from the Union, and to blacklist several entire clubs, for organising mass start road races, even though it had been done with the agreement and assistance of the police.
Where time-trials were concerned, the authorities tended to turn a blind eye, as long as the normal rules of the road were adhered to, and provided that events were held discreetly and were properly marshalled. Nevertheless, clubs never took this concession for granted. It was policy not to request police or local authority permission to hold trials, in order to avoid the possibility that requesting permission might become considered a requirement, and that permission might on occasion be refused. It was very much a case of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. Common sense and self-interest dictated that cyclists should pursue their sport as inconspicuously as possible, without involving ‘outsiders’ unnecessarily.
Time-trials therefore usually started and finished at some obscure place in the middle of the nowhere, rather than (say) in the centre of town. Furthermore, publicity for events was studiously avoided. Starting times were not advertised, even in the cycling press, and spectators were neither encouraged nor welcomed. In a sense, time-triallers were members of a secret society, of which the general public caught only a fleeting glimpse.
In keeping with the need to maintain a low profile, time-trials were mostly held on a Sunday morning, usually at first light; at a time when there was little traffic on the road. A twenty-five mile race beginning at 6 a.m. could therefore be done and dusted by nine o’clock, with the minimum of hindrance to other road users.
In contrast to the modern insistence on maximising visibility - for obvious reasons of safety - those who participated in time-trials were required to wear dark clothing; the prescribed outfit being a black alpaca jacket, black tights, and a black sleeved shirt which was not allowed to be rolled above the elbows. Those foolish enough to pitch up to a trial in the wrong kit would not be permitted to start. The clothing was designed to draw the minimum of attention to riders, and to the fact that a trial was in progress. Similarly, the need to remain low-key meant that riders did not wear identification numbers. Instead they would shout their allocated number to timekeepers stationed along the route.
On the whole these arrangements worked exceptionally well, and literally thousands of time-trials were held discreetly each year without incurring the wrath of the public or the need for police intervention.
Clubs usually ran one or two time-trials each year for their members at the customary distances of ten, twenty-five, fifty and one hundred miles. Many of the larger and better established clubs also held ‘open’ events at these distances, which members of NCU affiliated clubs could apply to enter. In this manner there was regular competition throughout the racing season both within and between clubs.
In open trials there was normally a modest cash prize awarded to the fastest three riders. In addition there was often a prize for the handicap winner. In a handicap trial, one of the riders would be treated as the ‘scratch’ man, and given no time adjustment. The remaining riders would be allotted an individual handicap time, based on their previous performances. This would be deducted from their actual finishing time to arrive at their handicap time. In a fifty mile race this could be as large as twelve minutes. The purpose of awarding a handicap prize, in addition to prizes for the fastest finishers, was to reward and encourage those who might otherwise have been discouraged by their repeated failure to match the times of the better riders. Under the handicap system even the poorest rider had an opportunity to win a prize if he could improve on his usual performance.
In some open trials a prize was also awarded for the best team performance, based on the average finishing time of the team riders. Entrants, of course, were not allowed to ride as a team, in the sense that they were not permitted to assist one another during a trial, and their starting times were usually staggered around the race card.
Because of the amateur status of club cyclists, prize winners could not actually receive the cash that they won. To have done so would have jeopardised their amateur standing. Instead, the custom was that they purchase an item to the value of the prize money, and submit a receipt to the relevant club secretary for reimbursement. The item purchased was supposed to have no connection with cycling. One could not, for instance, buy tyres or toe clips. But gramophone records or trousers were acceptable. One North Cotswold member spent his seven shillings and sixpence handicap winnings on a new pair of shoes.
With club events, as distinct from inter-club events, there were usually no cash prizes. Instead there were cups and medals, and the all important kudos of being the club champion. These trophies were normally of little intrinsic value, the cups usually being plated rather than solid silver. Cycling was not a prosperous sport, and few clubs were in a position to lavish expensive awards on their star riders.
Nevertheless, the urge to win, and the drive to fill your cabinet with cups and medals, was a strong one. That did occasionally give rise to that most un-clubbable of persons, the ‘pot hunter’; a man who moved from club to club in order to increase his tally of trophies. Having sought out his quarry – perhaps a small club where the competition was not especially fierce – he would look to win a few races, and perhaps break some records, before moving on in pursuit of further glory. Fortunately, the North Cotswold does not appear to have had a visit from such a man.
Cyclists had ways, sometimes quite individual ones, to improve their performance. One very successful rider connected with the North Cotswold would tuck brown paper into his shirt when trialling, to keep the cold off his chest. In the drive to gain those few extra seconds some went to very great lengths. It was standard practice to remove mudguards when racing, in order to reduce the weight of the bicycle. A few carried this idea even further, and would drill holes, often sizable ones as large as a quarter of an inch in diameter, in the seat pillar, and sometimes even in the bell, all in the name of making their machine just that bit lighter. Just how helpful this was in improving their times is debatable. When it came to maintaining energy levels, the use of vitamin and glucose supplements was unknown, and one of the few generally recognised energy enhancing foodstuffs a rider could conveniently carry with him during a trial was barley sugar.
Because it was a small club, the North Cotswold rarely held open time-trials. The time, effort and expense involved in organising an open event is not to be underestimated. To begin with, one needed to discreetly let prospective entrants know about the trial. Then it was necessary to inform them of their acceptance, allocate numbers, calculate handicap times, produce and distribute race cards, organise marshals and timekeepers, provide refreshments at the trial, and finally collate the results and notify the winners.
Similarly, for reasons of time and money, whilst the NCCC held regular club events at ten, twenty-five and fifty miles, it seldom held trials at one hundred miles. The records indicate that a trial of that distance was run during its first year, in the autumn of 1933. But the impracticability of managing an event of that scale was quickly realised, and fifty miles became the maximum distance for a club event, except that for a number of years the club held a twelve hour measured distance race jointly with the Cheltenham & County.
The North Cotswold club events - the ten, twenty-five and fifty mile time-trials – usually started from the Cheltenham Road in Evesham, and headed in the direction of Cheltenham, Tewkesbury and Gloucester along the current A46 and A38. These are flat straight roads well suited for trialling. The required distance was always out and back, thus finishing in the Cheltenham Road, and the photograph below shows the members gathered there after a race in 1937.
Although the NCCC was seldom able to host ‘open’ events, its racing members nevertheless participated regularly in those organised by other clubs, including such stiff challenges as the Midland Counties ‘100’. No less than thirteen members entered the Leamington 100 in September 1937. Those who were not competing would often assist the host club at these events with time-keeping, manning feeding stations and so forth, and a delightful letter survives thanking the North Cotswold for its help in marshalling a Speedwell ‘100’.
Most of the open trials in which North Cotswold men participated were Midlands races, although several of the more ambitious riders occasionally went further afield. The nearest start point for an open event was Cheltenham, which was a twenty mile ride for the majority of the North Cotswold boys. The departure point for the Oxford City Road Club’s Open 50 Miles Unpaced Handicap, in which a North Cotswold contingent regularly rode, was almost thirty-five miles from the Vale. Whatever the distance, it was rider’s responsibility to make his way to the start for his allotted departure time. If he was late, no allowance would be made.
The North Cotswold riders had several ways of reaching the starting point. Sometimes, as a favour, Harry Bennett would take them in his baker’s van. He and Tommy Kemp were the only club members with motor transport. At other times, and more often, they would ride over the previous evening and find accommodation nearby. This could, however, be a hit-and-miss affair. In April 1939 Percy Nash and Phil Grimmitt rode to Pontypool to take part in a "25", and finding no lodgings available were obliged to sleep in a barn. Percy - riding for the Midland Vegetarians - still managed a creditable 5th place. Often there was no option other than to ride to the starting place on the morning of an event, which could mean a four o’clock departure from home, and a long ride expending energy that would have been better saved for the trial.
Clubs generally had set courses for their open events, where an accurate mileage had been determined, and where the road surface and landscape lent itself to riding at speed. The aforementioned Oxford ‘50’, for instance, began five miles north of Oxford, on the present A34, at telegraph pole number thirty-nine: the obscure starting point being entirely in keeping with the clandestine nature of time-trialling. The riders would set out towards Bicester at one minute intervals, and turn left after two and a half miles, taking a gently curving route to the north on minor roads through Weston-on-the-Green, Middleton Stoney and Ardley, to Evenley Cross Roads, where a right turn would direct them via Finmere to the present A4421 road south towards Bicester. The twenty-five mile stage was located at another telegraph pole one mile north of Bicester, where the riders would immediately turn and retrace their steps in order to cover the fifty miles. The course required a minimum of marshalling because, no doubt by design, there were few junctions that needed policing, and for most of the route the riders had the right-of-way. With distance races like this the advantage of a return circuit, rather than riding from point to point, was that it required fewer marshals, and balanced out the effect of any notable hills or of head or tail-winds. Twelve hour trials, on the other hand, tended to involve a long ride out, and return, followed by a circuit of (say) ten miles. Towards the end of the twelve hour period another rider would follow the competitor on the circuit in order to record the precise point reached after twelve hours. This enabled an accurate distance to later be calculated for the ride.
Only about half of the North Cotswold’s thirty or so members rode in competition. And not all of them, naturally, participated in each and every club event or local ‘open’. The club’s own time-trials were, however, well supported. For example, nine members participated in a joint twelve hour race with the Cheltenham & County in August 1937, and seventeen rode in the ‘Club 25’ the following month. The chief racers were Phil Evans, Pat Weguelin, Bill Tustin, Reg Steptoe, Percy Nash, G Green, Phil Grimmitt, and the three Parsons brothers; although Bert Sullings, Dennis Shergold, Norman Hartwell, Cyril Invine, Bill Winfield, Ron Bartlett, Seymour Wilcox and Tommy Kemp also competed occasionally. As one might expect, there was considerable competition between them, and much vying for the best overall time in a race, or for the handicap place. The crowning glory was to break one of the existing club records.
There were regular accounts of the North Cotswold’s activities published in the ‘Wheelman’ column of the Gloucestershire Echo, and these provide an excellent guide to how individual riders were performing during particular seasons and at certain distances. Some were clearly better at short distances and some at endurance rides.
During the first couple of years of the club, the diminutive Captain, Phil Evans, normally started as the ‘scratch’ rider, with the others riders being granted the benefit of a time handicap. Bert Sullings, Reg Steptoe, Bill Tustin and John Woodger seem to have ranked among the better riders at this period and were therefore given the smallest allowances. However, Bert Sullings moved away from the area within a couple of years, and lost touch with the club, whilst John Woodger, despite some excellent performances, did not ride competitively with the club after about 1935. It was his brother George who became especially active during the second half of the 1930’s, and he appears on many of the later photographs in his trademark cap. For his part, Reg Steptoe began as a strong competitor, and remained so throughout his years with the club. But within a short time of the club’s formation it was Bill Tustin who emerged as the star rider.
For a short while he and Phil Evans started jointly as ‘scratch’ riders in club trials. But from 1935 it was nearly always Bill alone who was the ‘scratch’ man, regardless of the distance. By the end of the 1935 season he held the 10 mile and 25 mile club records, at 25mins 50secs and 1hr 7mins respectively, as well as the leg-turning 25 mile ‘low gear’ record, at 1hr 10mins 38secs. The 50 mile club record was held by Phil Evans with 2hrs 20mins.
Bill did not, however, lack for competition, and in the latter years his crown was continually threatened by others. From 1936 he was run particularly hard by new boy Percy Nash (Sid Nash’s younger brother), who often claimed the honour of joint scratch position. Also up-and-coming at the time were Theo Parsons and Phil Grimmitt. In May 1938, riding in the Club 25 at Worcester, Theo shaved a minute off Bill’s 25 mile record, coming home in a time of 1hr 4mins 35secs, just nine seconds ahead of Phil Grimmitt. In August 1938 Phil himself shattered Phil Evans’s 50 mile club record with a time of 2hrs 15mins 27secs; a reduction of no less than four and a half minutes. By any measure these were respectable times that many modern club riders would be happy to match. It was so much more to their credit that they were achieved without the advantages of today’s bicycle technology, and with no proper understanding of dietary requirements and exercise regimes.
This was how the Club stood at the beginning of the 1939 season, which unbeknownst to its members would be its last.
|© The text and photographs contained in this site are the copyright of D. Parsons.|