The Long Race to Glory, by Chris Sidwells

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

According to the poet Philip Larkin, "Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)". To casual observers, British cycling was also a late starter, springing to world prominence seeming out of nowhere at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when the GB team came third in the medals table, followed by an unprecedented dominance on both track and road.

This book is for those non-experts and chronicles a far lengthier and more complex history of British riders and racing. Who knew, for instance, that the first recorded race in Paris, on 31 May 1868, was won by James Moore, a youngster from Suffolk? Or that Britain's development as a road-racing nation was stunted in 1894 when a lady whose carriage horse shied when a group of riders sped past her complained to the police, leading to a ban on what was then called "mass-start racing"?

Thus did domestic riders come to specialise in track events and racing against the clock, and Chris Sidwells gives due recognition to half-forgotten heroes such as the formidable sprinter Reg Harris, a world champion and winner of two silver medals in the 1948 Olympics, and the incomparable Beryl Burton, who in 1967 set a world record for the 12-hour time trial – handing out Liquorice Allsorts to the male opposition as she overtook them – that was faster than the men's record set in the same race.

Sidwells' approach is sometimes simplistic and repetitious as he charges through the decades and he makes little attempt to place his story against a wider social backdrop.

Yet as a basic primer this book serves a useful purpose, and if it whets readers' appetites to explore further, they will be spoilt for choice, as success in the saddle has sparked a parallel boom in publishing; apart from a welter of high-profile autobiographies, William Fotheringham's excellent account of Britons in the Tour de France, Roule Britannia, Charlie Wegelius' raw account of life in the peloton, Domestique, and several books from Richard Moore on how Olympic success was achieved and the rise of Team Sky stand out. Long may the wheels keep turning.

Published in hardback by Andre Deutsch, £19.99