Cycling: Blazing Saddles

Cycling changed Tim Hilton's life. Now 62, the art critic has 12 bikes and still rides 10,000 miles a year. But why suffer the exhaustion, sprains and elements? Look at the history, he says, and you'll find there's nothing as strange as wheelfolk
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The grand tour

The grand tour

The organisers of the 1955 Tour de France had begun the race at Le Havre, seeing the town's post-war reconstruction as a symbol of new French life. Many speeches were made, in honour of Normandy and of the British. For it was at Le Havre that we joined Continental cycling.

Our men were not to be part of a composite team such as Luxembourg-International. We were to stand together under the Union Jack. The first Great Britain team in the Tour de France looked impressive on paper: Dave Bedwell, Tony Hoar, Stan Jones, Fred Krebs, Bob Maitland, Ken Mitchell, Bernard Pusey, Brian Robinson, Ian Steel and Bevis Wood.

Of these 10, six had contracts with Hercules Cycles. They had a certain amount of experience, though not of long stage races or high mountains, so Hercules had devised an early-season training programme. Bedwell, Maitland and Robinson showed well in Paris-Nice, the Grand Prix de Cannes, the Tour of Calvados, the Tour of the South-East Provinces and the Tour of Holland.

Good preparation, but none of the British cyclists had experienced one of the northern spring classics, so they had no idea that the Tour could be so much harder and faster than the races they had known. The early stages were a shock. And then, between Roubaix and Namur, the British had the jolting first experience of the northern French and Belgian roads. One by one they left the race. Maitland lasted until the Alps but abandoned the Tour when, after a crash and mechanical difficulties, he could not cope with 250km through the mountains on his own. Only two of the 10 British riders managed to get to the finish in Paris.

They were Brian Robinson, who finished 29th, and Tony Hoar, who was 69th and last, more than six hours behind Louison Bobet's winning time. It was no disgrace to be the lanterne rouge at the Parc des Princes: anyone who completes the Tour is a hero. Hoar had survived. In his year, 130 people had left Le Havre, so he had succeeded where 61 other professional cyclists had failed. Besides, Hoar was no hang-dog loser. Although he suffered in the mountains, the tall lad from Hampshire was a lively character on the road and popular with the crowds and other riders. His cheerfulness helped Robinson to survive. And he got his rewards. At the Parc des Princes, Hoar signed contracts to ride in post-Tour criteriums. *

The first of these took place the next day. After the post-Tour banquets there was an immediate return to work for the weary cyclists. The 1955 Tour finished on a Saturday afternoon. On Sunday there was a series of races beginning at 8am at the Autodrome de Monthléry, a motor-racing circuit about 25 miles from Paris. Special buses and trains brought crowds from Paris to Monthléry.

The first race was the Grand Prix des Minimes, ie juniors, off at 11am. Everybody in every junior's family would have been there - and how many juniors would have tried so hard to get on to the same course on the same day as the Tour de France riders. Second race was the Grand Prix des Vétérans, with many of the juniors' fathers no doubt on the start line, followed by the Grand Prix Amateurs et Indépendants, which began at 1.30pm. Now a pause for everyone to enjoy their pique-nique on the Monthléry grass verges. Then, at 3pm, the start of the Grand Prix des Champions. You cannot imagine a more wonderful start sheet. The cyclists in this event included the Bobet brothers, Coppi, Gaul, Geminiani, Darrigade, Anquetil, Lucien Lazarides, Robic, Willy Kemp and among such illustrious men were Hoar and Robinson.

This was an exhibition race, though 300,000 francs would be collected by the winner. Everyone at Monthléry wanted to see the riders of the Tour. The riders themselves made sure that they were seen, taking turns to mount three-man breakaways that never lasted for more than a couple of laps. The winner of the race, and the distribution of his winnings, was probably prearranged. Afterwards, the caravan of Tour riders would go to other criteriums throughout France; and if someone was in his home region he would expect to be first over the line to cheers led by his family and old schoolmates.

This local winner might well have made a deal with his rivals. The finances of professional cycling have always been anarchic and secretive. Money was controlled by the top riders and their managers. It was concealed from tax authorities, it was sometimes shared, sometimes stolen, and there was a strong preference for payment in cash. Contracts for the lucrative criteriums were usually organised by agents: cunning, persuasive men who understood the sport and had friends who promoted races.

Racing cyclists were not necessarily within the power of such agents. Young men from country backgrounds had their own forms of guile. It was mainly the top cyclists who required agents to work on their behalf. Bobet, for instance, had a complex set of bargains with agents and with his team. The French squad rode for him during the Tour; he in turn guaranteed his teammates that he would not sign for an appearance in a criterium unless the agent also provided each of them with a ride and a fee. There were many variations on this kind of arrangement, some of them ruthless.

For instance, Robinson recalls that he was going well in a criterium when Bobet nudged his way through the bunch and rode next to him. "If you don't let me win, you'll never get another contract." Robinson knew that this was a genuine threat. Bobet was making the rules and taking the money. "He was Mr Cycling. I was getting £40 a criterium and he was getting £1,000. He was there at every race," says Robinson. In such ways, Bobet earned the money to buy his private aeroplane and finance his thalassotherapy centres. On a more modest level, Robinson's earnings began to add up. But he had to work hard. One year, he rode 35 criteriums in the six weeks after the end of the Tour.

Robinson was a terrific pioneer of British cycling on the Continent. If the sport had been organised in different ways he would certainly have had more major victories. Nonetheless, he had a decent professional career, with some real successes on the road. Robinson came from Mirfield, west Yorkshire, where he still lives. He belonged to a cycling family. His father was a club cyclist and some people say his brother, Desmond, was as gifted on the bike. The Robinsons were builders and carpenters, trades to which Brian returned when he left racing.

A standard background for a British cyclist, except that Robinson progressed from local time trialling with the Huddersfield Road Club to the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952 (he was 27th in the road race). Then he rode the Tour of Britain in 1953 and the Tour of Europe - much less grand than its name - in 1954. Hercules signed him for the 1955 season, when he first went to the Tour de France. But the firm pulled out of professional cycling at the end of that year and Robinson never afterwards had a totally safe place in a trade team.

He rode the Tour de France seven times and finished five times. In 1956, he became part of the Luxembourg International team and reached Paris in 14th place. In 1957, he crashed in the Tour and abandoned. In that year, however, he won the Grand Prix de Nice and was third in Paris-San Remo - the first time a British rider had taken a podium finish in a classic. Robinson abandoned the Tour in 1958 but had stage wins in 1959 and 1960. He led a British team when he rode the Tour for the last time in 1961.

Spokesmen: the end-to-end heroes

Cyclists need the challenge of horizons and I'm grateful that, when young, I thought of Wales, Ireland and the Cornish end of Britain as places within my reach. We live on a compact island and anyone with time to spare can journey

between its south-western and north-eastern corners. The expedition has always been attractive to cyclists and the those who have held the record for a ride between Land's End and John O'Groats are heroes.

The first end-to-enders were H Blackwell and CA Harmon of the Canonbury Bicycle Club who travelled from Cornwall to Caithness in July 1880. Their ride, on ordinaries (the correct term for "penny-farthings"), took 13 days. Other cyclists followed Blackwell and Harman. Gradually, the long ride became competitive. Then it was treated as a time trial. I possess a couple of schedules that will take the reader from Land's End to John O'Groats. They belong to record-breaking rides. The first is Dick Poole's in 1965. The second is Paul Carbutt's. He broke Poole's record in 1980. There is one difference in their routes through Scotland: the Forth Road Bridge was built between the two attempts, meaning that Carbutt rode 13 fewer miles. On the other hand he was entangled with traffic on the way to the bridge and might have lost half an hour among the trucks and cars.

The route is brutal and gives a cyclist few opportunities to relax. Everyone says that they didn't fully comprehend how hilly the course would be. First there's the ups-and-downs of furthest Cornwall. Then you enter the chaos of the Penzance streets (where the police stopped Carbutt and accused him of speeding: he lost two minutes). Next comes the bleak hostility of Bodmin Moor (57 miles). The West Country hills continue until the route has left Devon and Somerset and skirts the Severn Estuary at Bristol (196 miles). A relatively easy passage follows: there are speedy dual-carriageway roads through Worcester and Kidderminster to Whitchurch (319 miles). By this time, however, it will be night. Our rider will start to have the need, which becomes a craving, for sleep.

When to sleep, and for how long? Let's go back to Cornwall. If the cyclist on a record attempt left the Land's End Hotel at 10am (which is the preferred hour to start) then he will have paused in the Bristol area to put on a long-sleeve top and strap lights on the bike - at about 7.30pm. Off he goes again in the dusk. He might aim for a rest at Warrington (353 miles) or Preston (381 miles). Best to have 20 minutes sleep while it's still dark, some people think. On the other hand it depends on the rider's mood, on the wind and the moon.

A few caffeine pills might help the record breaker through Kendal (424 miles) and the ascent of Shap Fell. Gretna Green (478 miles) scarcely gives a welcome to Scotland, showing as it does that the nastier part of the ride is still to come. And the cyclist is 400 miles from his goal. Now he feels in foreign and forbidding territory (incidentally, no Scotsman has ever attempted the end-to-end), and he can easily go off course. It's when the ride enters Scotland that the tired drivers of the back-up car are most likely to make a mistake or to lose their rider after stopping for petrol.

The weather forecasts received yesterday * in Land's End are useless after Beattock and the 2,000ft climb to the Devil's Beef Tub. The ride down towards Edinburgh is generally windy and cold. Beyond Penicuik there are 20 miles of roundabouts and traffic lights, typically in the Edinburgh rush hour. Carbutt crossed the Forth Bridge (571 miles) at 4.17pm on the day after he had begun his attempt. It was a gingerly crossing. Some riders walk the bridge because they feel giddy. They may also, by this time, have begun to hallucinate with fatigue. Furthermore they fear the lorries. If you wander out of line on this fast and narrow highway above the Firth of Forth, a truck will kill you.

By Perth (603 miles), Carbutt was 45 miles in front of Dick Poole's 1965 time and had already experienced the crisis that comes to every end-to-end cyclist. He never went well in the sun. Carbutt's ill fortune was to ride into a Scottish heatwave. The trouble began on his ascent of the Devil's Beef Tub. He attacked at the bottom of the climb and then, a mile or two later, fell off. He wasn't injured but he was unconscious.

What were Carbutt's helpers to do? It was noon. The maps told them that they were somewhere near Glenmuck Height and Culter Cleuch Shank, crazy little Scottish places and anyway, there wouldn't be any hospitals in this part of the Southern Uplands. They laid Carbutt on the roadside and put a blanket over him. He was breathing, and quite regularly. So he wasn't dying. The back-up team allowed Carbutt to sleep for another 25 minutes. Then they awakened him, gave him an orange to suck, exchanged his road jersey for a silk track vest and put a wet handkerchief under his racing cap, Foreign Legion style. Carbutt felt quite good as he once again stamped on the pedals.

That had been the crisis. Let the spectator now fly forward to Perth and the road to Blair Atholl (636 miles) and Kingussie (674 miles). At this point Carbutt was 45 minutes in front of Poole's time: Carbutt at Kingussie, 22 hours 28 minutes; Poole at Kingussie, 23 hours 13 minutes. But he now had to ride through a cold and moonless second night. Rain was falling as he passed Bonar Bridge (766 miles), making extra care necessary on the greasy, twisting descents. After Dunbeath (821 miles), it's all coastal road to Wick (841 miles). In this ghostly stretch Carbutt nearly fell behind Poole's figures. But he recovered during the final leg to John O'Groats (858 miles) and was lifted from his bike at 9.20am, a little under two days after his departure from Land's End.

Poole's time had not been much slower. In 1965 he had arrived at the John O'Groats Hotel at 9.46am. Surely this proves that Poole's ride, all of 15 years before, had set a magnificent record.

Cyclists rally together

Today, there might be a couple of dozen clubs that were founded in the 19th century. Hundreds more have lived and died. There are around 500 in existence today in the United Kingdom. They take their names from some town or suburb, as in the case of the Finsbury Park Cycling Club (always known as "The Park" to its members), the Ipswich Bicycle Club (which is one with a 19th-century foundation date) or the Cardigan Wheelers.

The Cyclists Touring Club, founded in 1878, was often the parent organisation for smaller local clubs. The CTC was concerned with leisure riding and cyclists' rights. If younger CTC members were more interested in racing than touring they would band together to call themselves a "road club". If the word "path" appears in any title it means that the club also specialises in track racing.

How many people make a cycling club? Half a dozen at the lowest count. And the maximum is about 100. The history of British cycling tells us that defections will occur, or a formal split, if this number is exceeded. A sociologist, perhaps aided by a psychiatrist, might be able to explain why it's best if a club has 60 to 70 members.

Full cycle: an A to Z of club land

A5 Rangers. Still in existence? I hope so. Their base was somewhere in the Rugby-Nuneaton area. They used to follow the straight and determined route of the A5 to Shrewsbury and thither into Wales. Other names of clubs announce their usual runs and destinations. The Kentish Wheelers, for instance, rode into Kent; but the club's home was in Brixton, south London. Do not be misled by the name of the Rutland CC: its members lived around Rutland Road in Sheffield. Other club names indicate peripatetic habits. There was the Wanderers CC, based I know not where, the Tyneside Vagabonds CC, the Colchester Rovers CC, the Bedouin CC, from Croydon, the Thirty-Fourth Nomads CC and the Nomads (Hitchin), who for some reason like to have this parenthesis in their name. I have an enemy in the Nomads (Hitchin), so I hate the lot of them. He says I cut him up in a race. It's just that I was faster.

The Buckshee Wheelers is a fellowship club. By reason of its constitution the club is in terminal decline. The members of the Buckshee were in north Africa in the last days of Hitler's war and somehow managed to organise bike races in the desert. Their motto, one Buckshee Wheeler told me, was "Growing and Growing and Growing". Shouldn't that be "Dying and Dying and Dying?" I pertly said. "The roll of honour is growing and growing." Though not rebuked, I felt chastened. The Buckshees allowed some post-war national servicemen to join their ranks, with a cut-off date of 1953. The youngest Buckshee Wheeler is said to be the fine roadman Brian Haskell, who is now 74.

Also under B there's the Bon Amis CC (thus spelt), which calls to mind other British clubs with French names. Among them we should applaud the San Fairy Ann CC (they live in Kent), reputedly flourishing as never before, the Compagnons du Petit Braquet, the Velo Club Pierre (who come from Stone in Staffordshire) and the Velo Club Lanterne Rouge, a bunch of north London veterans who may be encountered at the Halfway House on the Cambridge Road just to the east of Enfield.

The Barrows Spartans CC doesn't sound a convivial club. I've ridden from Barrow-in-Furness, a depressed industrial town, once the home of shipbuilding and nuclear submarines, into the Lake District. That morning I nearly died from cold and lancing rain. A lovely lady at Grange-over-Sands gave me shelter in her off-licence. We drank two miniatures of brandy, so as not to be too spartan, while the downpour washed her windows.

CCCP are the initials on the all-red road jerseys of the Comical Cycling Club of Penshurst. They don't seem like communists to me. The Chesterfield Cycling and Athletic Club has gone, but other clubs that once united cycling with athletics are still in existence, notably the Halesowen A&CC and the Midland C&AC.

The Elizabethan CC (defunct) and the Festival Road Club (still going well) remind us of the birth of so many clubs in the early 1950s. The Festival RC still uses the logo of the 1951 Festival of Britain. On the subject of logos, that of the Unity CC is of two hands clasped in fellowship. Unfortunately, fellowship sometimes collapses. The names of the Kettering Amateur CC and the Kettering Friendly CC record a split between the cyclists of a quite small town. I do not recall the details of their dispute but know that it was a tremendous business.

On now to the Lancashire Road Club, always to be thanked for their promotion of 12- and 24-hour time trials, the Liverpool Co-operative CC and the Ladies Cycling Fellowship. Members of the Liverpool Century Road Club probably had to prove their worth with a 100-mile ride. The League International exists to promote massed-start events for veterans. The London Italian RCC was a forerunner of the Soho CC, which had a brief glory in the late 1980s. Its members were Italian waiters or concerned in other ways with the catering trades.

Montague Burton's Cycling Club must have been composed of the store's employees. The Monckton CC took its name from the colliery in which many of its members earned their living.

The Out-of-Work Wheelers belonged to a time of high unemployment during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, while the Pickwick Bicycle Club is a century older, founded in the late 1880s. Nowadays, it is mainly a social club with membership by invitation. It keeps to the original rule that a prospective member must show knowledge of The Pickwick Papers. Speaking of which book, nowhere in Dickens's pages does it say why his various characters came together to form their Pickwick Club.

The Sunset CC, now long gone, also had elderly people on its club runs, while the Stourbridge CC, the Stockport Wheelers, the Shaftesbury Wheelers and the Sydenham Wheelers all have well-deserved reputations for looking after fast young racing men.

Nowadays, most people who ride "twicers" are at the other end of life, and may belong to the Tandem Club. Who are the members of the Valkyries CC? The name of the Vegetarian C&AC (it flourished until the late 1950s) takes us back to the early days of this kind of idealism.

The Wandsworth mid District Cycling Club was originally titled the Wandsworth and Balham Co-operative Society Cycling Club. The Waverley CC is, of course, a Scottish foundation, while the Welwyn Wheelers and the Stevenage CC were formed by people who moved out of London at the time of the new-towns movement. The Westminster Wheelers is long gone. It was probably a collar-and-tie club for civil servants in the days before the Kaiser's war. The Wobbly Wheelers existed only as a widespread joke, made up I believe by Johnny Helms, cycling's favourite cartoonist, who must have been guest of honour at more club dinners than anyone else in the sport.

Extracted from 'One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers' (HarperCollins, £16.99). Copyright Tim Hilton 2004. To order your copy at the special price of £14.99, including P&P, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897