Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Fifty Years of Road Racing – The History of the North Road Cycling Club, S H Moxham (1935)

Diemer and Reynolds 178pp

This solid little tome takes the story of one of England’s most venerable cycling clubs from its inception in 1885 to its Golden Jubilee. And its very physical manifestation gives some indication of how seriously the Club took this anniversary. It has a beautiful mid-blue, grained hardback cover and the text is printed on handsome, grained paper with more than a dozen photographic plates.

Little wonder. The date of publication must surely be close to the high point of voluntary clubs in Britain. Cycling, walking, hostelling, running, model railways and every other pastime you can think of spawned seriously marshalled organisations in every town, village and city. Many, like the Scouts, for example, were Edwardian inventions. But the North Road Club, like a good many other cycling clubs, traces its origins into the glory days of Victoria’s reign.

The book is organised in a year-by-year narrative, which could make for dry picking. But the author – it is credited to Moxham (president of the club from 1933) ‘and others’ – provides a fascinating picture of the early days of amateur racing in this country.

At the outset, the very shape of cycle racing has yet to emerge. Time trials are run on ordinaries (penny farthings), faciles (a hybrid that looks like a penny farthing – albeit without the really dramatic difference in wheel size), tricycles and safety bicycles. Manufacturers promoted events for competitors riding only their own machines. And place-to-place records were in their infancy. In 1882, for example, H R Reynolds recorded the first recorded London to York attempt – managing the journey in 21 hours and 43 minutes.

There are plenty more delicious details. “This season (1890) witnessed the first appearance of the pneumatic tyre in the Club’s races and the commencement of the gradual elimination of the sold tyre…The contrast in appearance between the narrow solid tyres then in common use and the 2in. pneumatic was so extraordinary that the man in the street received the latter with jeers and ridicule”.

The club played a critical role in the development of time trailing – organising, among other things – the first 24 hour event. Indeed, it championed longer time trails. For many years, it would consider no distance of less that 50 miles being worth the effort of organising an event.

As the narrative gets closer to the time of publication, the detail does get thinner. Once or twice the author mentions that there is little point in dwelling too much of detail from only a few years ago. This is a shame, as the age of cycling that is now only just within living memory seems every bit as interesting as the late Victorian golden days.

Happily, the club continues to thrive – albeit now centred on Hertfordshire, rather than north London. It is enormously heartening to learn that a second volume of history was produced in 1985 to mark the club’s centenary. At the time of writing, however, there are half a dozen copies of the 1935 book available on – but not a single copy of the account of the club’s second half century. That in itself probably tells you something of the changing size, status and enthusiasm for official histories that occured in the ensuing period.

PS September 2008

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