Wheeling around Wiltshire

on Tuesday, 28 July 2015. Posted in Archives


As The Tour de France has just finished and we can start celebrating the success of Chris Froome, now twice winner of the competition and the first British man to accomplish this, I thought readers might be getting withdrawal symptoms. So I have dipped into our archives to see what they might say about Wiltshire and Swindon’s connection to cycle racing. Cycling fever most recently came to Wiltshire in 2014 when the Tour of Britain passed through the county, including British riders Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. There are also many clubs and individuals who put on the lycra and take to the road, which puts me to shame as I can barely pump the tyres up on my bike these days. But our earliest references go back certainly to the 1890s.

An illustration of the opening of the Trowbridge Cycle Club cycle track appears in the Kings Quarterly magazine, 1891, no. 8, for seemingly no other reason that the illustrator happened to be just passing through. However, it gives us a useful starting date and it is accompanied by illustrations of the committee men, who were Mr Mackay, President; Mr DP Wise, Vice President; and two honorary secretaries, Mr George Rose and Mr Ernest Williams (presumably a mistake, where one of them was Treasurer). The Swindon Cycle Club was also established at least during the 1890’s, as in 1897 they submitted plans to extend their club building in Dixon Street, New Swindon, even though the building already contained everything a club needed. It included an assembly room, a kitchen and a cellar, a skittles alley and, of course most essential of all back then, a bar.

The Swindon Wheeler’s Cycle Club was established in 1923 for a potted history go to this link http://swindonwheelers.wix.com/swindonwheelers . At the History Centre we are delighted to be the custodian of the club’s archives, which date back to 1924. The club was established to “promote road-racing, touring and social club runs.” The subscription was 4 shillings and activities included a run to Cycle Show in Olympia; a charabanc outing to Weston Super Mare; and, perhaps this should have been earlier, a map reading competition. Rules included that when road riding, “the captain shall have complete command and no rider shall pass without his permission”; with two sections being formed – a fast section and a ‘social’ section; while during time-trials “every competitor must carry a bell on the handlebars of his machine” (there does not seem to be any references at this stage to women riders).

There appeared to be numerous competitions, including the following in 1933: a 25 mile handicap race (fastest standard time for completing this was 1 hour 6 minutes); 50 mile handicap (2 hours 20 minutes); 100 miles (5 hours), Swindon to London and back (9 hours 30 minutes); and a 12 hour race during where competitors aimed to ride around 210 miles. In 1958, club member Den White achieved the National Championships 24 hour record, riding 486.75 miles, completing this feat without today’s bike technology. In the 1940’s races included a circuit of Baydon, Russley Park and Aldbourne; Farringdon to Cirencester; and a climb up Blunsden Hill. For researchers wanting to calculate that all important power ratio, the archives include details of individual members time and distances, also noting those who did not start, did not finish and … yes it did happen back then … disqualified.

Back in the 1930s’ the ‘Wheelers’ did not have quite the Team Sky approach to fitness, but had their own take on marginal gains. The annual club dinner in 1930 included ox tail soup, boiled turbot, sirloin steak, a leg of mutton, jelly, fruit tart, custard and cream, cheese and biscuits. The liked it so much that in 1932 they had exactly the same menu!

The History Centre also holds similar archives for the Salisbury Road Club, 1936-1999. Their races included a Codford circuit, the New Forest, Dorset and tours of Wessex. There was also a 30 mile tandom race. The most pressing concerns, however, appear to be improvements to the cycle track in Victoria Park and the behaviour of members, including two who in 1937 were caught and rebuked for the outrageous behaviour of cycling in Bemerton Park.

An interesting insight into cycling and cycle races in the county can be found in Wiltshire constabulary correspondence, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. There seemed to be much obsession with “massed start cycle races” and the problems they caused on the roads, including overtaking by support cars and vans, as opposed to the easier to control time-trials, where each rider sets off at timed intervals. A letter was sent to the Chief Constable’s Office from the Home Office in August 1943, saying that the Secretary of State has “under consideration, in consultation with the Minister of Transport, the subject of massed start cycle races on highways, which have taken place in a limited number of areas, but have recently, he understands, tended to become more numerous and widespread.” It further noted that the “competitors ride in groups or pass and re-pass one another throughout the whole course of the race” which was “likely not only to cause obstruction to traffic, but to be a source of danger both to the public and to the racers.” It was also considered a “waste of police time.” It goes on, rather sneeringly, “this type of racing has been discountenanced by leading cycling bodies, and for some years no pedal cycle races of any importance had, until recently, been run on the highways from a massed start” though it notes that the practice was increasing and asked Chief Officers of the Police to discourage the events and warn competitors they might be liable to prosecution for causing nuisance, obstruction and disorder. “No facilities for this event can be given by the police.” That’s that then, except …

The files also include, in 1950, police correspondence and the British League of Racing Cyclists rules for the Brighton to Glasgow Road Race, which presumably went through Wiltshire and now sanctioned by the Home Office and the police, as they drew up plans for policing the event. The rules highlight just how much has changed from modern racing, where “Punctured tyres must be changed by the competitor,” “Spares, food and drink may only be handed up from the road and not from a moving vehicle”; while “all rules of the road shall be strictly adhered to, and special attention paid to traffic signals, and halt signs. Offenders will be penalised.” Just as well then the Tour de France hadn’t come to Britain in 1950, and how would Chris Froome et al have ever found their marginal gains?

Terry Bracher, Archives and Local Studies Manager


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