Faded Glory: the demise of leading types of competitive
Modern cyclists who browse through images of old cycling events will be
struck by how dated many of them appear. It is not simply the modes of
dress of the riders and spectators and the period racing machines that
have this effect but often the very nature of the events themselves.
Many types of races have disappeared completely from the modern cycling
scene, some have massively declined in both popularity and prestige
while others have been reinvented in barely recognisable new forms.
Dennis Horn being presented with the Muratti and Vi
Tonica Cups at
Fallowfield Track, Manchester.
He won both cups in 1932, 1933 and 1935.
Underwood 2014. Dennis Horn-Racing for an English Rose).
Viewing these old cycling images today and seeing the proud stances of
the victors coupled with the admiring glances of the surrounding fans
induces a bittersweet feeling. Who were these people enjoying the
fleeting glory of the moment and what exactly were these events in
which they had triumphed? This article seeks to explore this question
The origins of
modern competitive cycle sport: a brief history
Competitive cycling – ‘bike racing’ in
modern parlance – dates from the invention of the high
wheeled ‘Ordinary’ in the 1860s and continued to
gather momentum following the emergence of the
‘Safety’ bicycle in the 1880s. In the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, its popularity spread rapidly throughout the
urban-industrial countries of Europe (including, centrally, the British
Isles) and North America and thence to the European settler colonies in
Africa and Australasia.
Initially, there was little standardisation in the types of events
competed in by cyclists in different parts of the world. Gradually,
however, definite patterns began to emerge. Oval cycling tracks were
built and improvements were made to the public roads and
‘road’ and ‘track’ cycling
became the two established variants of the sport. Some fundamental
national differences, such as British road ‘time
trialling’, were to persist through to the present. However,
as international events involving multinational fields of star riders
proliferated under the impetus of both sponsorship by bicycle
manufacturers like Britain’s ‘Raleigh’
and enterprising promoters like the Englishman Henry Sturmey,
increasing standardisation of the sport occurred at this new elite
level. This in turn had a trickle-down effect, as rapidly increasing
numbers of riders keenly sought to ascend the emergent hierarchy of
those types of events which were acquiring the most status and prestige.
A major step towards international elite event standardisation occurred
with the formation of the International Cycling Association (ICA) in
1892. The ICA introduced the first annual
‘official’ World Championships in 1893 which were
held in Chicago and included only three track events, all reserved
exclusively for amateurs. These were a short distance
‘sprint’ race and a middle distance event, both won
by the American A.A. ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman. He went on
to become the first international cycling superstar and was sponsored
by Raleigh Cycles. The third was a long distance human paced endurance
‘stayers’ event won by Laurens Meintjies of South
The ICA continued to organise its annual World Championships in both
America and Europe, including professional titles from 1895 onwards.
However, the ICA remained troubled by internal disputes between
different national representatives. Much of this centred on a dispute
over the varying definitions of ‘amateur’ and
‘professional’ cyclists. Matters were further
complicated by the advent of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 which
insisted upon the ‘strict amateurism’ principles of
the cycling associations of the British Isles. The issue finally came
to a head in 1900, when many leading cycling nations seceded from the
ICA and formed the ‘Union Cycliste International’
(UCI). In so doing, the strictly amateur British cycling associations
and their allies, who together had dominated the ICA, were isolated and
the organisation rapidly collapsed. From the outset of the 20th
century, therefore, the epicentre of international cycling bureaucratic
power shifted to the Continent and the UCI.
What happened in cycle sport during the 20th century? More
particularly, which forms of competitive cycling dramatically declined
over this period? It is with this latter question that the remainder of
this article is concerned.
The first victim:
human-paced cycle sport
With the advent of the pneumatic tyre equipped Safety machine in the
late 1800s, the Ordinary was rapidly totally eclipsed as a racing
machine on both road and track. Instead, long distance endurance Safety
bicycle events on road and track became fashionable. In both these
formats, the competitors raced one another using teams of human pacers
to keep themselves in contention for victory. On the road, in long
distance events like the 580km Bordeaux-Paris first held in 1891, the
riders relied on teams of pacers on solo machines. Individual pacers
were replaced at regular intervals to lead their star riders over the
course. On the track, pacers rode a variety of machines: solos,
tandems, triplets, ‘quads’ and even
‘quints’. In many instances, the pacing teams were
funded by sponsors like Dunlop.
winner of the first Bordeaux-Paris in 1891.
However, experiments were soon being made using motorised forms of
pacing. In 1897 the Bordeaux-Paris winner, Gaston Rivierre of France,
was paced by a motor car at a record race speed of nearly 29kph and
thereafter various pacing options were explored.
In long distance paced track events, motor cycles were used
increasingly. Speeds rose dramatically and, with UCI world paced Stayer
(demi fond) titles on the track for amateurs and professionals being
contested annually, this became an established prestige track event.
Motor pace riders turned massive gears of between 120 and 140 inches.
The great British rider, Leon Meredith, won the UCI amateur world paced
Stayer title seven times between 1903 and 1913 to become an
Such races were a dramatic new departure in a modern, machine age
… They were noisy, smelly and extremely dangerous events
held within the confines of a banked, cement velodrome with eager
spectators surrounding the action … Speeds as high as
100kph, and the participants’ willingness to take the
consequent risks involved characterised this new discipline
… and these ‘stayer’ races became hugely
popular in France, Germany and the United States before the First World
War, the element of danger adding drama to the sport. The enormous sums
of money earned by the leading professionals … ensured a
constant stream of new talent prepared to accept these risks.
Andrew Ritchie (2011) Quest
for Speed. p.341.
According to Ritchie, one source estimates that between 1899 and 1928,
33 riders and 14 pacemakers were killed on European and American
tracks. In Berlin in 1909, a motor pacing machine left the track
resulting in nine deaths and 50 injuries amongst spectators.
A typical motor paced track racing scene with pacer and
rider’s huge chainwheel,
small front wheel, reverse fork rake
and roller on the rear of motor cycle).
On the track, human paced stayer events were increasingly overshadowed
by the motorcycle paced events. Nevertheless, that human paced long
distance track events lingered on into the early part of the 20th
century in some countries is revealed by Jowett’s report on
South African cyclists who raced in Britain:
In 1913 W.R. Smith competed in England and won the 100 miles Tandem
Paced Championship of England, as well as breaking the existing record
for the distance … Prior to competing in the (1920) Olympic
Games in Antwerp, three of the cyclists took part in the 50 miles
British Tandem Paced Championships at the famous Herne Hill stadium,
against champions from all parts of the world. Kaltenbrun and Walker
rode the tandem, pacing W.R. Smith and they won the title, despite the
tandem crashing at 20 miles.
Walter Jowett (1983) Centenary:
100 years of organised South African
cycle racing. p.56.
But the UCI amateur motor paced stayer world title itself was
discontinued in 1914 and only revived again in 1958, apparently under
pressure from the Eastern Bloc where the event had remained popular. In
1958, the UCI amateur motor paced world title was duly won by the East
German rider, Lothar Meister.
On the road, human paced long distance races declined even more
rapidly, with the Bordeaux-Paris being one of the few to retain it for
a time in various forms. To quote Peter Clifford:
Originally pacing was by teams of single bicycles, but tandems,
triplets and even quadruplets were soon introduced. After a few years
when cars were used for part of the race, bicycles were re-introduced
and held their own until the advent of motor-bikes in 1931. The Derny,
a type of moped, was first used in 1938, and has been used ever since,
only the town from which pace is taken having varied.
Peter Clifford (1973) Cycling
Classics, 1970-72. P.63.
1970 winner of the Bordeaux-Paris, Belgian Herman van
in the closing
stages of the race paced by a derny moped.
By the 1970s, that it remained a paced long distance road event made
the Bordeaux-Paris a quaint survival from the past. Apart from it and
the likes of the Criterium des As (an exhibition race behind derny
motorcycles by a selection of elite pros such as Merckx on a short
circuit in central Paris), road cycle sport in Continental Europe had
assumed an exclusively ‘massed-start’ en ligne
form. The last Bordeaux-Paris was held in 1988, after which it
disappeared completely from the professional cycling calendar.
In the early 1990s, the UCI terminated the world motor paced title.
Thus both human and motor paced cycle sport on road and track had to
all intents and purposes ended by the end of the 20th century. Its
ghost survives today as elements of some winter six day races, while
the derny pacing motorcycle features in Keirin track events at UCI
world contests and at the Olympic Games.
sport: varieties and vicissitudes
Like paced racing, unpaced racing involving usually individual riders
or in some instances small teams, dates from the 19th century origins
of the sport. On both track and road and in many different guises, it
consists of riders being either timed over specified distances or their
distances travelled within particular time frames being measured. The
‘Hour Record’ is an example of the latter type of
event, as are 12-Hour and 24-Hour events. The British 25-mile unpaced
race and the modern Olympic road ‘time trial’
exemplify the former type. As with paced racing, the standardisation of
unpaced events evolved over time, assuming a variety of forms in
different countries and at international level.
British time trialling star of the 1930s, Frank
Southall, receiving a
bottle at a feeding station
in a 100 mile time trial event of the
Unpaced events – ‘time trials’
–are indelibly associated with cycle sport as it developed in
the British Isles during the course of the 20th century. Due to complex
historical reasons, for much of the century it remained the only form
of road racing to exist there. In Continental Europe, by contrast, the
unpaced road event – contre le montre – remained a
rarity. It was only in the post-World War II period that unpaced racing
on British roads was increasingly challenged by ‘massed
start’ events organised by the ‘rebel’
British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC). Consideration of the
byzantine nature of the conflict between the arrivistes of the BLRC and
the traditionalists of the National Cycling Union (NCU) and Road Time
Trials Council (RTTC) lies beyond the scope of this article. However,
it was ultimately largely resolved by the BLRC and NCU uniting to form
the British Cycling Federation (BCF) in the late 1900s. As a result,
massed-start, Continental-style road racing became firmly established
in Britain. Nevertheless, the RTTC remained apart and has continued to
successfully control and organise time trials on British roads as
‘Cycling Time Trials’ (CTT) through to the present.
In Britain for much of the first half of the 20th century and into the
1970s, unpaced racing and particularly road time trialling (10, 25, 30,
50 and 100-mile events and 12 and 24-hour races) continued to enjoy the
highest prestige. Its leading exponents and national champions
– like Frank Southall in the 1930s and Ray Booty in the 1950s
- were lauded in the national cycling press and revered by the mass of
grassroots cyclists who regularly ‘tested’
themselves in similar events during the summer months. In its heyday,
British road time trialling was a secretive sporting cult widely
pursued primarily by urban working class people and served by small
specialist local frame builders. They produced limited numbers of time
trial-specific (‘Path’) lightweight steel machines
for local devotees. Today, these individualistic, handcrafted bespoke
frames and machines are prized by collectors across the world. Bearing
idiosyncratic clues to their provenance, particularly in their
elaborate hand cut lugwork, these frames bear the prosaic names of
their fabricators like A.S. Gillott, Hetchins, Bill Hurlow and
Ephgrave. Together they represent the holy grail to the classic cycling
Classic 1957 Gillott ‘Fleur de Lis’
Owner: Peter Underwood.
From the 1950s onwards, with the advent of the BLRC and massed start
road racing, time trial events progressively declined in terms of
cachet in British cycling circles. Reports of the exploits of
pioneering British road riders abroad like Brian Robinson, Tommy
Simpson and Barry Hoban appeared in specialist magazines such as
Sporting Cyclist. As a result, the Anglophone cycling community began
to worship new gods. These were the Continental road racing
professionals such as Bartali, Coppi, Louison Bobet, Charly Gaul,
Bahamontes, Jacques Anquetil and the two ‘Belgian
Riks’, van Steenbergen and Van Looy. They were the exotic
superstar winners of the great European stage races and one day
classics in the years following World War II. In the 1960s they were
transcended in the cyclists’ pantheon by the Belgian cycling
superstar, Eddy Merckx. Today the 20th century stars of British road
time trialling are largely forgotten men and women.
Conversely, in European cycle sport, the unpaced road event remained a
rarity throughout the 20th century. In some stage races, like the Tour
de France and Giro d’Italia, road time trials either for
individuals or for teams were erratically included as single stages.
For a period, annual elite time trials were organised: in France, the
Grand Prix des Nations; in Italy, the two-man Trofeo Baracchi. Both
featured the leading riders of their day like Anquetil and Coppi. The
142km French event was first held in 1932, the last in 2004; the
Italian race was staged from 1944 until 1991. Both were ultimately
eclipsed by the UCI introducing the world individual road time trial
championship title in 1994. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, a 100km road
time trial for four man teams was introduced and continued on into the
1990s when it was replaced by an individual event.
On the track, unpaced events of many different types developed down the
years. The world ‘Hour Record’ proved to be the
most enduring of these. Its first holder was Henri Desgrange, who went
on to found the Tour de France in 1903. In 1893, Desgrange - riding
alone and unaided - covered 35.325 kilometres in one hour on
Paris’ Buffalo outdoor velodrome. Since then the world hour
record has continued to be pursued, albeit somewhat erratically, down
the decades. Many of the sport’s established superstars like
Coppi, Anquetil and Merckx have held it at various times. It has thus
continued to be considered cycling’s Blue Riband event.
The short distance track individual time trial, standardised to 1,000
metres for men, is one event which survived at Olympic level over the
entire 20th century, but has since disappeared from the Olympic
schedule. The UCI amateur track 1,000 m individual TT world title was
introduced in 1966 when the championships were held in West Germany.
Pierre Trentin of France won the first title and it is an event
traditionally dominated by powerful track sprinters. The track pursuit
race is generally regarded as an unpaced event. Typically held over
distances of 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 metres, in its purest form it
involves two individuals or teams starting on opposite sides of the
track and ‘pursuing’ each other over the fixed
distance. The winner is the individual or team which crosses the finish
line first and thus sets the faster time for the required distance. The
track team pursuit first featured in the 1900 Paris Olympics and then
at all subsequent Games. In contrast, the individual pursuit for
amateur and professional men first appeared at the UCI world
championships after World War II, and for women from 1958. Not
surprisingly given the time trialling pedigree of British riders,
Norman Sheil, Beryl Burton and Hugh Porter all won several world
pursuit titles in the period from the 1950s through to the 1970s.
Overall, therefore, while unpaced events on both road and track have
exhibited a resilience not matched by paced events, their variety and
not infrequent fundamental changes at elite levels of the sport make it
difficult to anticipate their future directions.
The handicap race
on road and track
Two of the most historic Australian cycling events which have long
enjoyed the highest esteem in cycle sport in that country were both
handicap races: on the track, the ‘Austral Wheel
Race’ held annually in Melbourne ever since 1887; on the
road, the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic over some 165 miles and held
annually since 1895. Neither was run during the two world wars. Both
the riders who participated in these events but did not necessarily win
and many of the actual winners themselves represent literally an
historical ‘who’s who’ of
Australia’s track and road cycling elite. They include Sir
Hubert Opperman, Russell Mockridge, Sid Patterson and Danny Clark.
Clearly these are handicap races which have been held in the highest
regard since their earliest days. Substantial prizes in either kind or
cash were on offer. Many of the winners have been ‘middle
markers’ who enjoyed advantages over the scratch men. In the
road event the rider who set the fastest time over the course was
awarded a special prize.
Sid Patterson: Australian multiple world track champion
winner of the ‘Austral’ off scratch.
The first Austral Wheel Race was staged over a distance
of two miles at
the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was subsequently held at
various other venues in Melbourne. Riders’ handicaps were
established through the holding of a series of qualifying heats. The
legendary Australian cyclist, Hubert ‘Oppy’
Opperman finished second in the final of the 1925 event. In 1954, the
race was won by the Englishman, Alan Geddes, riding off a handicap mark
of 130 yards. Among the rare scratch riders to win the event were Sid
Patterson in 1962 and 1964 and Danny Clark in 1977 and 1986. The
classic Warrnambool handicap road race had small bunches of riders
starting at intervals, with the scratch group being the last to depart.
On numerous occasions it was run in reverse, finishing in Melbourne.
Russell Mockridge set the fastest time for the race in both 1956 and
1957, but was not first to cross the finish line. In 1980, the great
British cyclist, Beryl Burton finished the event to become the first
woman to do so. In the mid 1990s, both races finally abandoned the
handicap system and the distances were measured in metres and
kilometres rather than in the original imperial yards and miles. It was
the end of an era.
George Estman and 1948 US Olympic cyclist Jackie Heid.
Heid undertook a successful SA track racing tour in 1950.
South Africa was another British Commonwealth country in which handicap
racing on track and road was popular in the periods on either side of
WWII. George Estman, of the Troyeville CC in Johannesburg, was a giant
of a man who became a skilled exponent of handicap racing on road and
track at this time. A real allrounder, he participated in the 1948
London Olympic road race and won a silver medal in the team pursuit at
the 1952 Helsinki Games when the South African squad finished second to
the Italian team. Estman had initially entered competitive cycling as a
teenager in the 1930s. He first made a name for himself in the sport in
1939 when, as a sixteen year old, he won the prestigious
‘Dunlop 100 Trophy’ handicap road race off a middle
marker’s handicap. The ‘Dunlop 100’ was
first staged in 1913 by Johannesburg’s elite Rand Roads CC
which had the mining magnate, Sir Abe Bailey, as its founding
president. After WWI, the race became an established annual classic.
Held over a 62 mile (100 km) course from Johannesburg to the Transvaal
town of Heidelberg, the winner was awarded the valuable Dunlop silver
floating trophy. Today it is an exhibit in the Johannesburg Transport
Estman was in the forefront of the revival of South African cycle sport
after WWII. In 1946 he again entered the prestigious Dunlop 100
handicap, but this time was placed in the scratch group. The race was
won on this occasion by middle marker Andrew Fouche who started off a
handicap mark of 25 minutes. Nevertheless, Estman set a new record
fastest time of 2:43:33 (36 kph) for the event, which was nearly 30
minutes faster than his winning time in 1939. Earlier that same year,
he had won the demandingly hilly 104 mile Ladysmith to Pietermaritzburg
road race handicap. This event had attracted the country’s
leading riders to contest the valuable Speedwell CC trophy. The field
of 35 riders was split into A, B, C and D groups and Estman was one of
the four scratchmen. These four overhauled all of the other groups and
Estman won the finishing sprint in Pietermaritzburg to win in 5:22:40
(31 kph). This beat the previous race record time by 38 minutes. In a
remarkably varied cycling career extending into the early 1950s, he
also won the national 100 mile unpaced road individual time trial title
and both the national match sprint and 1,000 metre TT titles on the
Enthusiasm in cycling circles for handicap racing began to wane during
the 1950s, with these events being increasingly eclipsed in terms of
prestige on the road by massed start races and by bunch races on the
track. As to why this should have occurred when it did invites
speculation: was it due to the novelty of the other events or the
absence of national and international honours for handicap events?
Whatever the reasons, the abandonment by the two great Australian
classics – the Austral and the Warrnambool - of their
traditional handicap format in the 1990s would seem to signal the final
demise of the handicap race as a prestige event. If handicaps survive
anywhere today, it is on the margins of the sport in local track
meetings and in the uniquely British tradition of summer grass track
Track and road
racing on tandems
As with other the other forms of cycle sport which have already been
considered, tandem racing on track and road has a long history. At
Olympic level, the track tandem match sprint event over 2,000 metres
became firmly established from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics onwards. At
the Antwerp Games the tandem sprint gold medal was won by the British
pairing of Harry Ryan and Thomas Lance. This event was to feature in
all 11 subsequent Olympic Games over a period of some 50 years, ending
at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Tandem bicycles and even tandem tricycles
figured particularly in the British road time trialling tradition as
well as in Road Records Association (RRA) place-to-place timed records.
These included the epic 870 mile ‘End-to-End’,
Land’s End-John o’Groats record. Given this
enduring British interest, it is not surprising that several leading
British lightweight builders also produced tandem frames and often also
the appropriate accompanying fittings and accessories. Claud Butler,
Hobbs of Barbican and Jack Taylor were all noted for manufacturing
lightweight tandems for both track and road racing as well as for
of Barbican track tandem belonging to former SA tandem champion, Dave
In the post-World War II era, one of the first Eastern Bloc successes
in international cycling came at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the
tandem sprint event. At these the Czechoslovakian team of Foucek and
Machek won the silver medal while an Australian pairing took the tandem
gold. It was the beginning of Eastern Bloc dominance of track tandem
sprinting in the latter part of the 20th century.
The UCI introduced a world amateur tandem match sprint title event in
1966 which was to continue on into the early 1990s. Between 1966 and
1988, Eastern Bloc pairings won a total of 14 world tandem sprint
titles (Czechs 9; East Germans 3; Poles 2). These nations sourced their
track tandems primarily from the two leading Italian bulders, Cinelli
and Pogliaghi. Both were based in Milan where they had the fast,
elegant Vigorelli velodrome as an ideal place to test their machines
crafted in Italian Columbus tandem tubing. Sante Pogliaghi, who worked
alone assisted only by a young apprentice, was particularly noted for
producing his own heavy duty tandem lugs, bottom bracket shells, fork
crowns and front and rear ends.
Track tandems in full flight
The paradigm shift which began in track racing at elite level in the
mid-1970s involved the sport rapidly abandoning large outdoor tracks in
favour of short 250 metre long indoor velodromes. Tandem match
sprinting as a premier event became one of the first casualties in the
process, dropping off the rosters of both national and international
titles. The new small indoor velodromes were totally unsuited to the
demands of this type of racing. Today, track tandems feature primarily
in some of the events in the burgeoning discipline of paracycling.
Nevertheless, tandems retain a timeless appeal, and not only amongst
dedicated cyclists. Tandem events may no longer feature at the apex of
the sport internationally, but modern road going tandems remain
immensely attractive and popular, figuring prominently in the massive
fields of sportives like Cape Town’s annual ‘Argus
Tour’ in South Africa.
From miles to
kilometres: the global metrication of cycle sport
In the 1990s, when the two prestigious Australian events, the
‘Austral’ and the Melbourne-Warrnambool, both
abandoned the handicap format, they simultaneously changed from being
based on the imperial system of measurement of miles and yards to the
metric system of metres and kilometres. In the latter part of the 20th
century, this was a transformation which rapidly permeated the sport in
many of the Anglophone cycling countries where imperial units of
measurement were traditional. In short, globally, the sport rapidly
Since its inception, cycle sport in the British Isles, North America,
Australasia and the British settler-colonies in Africa had used the
imperial system of measurement. On the track, the quarter mile, half
mile, one mile, five miles, ten miles and 25 miles were the classic
racing distances. It was these events that were contested for national
titles, major trophies and entries into the official record books. They
were the crème de la crème of track events in
these countries. Entire cycling careers were devoted to excelling in
them and sporting reputations were built exclusively upon success in
these. With the abandonment of the imperial system, many were instantly
rendered either obsolete or had their prestige seriously undermined.
This was a watershed in the sport in the Anglophone world, dividing
old-style cycling from the new, modern form and, in the process,
eroding the esteem in which these historic events and their champions
In Britain, the powerful road time trialling tradition entirely
rejected metrication. It retained the 10, 25, 30, 50 and 100 mile
events as the classic distances together with the 12 and 24 events
measured in miles. According to The
(2007, p.27), in 2002 the CTT (the body controlling road time
trialling) had 1,000 affiliated cycling clubs, 1,932 road time trials
were held in the course of the year and these attracted a total of
85,000 participants. Clearly, the classic British road time trial,
while it may have lost some ground in terms of prestige within British
cycling circles, has remained a popular national form of the sport. It
continues to provide a valuable entrée for newcomers to
cycle sport, to afford exponents opportunities to measure their
progress ‘against the watch’ and to give those who
have retired from active participation to serve as officials, thereby
retaining their contact with the sport. In short, it remains a vibrant
specialist sporting subculture.
This article has sought to identify the processes of decline of several
former leading specific forms of cycle sport: human and motor-paced
racing, unpaced racing, handicap racing, tandem competition and events
based on imperial measures. If this analysis has revealed anything it
is that cycle sport exhibits an almost infinite capacity to retain
vestiges of its past while simultaneously renewing itself ad infinitum.
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