Classic Lightweights UK
Alf Engers (aka King Alf, The King)Peter Underwood
Alf at full speed on his all-chrome Shorter c.1969 with most components, including the bars, drilled for lightness
The bottoms of the brake stirrups below the blocks are removed
Alfred Robert Engers was born in 1940 and lived throughout his childhood over his father's bakery in North London. He had his first 'real' bike at the age of ten years but as a schoolboy his favoured competitive sports were running and swimming. He nursed an ambition to be the first person to run over the mile distance at less than 4 minutes. As with many youngsters of the age, a bike was a means of travelling around, and they would often find themselves many miles from home realising it would be a long struggle to get back - something not considered on the outward journey. With cyclists everywhere on the roads Alf would have been exposed to the friendship which existed among riders everywhere and would be aware of the more public massed-start road races held in London parks. Alf was soon riding in small groups with some of the 'Barnet Boys' and he would hang on in the group as long as he could, considering that he was much younger than most. At about the same time Alan Shorter, a top competitor in time trials with the Barnet CC, had a serious accident resulting in a fractured femur which put an end to his racing career. As a result he decided to act as mentor and trainer to young and upcoming riders for the Barnet CC. He became aware of Engers, who had a bit of a reputation as a tearaway and who worked as a trainee confectioner in his father's bakery not far from where Alan lived. This job in the bakery involved night work or very early morning starts morning and the upside of this for a keen sportsman was that the work was often done and dusted by dawn or soon after. The night shifts could finish at about 3 am so later in his career Alf was known to head home, grab a couple of hours sleep, and then arrive at 7 am for the start of a time trial. In time trialling the riders are seeded and set off at minute intervals so the faster ones got to start almost two hours later than the slower mere mortals who may be off the start line as early as 5 am.
Alan felt that the 'baker's lad' had potential and so took him under his wing introducing him to the proper world of club cycling with the Barnet in 1952. Although the club members took part in both time trials and road racing, Alf eventually was to specialise in time trialling with its need for dedicated training, self discipline, and willpower, and he concentrated on short distance time trials above all else. However, at this very early stage he took part in road races and pursuit-style events on the track. For someone so young he had a fantastic season when road racing, achieving results many a senior would be delighted to record. However, not all was to be this rosy as when riding home one day he was hit from behind by a car and was ambulanced to hospital where the surgeons explained that they would have to remove Alf's kneecap and execute a repair by tying the ligaments together, very successfully I would say considering the history to follow! This operation rather put paid to Alf's competitiveness in the swimming and athletics world.
For months Alf was barely able to walk but thanks to his dogged character he gradually forced his way back to a level of fitness where he could ride his bike again.
During this time Alf left school as he was able to start work in the family bakery - the school leaving age being fourteen. Now he was able to dedicate a lot of time to hard training and was very inspired by the Higginson twins who were both very stylish and fast time-triallists of the era. Alf soon set himself the target of getting under the 'magic hour' for a 25-mile time trial. These days this time is quite common but in that era it was the wish of all top riders to break the magic barrier. Alf cracked 'the hour' at the very young age of sixteen and soon set his sights on the Barnet CC club record, no mean feat considering the top riders who rode for The Barnet club. By now Alf was beating the hour regularly and it wasn't long before he held that club record.
Around this time Alan Shorter rented a room at the bakery where Alf worked and set up a business repairing tubular tyres (tubs) for the multitude of riders who were racing in the area. Later on, Alan's business expanded into a shop which was a good source of very high-class racing equipment, including frames which were built for him by a succession of builders willing to build to the order of businesses in the area. The frames were badged 'Alan Shorter' or just 'Shorter' and for years the name was synonymous with Alf's success. In the later years Alf rode a glittering all-chrome machine - always immaculately presented.
1959 was to be a memorable year for Alf but sadly it would also herald the start of his constant battle with the governing Road Time Trials Council. It is safe to say that in the minds of most cyclists Alf was a breath of fresh air to the sport with his charismatic, perhaps flamboyant, character, and he certainly livened up the rather staid world of time trialling where a joke was no laughing matter. It seems that his behaviour grated on the governing officials as he was soon to be watched wherever he raced. Although cars were not supposed to be a feature of time trialling as they were the antithesis of what it was all about, wherever Alf raced he was followed by a fleet of cars with officials, journalists and probably some club officials jealous of his success. Naturally there were a few riders and club officials who were jealous of what Alf was achieving and at the slightest chance they would submit claims of unfair riding. Not able to beat him on the ride they attempted to get him disqualified, knowing that the RTTC was of the same mind. The greatest sin in time-trialling is to take pace from another rider but there was no chance of this with Alf as such a practice would hold him up no end as he just swooped by most riders he caught. Another no-no is taking pace from cars but here the RTTC carried on holding events on busy roads in order to boost fast times. This would create a scene where Alf would be doing close on 30 mph in a situation where cars may not be doing that much more, at times less. The RTTC seemed to think that Alf should just crawl along the gutter going slowly so as not to be travelling at the same speed as the traffic. Being competitive Alf wanted to keep at maximum speed and this would entail overtaking slower cars pottering down to the coast with granny in the back. In a dual carriageway it could entail using the centre of the road and overtaking between two lanes of cars - logic (not a known quality of cycling governing bodies) would dictate that there was no where else to go if events were held on busy roads. He entered his first National Championship this year (aged 19) and finished third in a time of 56m 22s and he broke the National 25-mile TT record with a time of 55m 11s.
Alf Engers at speed on an early Alan Shorter with fixed-wheel, one brake and obligatory bell
The wheels are 28 spoked sprints on Airlite hubs and the gear probably 84"
The Engers story is a tale of two halves which have a gap of some five years in between. The gap was enforced by cycling's "powers-that-be" who banned him from the racing scene, thus depriving cycling of an absolute star at the peak of his career. His offence was to turn independent, which was a stepping-stone class meant to act as a testing step between the amateur and professional ranks. Logically one would assume that if for some reason being an Independent didn't work out for a rider then it would be possible to revert to amateur status after a short time, say 12 months. Alf took this step to the Independent ranks in 1962 when he was sponsored by a Barnet CC man Ted Gerrard who had gone into the cycle trade in quite a big way and sponsored a team consisting of Engers, Woodburn, and Harvey, all from the Barnet CC. 1962 however was the wrong year for Alf to do this, as he soon found out. He was married, had a young child, and was starting his own business in the bakery trade. He only took part in a few races during that year, many less than his norm as an amateur and at the end of the year Gerrard's business crashed sensationally. Gerrard ending up in prison for fraud. Alan Shorter took over the almost defunct company and for a short while Alf raced in his name. However, he soon realised that his other commitments meant that he would never be able to devote the time needed to compete amongst the established road racers and he quit the independent ranks at the age of 24.
His fate was now in the hands of the racing officials who for years had been embroiled in a constant battle with Alf over his conduct on the bike in races and here was the chance to settle some old scores. It was possible to apply for reinstatement as an amateur after one year but this was turned down by the blazer brigade. Every year Alf applied to be reinstated and probably anyone else would have been successful but the authorities doggedly held out until Alf decided to give it one more go at the end of 1967. At last he was considered punished enough and his licence was granted.
Alf returned to racing at the age of 28 years in 1968 and Alf was naturally above his racing weight and not at his normal level of fitness after his years in the wilderness (or on the riverbank). However, he entered his first race in the early spring which he won with a time under the hour probably, sending shivers through other riders. This result may have given him the impetus to get into a serious training regime and set about wiping out the agony of those wasted years and to get back the Blue Riband 25-mile record. Yet again the Championship jinx hit Alf and he didn't become National Champion until the following year, 1969, when again he took a stranglehold on the 25-mile record and whittled it down to 51 minutes dead. A stunning result for Alf was in beating Peter Post in the London 6-day at Wembley. During a 6-day extra star events are put on and in this one Alf dished out the ultimate beating in the pursuit by catching him before the event was finished. As a youth Alf had ambitions to become a 4-minute miler in the world of track running, now his ambition was to knock another minute off his record to become the first British rider to break 50 minutes for the 25-mile time trial out and back record.
He was to win the National Time Trial Championship at 25-miles in 1969/ 72/ 73/ 74 / 75 and 76. During these years Alf also did some track riding in the 4.000 metre pursuit and kilometre time trial. He had some successes but was never prepared to compromise his time trialling regime to concentrate on these even shorter events. One reason for this was that the authorities in the UK had decided that they would never allow him to compete in International or Olympic events, which is where successful track racing led to. Although Alf may have seemed to pay dearly for his short excursion into the world of Independents, on his return to the sport there was to be no let-up by the RTTC in what was becoming more than ever like a vendetta against him. As Alf's businesses were doing well he was able to live a rather flashy lifestyle, arriving at events with big cars and his famous fur coat: one can imagine the effect this would have on aged officials who had been brought up in the world of cycling in complete secrecy and dressed from head to toe in black attire. Over the years of his comeback period the officials were to disqualify Alf three more times, to the consternation of most riders in the world of UK time trialling. Each time he was disqualified support for Alf would flood into the cycling press of the day. There was very little backing for the official point of view. Almost every time he rode he was shadowed by RTTC officials, often blatantly following him by car in a sport doing all it could to keep cars relating to the event off the road.
In 1976 Alf was once more suspended for one year after being fined £5 for dangerous riding, after again being put in a position where he had to overtake slow cars on a busy road in a 25-mile time trial in Kent. Following this last enforced season of fishing (he took this up when not racing) he returned to the sport at the age of 38 for one last try to break the 50-minute barrier. He was now riding for Unity CC-Hireconomy but Alan Rochford was still regarded as a great friend and was still supplying Alf with his frames.
During 1978 he kept himself tuned to perfection so should the right conditions arise he would be ready to take advantage and eventually on 5th August that chance arrived on the A12 in Essex. Alf told his story to Peter Whitfield:
In the bakery trade, Friday night is the busiest of all, with all the extra work for weekend. Usually I finished at four in the morning, but this time I rushed and was away by three. At home I ate a couple of cheese rolls and a tin of rice pudding, and went to bed until six. Considering the circumstances I didn't feel bad. I never eat breakfast anyway, and contented myself with black coffee, eating mint cake on the way to the race. When I got to the start I heard that three girls had beaten the hour. I glanced at the main road and there seemed to be a lapse in the traffic; a short time later it seemed heavy.
I went for my usual hour-long warm-up, at slow and medium speed, and looked as usual for signs that would indicate super form. As usual there were none, but instead I had an incredible and inexplicable feeling of well-being. Back at the start I met my friend Alan Rochford, and we discussed the morning. Another rider told us the traffic was very heavy early on, and that there wasn't any wind about. To me it seemed quite windy and it was trying to rain.
Left: another image of Alf Engers at speed on his all-chrome Shorter
(Photo courtesy Cycling)
Selection of wheels came next. We had three pairs with us, all small-flange 24s: a pair shod with road "ones" with a 12-up block; another with "threes" and a 13-up block; and a third with track "ones" and a 13-up block. I plumped for the third pair because, having ridden the course before, I felt I would be able to ride the 13 sprocket up the hills. On top of this I am always tempted to leave it in top gear, so for the first time that season I had only a 13 top. As I changed for the race I reckoned that all I could do had been done. I taped over the lace eyelets on my shoes as the final touch, and was ready to go. We had arranged for three time-checks, all on Derek Cottington, but as he was a non-starter because of a calf injury, they turned out to be on Eddie Adkins.
As I was waiting at the start I noticed that the traffic flow was increasing, and also that it was beginning to rain. As the pusher-off held me, I became aware again of a kind of inner calmness, something normally unknown for me in such circumstances. The timekeeper's count seemed spaced out, then came the off. After the initial starting effort it seemed very fast, even into the wind. Then it started to rain quite hard, and my first thought was that this would allay the wind, so obviously it would be most advantageous to get to the turn as quickly as possible. The wind dropped and the rain almost stopped by the time I reached the first turn. Having rejoined the A12 I overtook a couple of vehicles. Looking ahead I could see a solid block of traffic, and behind it was the same. Descending the turn I engaged the 13 sprocket, and as it turned out I stayed on it for the rest of the ride. During the descent I thought what might happen if I burst a tyre now - then decided that it wasn't worth worrying about as I would surely be a dead man ten times over.
I was now overtaking droves of holiday traffic, and as I got to the flat stretch adjacent to the finish area where everybody watches the riders through first time, traffic I had overtaken started to gain on me, and up ahead I could see a solid block of traffic in both lanes. I was acutely aware of the spectators as I started to catch traffic up; so as not to take pace, I kept as far out as I could in the inside lane, overtaking cars as I went. The dilemma was whether to stay where I was and risk breaking regulation 48, or to get off the road. At this point a handful of spectators put their own slant on the race, and coupled with race reports this had a devastating effect later on. I was first accused of riding in the middle of the road, then taking pace, and also of receiving help from a moving vehicle. Going through the finish area, I caught my minute man, and got a shout of "15 seconds up" from a spectator in a blue and white track suit. After this the traffic seemed to thin out, and the gear was going over easily, even up the hills.
In my mind's eye I felt as though I was controlling myself from within, as if I was the driver of an alien force, deciding if and when more power should be turned on; perfectly relaxed, yet at the same time aware of everything. It was a strange feeling, something I have experienced only twice before. I have since found out that Americans are experimenting with this almost transcendental state for all sport, and they call it "the inner game". As I approached the second turn I began to wonder if the wind would drop. At the top of the slip road Bill Houghton, the club sponsor, was waiting to give me a check on Eddie, which turned out to be 1:30 up. Then someone else shouted 25:30, which was the 15-mile mark. The wind hadn't completely dropped, but it seemed possible to cut through it OK - a thin air day as I've come to call it. On reflection, on the previous occasions that I've broken the record, 1969 and 1969, the same type of conditions have prevailed: always dull and stormy, plenty of oxygen in the air. Heavy traffic alone is now enough.
Ideal conditions seemed to prevail still at six miles to go. Now I get a shout of 1:20 up, and there's still no sign of a sell-out. The wind is still there, but bearable. Five miles to go and club-mate Jack Lacey is holding up a sign which reads "It's on!" Between there and the finish the road drags, and I wonder if I'll make it. Up over the last rise, and only the slip-road to go. The marshals at the top are going mad, waving their arms. I'm over - just - and the legs still in one piece. Left into the finishing straight and I can see Mike Fagg, and at this point I get a shout of "48 minutes". With a wrench I'm up and past him, and in the distance I can see the finish. My legs feel like lead with a hundred yards to go. I'm at my limit and still I'm not there. Everything goes blank, but I still look for the flag. Suddenly it's there, I kick, and it's over ... People are clapping. Have I done it? I stop and my stomach heaves. Everywhere people are running. Alan runs up, kisses me, and says "You've done it, a forty-nine!"
I'm surrounded by people shaking my hand, and I can't believe it's over. Ten years of trying, the disappointments, the bad luck, are over. I look at the sky, expecting to hear a heavenly chorus. Instead, somewhere, a dog barks.
(This extract is from 12 Champions, author Peter Whitfield, published by his own company, Wychwood Publishing, email:- peterwychwood(at)hotmail.co.uk)
Alf Engers – his 1978 machines Peter Underwood (thanks to Paul Kimberley for access to his Engers' archive)
1978 was to be the peak of Alf Enger’s time trial career, the year he finally beat the 50-minute barrier for a 25-mile time trial. For all of his competitive years Alf had been thinking about the technical aspects of the machines he rode, much of this with the cooperation his frame/machine builder/mentor, Alan Shorter.
Leading up to this year Alf had concentrated a lot on weight issues and was famous for having machines with many components radically drilled to reduce weight, it was possible to see straight through some of his handlebars for example and he even cut off the brake stirrups below the block mounting nuts whereas I have been nervous at the thought of filing an extra mm to drop the block to the correct position. In 1976/7 Alf was yet again under suspension from the RTTC and he would have spent a lot of his time fishing and probably thinking about the way forward with his bikes while waiting for a bite! In the record braking year Alan Shorter supplied him with two new machines, each one slightly different to the other for use on different types of courses, both were painted rather than chromed and were transferred ‘Shorter’.
Below, the first description is of the early machine built which, in use, threw up some unforeseen problems resulting in the second machine produced later and was the record breaking machine. Alf had realised that his drillings were creating drag and turbulence over surfaces ruining the aerodynamic flow and that this was outweighing the advantage of the weight savings.
A pair of Alf's bars from the 'drilled all over' eraAerodynamics become exponentially more important as the speed rises, for the average computer cyclist say they would have no bearing at all on his or her performance. Once the speed increases beyond 25 mph this is where every little counts. A simple way to test this is if freewheeling downhill with a friend and speeds are equal, or if the other rider is slowly pulling away. Assuming a machine stable at speed then assume a tuck position with the hands clenched together in front and rest the foreams on the top of the bars. Tuck in the elbows and try to lower your back as much as possible. Within seconds your speed will increase and the wind will roar louder in your ears. Sit up and it will feel as if the brakes are on. Back in the late 70’s there were no tribars, aerodynamic spoked wheels or helmets so the racer was only able to make fiddling adjustments to his machine. This is exactly what Alf did.
(image Nigel Scott)
The first machine produced for this season by Shorter Rochford had a welded frame built by Barry Chick from Columbus PL tubing with Super Vitus fork blades which were seen as more aerodynamic. This light tubing was usually used for track pursuit style machines or special one-offs. Here of course it would be reserved for short time trials. Alf was able to get away with this as he has a fluid smooth style of riding compared with some with a more punchy style. It would, of course, never be used for explosive track sprinting. The frame was short wheelbase - 36¾” with 75° head and 73° seat angles and is said to have chain stays of 15¾” but images of the frame with the rear wheel almost rubbing the seat tube make one wonder if this is a misprint. The Cinelli fork crown and the front and rear ends were thinned down and reduced to reduce frontal area. The braze-ons were kept to a minimum consisting of gear lever boss, tunnel for gear cable under the bottom bracket and a cable stop under the chainstay for the rear gear.
The early 78 machine with reversed brake levers and front stirrup
The gear set-up was a composite of Campagnolo lever, thinned down, operating a Huret Jubilee rear mech. which was known for its lightness but even this was polished and pared down. The drilled Regina Record chain ran on a 5-speed Maillard alloy block minus one of the sprockets giving 12-13-14-15 teeth in conjunction with a lightened 57T chainring giving gears of 102.6, 109.9, 118.3 and 128.1. Even the Campag cranks were slimmed and polished. Even the Campag Super Record pedals had the treatment with the quills removed and the toestraps were cut to the minimum and used with alloy toeclips. In the past the seat pillar had looked like a colander but this time the Laprade pillar was carefully skimmed on the inside to reduce weight whilst keeping a smooth airflow over the surface. These days seat pillars are often aerofoiled to allow the air to ‘slip’ past. The lightest saddle of the day was the Saba which sat atop the lightened seat pillar. The area most responsive to the treatment will obviously be around the handlebar area. The Cinelli 66 bars were slightly shortened and welded and faired into the stem to save weight and improve airflow.
Alf's first set-up for 1978 with the brake levers behind the undrilled bars
The bars were only taped for a short distance from the ends as there would be no idling along on the tops for this machine. This was quite minor compared with the treatment of the brakes. The levers were moved up almost to the stem and fitted in a reversed position with the levers facing out and sitting snugly behind the bars. Smaller juvenile-size levers were used. The trimmed down front stirrup was positioned behind the fork crown and the cables kept to a minimum. A Weinmann stirrup was used at it took the cable to the side away from the gear lever. This machine was described as having a pair of Super Champion Arc-en-Ciel sprint rims on Omas small-flange quick release hubs with titanium spindles. They were 24 spoke front and rear both tied and soldered and were shod with Clement No. 1 silk tubs. Alf would however arrive at events with at least three sets of wheels giving different tub choice and with different sprocket ratios. Naturally the bottom bracket had a titanium axle and was made bt Omas. Very soon after this machine was commissioned Alf found the weak points. The main one being that he was losing time on roundabouts and sliproads by having to come up from the race position to use the brakes so destroying his hard-earned momentum.
For the mark II bike the brake levers and stirrups were back in the normal position. Alf would take three sets of sprints to events, all 24 spoked and with small-flange hubs. One pair had road number one tubulars and sprockets from 12T-upwards. The second pair had road number three tubular with 13T-upwards and the third with ultra light number one track tubular and 13-up. It can be a bit of a gamble using the track tubs on the road but these are the wheel Alf used when he broke the 50-minute barrier.
We would like a good image of Alf on his record breaking machine to insert here
Having finally broken the 50-minute barrier, the record stood for ten years before it was broken with the aid of advancing technology. Cycling marked the occasion by presenting Alf with a specially-struck gold medal.
Alf took the record on his Shorter machine which was built for Shorter by Barry Chick, who himself had been a successful rider in the 60s. However, Bryan Clarke tells us that a conversation with the frame builder Alec Bird at a cycle jumble who pointed out that at some time Alf rode a machine with both Alec Bird and Shorter decals on it (See image, The Condor Years - Peter Whitfield p. 9). He remembered that Alf had asked him to find someone to drill out the Campag bottom bracket as part of the obsession with lightening every component possible.
Having achieved his long-held aim to beat 50-minutes for the 25-mile time trial Alf seemed to ease of a bit on the number of events he competed in (see letter below), eventually switching to the triathlon event for a period.
An interesting piece of history is this letter from Alf to Chris Hancock who tells us:
I was the organiser for a "25" on the T254 (Catterick) shortly after Alf's 49-24. Alf had entered but (not unreasonably) decided the long journey up north was no longer necessary. He wrote me a very nice letter which I have kept ever since. I have attached a scan of the letter, which I think is pretty legible, as I thought it might be of (mild) interest to you.
Alf's grandson Robert Engers was riding for the Arctic Shorter-Rochford team in 2008/9, competing mainly as a triathlete - a chip off the old block!
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