This is a thing I started writing about a year ago on the suggestion of a couple of good mates, it’s kinda part one of how I got into cycling… a very long time ago!!!
The eternal B grader (part one)
I saw an interview with a professional cyclist a while back, the interviewer asked the question , " Did you do any other sports before you were a bike rider, or did you take up cycling because you were crap at everything else?
It got me thinking after 40 years of competitive cycling, how? why?
I rode my first open race in March 1974, it was the East Surrey Hardriders Time Trial 12 miles, the seniors event was 33 miles. The event is still run every year, but it seems the junior event over the shorter distance is no more.
I had joined the Twickenham Cycling Club a few months earlier.
Need maybe to go back a bit, I was born the youngest of five in 1959. A two year gap between each of my older siblings and five to me.
My middle sister Ruth taught me to ride a two wheel bike. We didn’t have stabilisers or training wheels, but we did have a tricycle, handed down from heaven knows when.
So Ruth taught me to ride a two wheeler, that was in Sheen Common that leads onto Richmond Park west of London. The common was mine, bumps and lumps, paths and obstacles. Much of its undulations were due to bombs that had been dropped after the blitz on London , or undetonated bombs that were “safely” blown up there.
So age five, I had my first red bike. The red bike theme is relevant, everyone knows red is the fastest colour. The next one for my eighth birthday, from Blake’s bicycles and mopeds just along the Upper Richmond Road in Sheen, it was blue, still no racer, didn’t even know they raced bikes!
Timeline break: 1967 when I was eight Tommy Simpson died in the Tour de France on Mt Ventoux, I recall hearing about it on the BBC news, I’ll come back to that later, remind me.
William Hartnell had rejuvenated into Patrick Thornton on Dr Who. We went to synagogue every Saturday morning, and watched Dr Who every Saturday evening, the original William Hartnell series was very dark, and he would of had to be the least amicable of all that preceded him. The first series recently became available online, even watching them today they are very dark and he is not the saviour of the earth.
Ok I’m eight , got my new bike, walking to Sheen Mount primary school up the road every morning, lunchtime and afternoon. I went home for lunch, because school dinners weren’t kosher.
Barry Chesterfield had a bike too, we would ride through and around the common for hours after school and at weekends. One day, no idea why we decided to go for a longer ride up to town, had no money, I wasn’t wearing shoes. Got as far a Wandsworth, the other side of Richmond Park, would be about 15 km from home. I punctured, recollections bit vague now, anyway a lady saw us outside her house and told her what had happened, she helped me mend the puncture, and suggested she call our parents to take us home.
The bike was ok, we were fine, so we rode home!
Ok big deal two kids went on a bike ride, no two kids rode along major roads through major traffic in one of he busiest cities in the world ,London. Not sure anyone would do that now, imagine parents being fined for neglect…
Did I do other sports? Do school kids still have suffer the humiliation of being the last chosen for a team?
That awful moment of dread as two team captains were chosen by the teacher, and there was one kid left, that was me.
I played soccer, scored a goal once, rugby league and union, cricket. Was fit and fast, then we did athletics, I would often win and beat the class captain types, especially in the shorter distances. Running was another way of getting around where and when I couldn’t take my bike, I’d run up the road to school after lunch.
High school was a commute to Camden Town, North London. a bus trip from home to the station, then train journey across the top of London, then another bus ride to school.
In the afternoon there was a 4:10 and a 4:35 train, I would try and bolt out of school at four on the dot and run to the station, It was hit and miss getting the 4:10, especially running up the stairs to the platform… Made it most days.
The train was the overground run by British rail, most of the carriages were small compartments, the doors were heavy.
Half way home one day I caught my left thumb in a shutting door. It hurt a lot but I made it home, about another hour, I got taken to hospital, I had fractured everlasting small bones. I was asked when and where it had happened,the doctor told me how brave I was, a little surprised too.
Swimming, I lived in a not very warm climate, Sheen Mount, my primary school had an unheated 15 m or so pool. If you could swim a length you got to a sew on badge for your budgie smugglers.
I managed to get my badge my last year when I was ten. When I went to JFS my high school they had a big pool with diving boards and everything. I could swim about 20 m.
In the 6 week summer holidays, my mother would take me to Richmond swimming pool early every morning, when I went back to start the new term I had earned all my distance badges up to 1500 m and my silver personal survival one.
After the first swimming session of the new term, aged 12, I was invited to train with the school squad. This was huge my buddy Keith was the star of the year, I wasn’t that far behind him. Never got to represent the school, the start of my eternal B grader career. After a few months I got bored with just going backwards and forwards for an hour, so left. I was getting to enjoy athletics more and more, anything that didn’t involve hand eye co ordination, throwing or catching I did ok at.
I am not overly sure why I am so crap at ball, bat games. Often thought it may be due to being a confused left hander. By confused I mean it has never stopped me doing anything, using a tool or playing instruments. My father was ambidextrous, his party trick was drawing a perfect circle with a pencil or chalk in each hand. As was the custom when he was at school, if you used your left hand you were punished. In those days that meant a rap over the knuckles with a cane or wooden ruler. I play all my instruments right handed, never knew any different. So maybe my left and right brain get confused with what it should be doing with the high speed projectile aimed at me, a survivor instinct perhaps ?
So running, I hung out with a group of nerds, not the cool guys or the sport’s captains. The main difference was most of them tried to get out of sports but I’d look forward to it, whatever they threw at us, enthusiasm was not lacking, skill in team games was. So I’m one of the youngest in my year, and at 13 Jewish boys have a shindig called a bar mitzvah. It is the age you become a man and can be called to the reading of the law in a service. There is a minimum of ten adults that must be present before the Torah or Old Testament can be read, along with several other ceremonies. Well that’s the facts, in practice it is a reason to impress your family, well for your parents to impress the family. Along with all this there are presents and money!
With my money, my mother took me to Barclays Bank in East Sheen to open an account. The first thing I wanted to buy myself was a bike. My father insisted that it had to be a sensible one, that is a men’s tourer, 26 x 1 3/8" wheels three speed hub Sturmy Archer hub gear, and of course straight bars!
Blake’s once again provided the steed, a Raleigh Palm Beach.
This was the best thing since , well ever. I had a saddle bag and would take myself off for rides into the Surrey countryside. All the while I’d was eyeing a Puch mistral “racer” hanging up at Blake’s mopeds and bicycles.
It wasnt long before I talked my father into letting me part exchange my palm beach for the racer!
During the few months I started tinkering, and for my birthday that year, I somehow managed to persude my parents to buy me a Holdsworth 531 frame, from WF Holdsworth in Putney, somewhere I’d started annoying, lusting at the racing bikes. I soon found they had a professional team as well.
Every day we had the Daily Telegraph delivered, arrived before my father left for work. In the sports section there was often a column on cycling, Jock Wadley, and then David Saunders the corespondent, I lapped it all up, there were places, races and names.
So I swapped the components off my hi tensile tubed Puch onto the Reynolds 531 butted orange Holdsworth frame. I didn’t have any proper tools, but I did it and rode it the next day, cottered cranks an all!
Pocket money and bar mitzvah money went on upgrades, all from WF Holdsworth.
Towards the end of that same year 1973 a friend of mine at school Roy Stupack, invited me to his party out at Staines. He’d mentioned his neighbour was a racing cyclist.
It took me about 90 minutes to get to and from school, it took Roy 2 hours, but it was the only Jewish comprehensive school around and we went.
Staines was a fair ride from my place, but I rode to the party, staying over night. The next day the cyclist neighbour John Elliot came over to meet this insane 14 year old that rode everywhere. He said that the club met 9:30 every Sunday for a club ride from Hampton Court gates.
I went along the next week, not sure what to expect, can’t recall where we went, but we stayed together, John was the club captain, we stayed together, they pushed me up a couple of hills,(some things never change!) we stopped for tea, and rode home.
I went out for the next few weeks and along to the clubhouse on a Tuesday evening. The club president at the time Ken Ryall, ran another bike shop, his claim to fame was as a driver in the Tour de France. It was not till much later I found out he was the driver for the GB team the day Tommy Simpson died on Mt Ventoux. I said earlier I’d come back to that. I think I have read every book, and seen every film and documentary about the events leading up to his death. Ken never spoke or discussed about that day, Harry Quinn the mechanic only agreed to an interview many years later. It didn’t occour to me at the time how important the cars were in major races.
Of the Twickenham riders, Alan Rushton, went onto to run cycle races all across Europe, Jerry Baker, Grahame Macnamee and Bob Arnold were the other first cat riders.
The one stand out was Grahame Macnamee, Mac, he had won every major amateur race in the country, a quiet guy, but could pick up the smallest detail when we were out riding, he would explain a technique, the reason for doing it. All of them would take time during the ride to teach newbies how to follow a wheel, explain about gearing, braking, attaining massive mileages in the cold miserable English winters.
In the UK you need a winter bike, they use salt on the roads that corrode and damage everything, mudguards were part of the winter setup too. It was considered bad form to spray another rider. Then there was another aspect to these winter club rides, off roading. It was sometimes just one bridleway or unmade road, other times a route across the paths of a common, often had to get of our bikes to jump stiles, or when the sand got too soft.
I as told that there was racing along these same lines called cyclo cross.
In January 1974 I joined Twickenham Cycling Club and in March I rode my first race. That’s where I started isn’t it?