The Cycling Legacy of Leon Meredith, Bastide and the Constrictor Tyre Company
Posted: Sunday 16th August 2020
The names of Meredith, Bastide and Constrictor are inextricably linked in the history of cycle sport. Together they profoundly influenced 20th century lightweight cycling in Britain and beyond in several ways. In short, they combined to produce a lasting cycling legacy.
Leon Meredith was a British cycling star of the belle époque period before WWI; the Constrictor Tyre Company was a London-based business he bought into and transformed; and ‘Bastide’ was the name of a revolutionary French lightweight machine of the period which Meredith, through Constrictor, introduced into Britain. However, their tripartite relationship was both complex and protracted. To understand it better each of the three parties involved merit closer attention.
Leon Meredith: Cosmopolitan Edwardian cycling champion
Between 1904 and 1913, Leon Meredith (1882-1930) won no fewer than seven UCI world amateur track titles in the then-prestigious long distance (‘stayers’) paced event, an Olympic gold medal in the team pursuit at the London 1908 Games, and he finished fourth in the 320km (198.9 miles) individual road time trial at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. In Britain itself, however, his fame in cycling circles rested primarily on his prowess in the art of fixed distance road time trialling. In particular, he was celebrated for being the first rider to break the 5 hour barrier in the 100 mile individual TT– the enduring ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British cult sport of road time trialling. (Meredith’s record time was 4:52.52 set in the 1910 version of the legendary ‘Bath Road 100’ event).
As his variegated palmarés suggest, Meredith was an allrounder. But more than this he was representative of a new era in British cycle sport – a cosmopolitan Edwardian rather than an insular Victorian. In the 19th century British cycle sport had been dominated by introverted ‘gentleman-amateurs’. Typically, they were members of a cliquish public school-educated ‘leisure class’. Not obliged to engage in fulltime employment to sustain themselves, they were free to pursue the ideal of amateur sport. However, it was this austere and lofty amateur ideal which ultimately brought British cycle sport into conflict with other cycling nations. It culminated in the formation of the breakaway UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) in Paris in 1900. This totally undermined the British-dominated ICA (International Cycling Association).
At the beginning of the 20th century, British cycle sport thus found itself internationally isolated. This was because the newly-formed UCI had penalised cycling nations such as Britain which were not amongst its founder members by excluding them from membership for a period of three years. It was only when the British NCU (National Cycling Union) belatedly joined the UCI in 1903 that British cyclists became eligible to enter UCI controlled international competitions like the annual UCI world championships. Meredith was thus in the new post-1903 vanguard of British cyclists who began to travel regularly into continental Europe to compete on the international stage. Inevitably, this exposed him to Continental developments in cycling technology. These included both novel componentry and innovative racing machines.
But Meredith also differed from the majority of his genteel British cycling contemporaries in that his family’s background was in ‘trade’ and specifically in the building trade. The Edwardian era was the ‘age of Empire’ par excellence. It was a period of massive economic boom in Britain with London being the imperial metropolis at the very heart of an empire ‘on which the sun never set’. The London-based Meredith family flourished in the city’s building boom of the belle époque period. As its scion, Leon found nominal employment in the family building business and benefited from its new-found affluence. This gave him ample time to train, travel and race while also enjoying the benefits of having a personal trainer and a masseur. But his nouveau riche status meant that he remained the eternal outsider, never completely accepted into the inner circle of gentleman-amateurs who formed the British cycling Establishment of his day. With the advent of WWI, however, this status quo was to be massively disrupted.
Meredith resumed racing after the war, competing in the 1920 Antwerp Olympic road race (a long distance time trial) in which he finished 18th. He was then 38 and was to ride his last races in the 1924 season, aged 42. He died in 1930, only six days before his 48th birthday after suffering a heart attack while on his family’s annual skiing holiday in the fashionable resort of Davos, Switzerland.
The French Connection: Epicentre of pre-WWI cycle sport
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cycle sport on both road and track flourished in France, with Paris as its centre. The 1890s saw the beginnings of one-day road classics like Bordeaux-Paris (1891), Paris-Roubaix (1896), Paris-Tours (1896) and Paris-Brussels (1896). Paris itself soon boasted several outdoor velodromes – Buffalo, Vincennes and the Parc des Princes – as well as the winter indoor Vel d’Hiv. In 1903 the inaugural Tour de France established the tradition of having Paris as its pivotal point.
Given these developments in competitive cycling, it was not surprising that technological innovations proliferated in France at this time. Images from early Tours de France reveal the rapid introduction of the more efficient cable-operated calliper rim brake to replace the rod (‘roller’) controlled ‘spoon’ brake that worked by contact with the tyre. Associated with this was the advent of the lightweight laminated wood racing rim. Nevertheless, advances in bicycle technology were often a source of controversy, as occurred before the 1912 Tour de France. The conservative ‘Father’ of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, initially insisted that the competitors use only single fixed gears rather than single freewheels on the grounds that ‘the use of such mechanical contrivances made the competitors’ task much easier’.
Following protests by both riders and sponsors, Desgrange relented and allowed the use of single freewheels should riders so choose. (The 15-stage 1912 Tour covered 5,319km. [3,305 miles] and was won by the Belgian, Odile Defraye. Held in July, its dates clashed with the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in which Meredith himself was competing).
Today relatively little is known in the Anglophone cycling world about the pre-WWI Parisian lightweight builder ‘E. Bastide, 56 Boulevard de Clichy, Paris’, other than that frame production ceased there in 1936. However, Bastide’s cutting-edge lightweight designs speak for themselves. Through a process of ‘cultural diffusion’ in which Leon Meredith played a key part, they were to profoundly influence leading frame builders in Britain for several decades up until WWII. Bastide’s machines were racing thoroughbreds clearly born of the plethora of French racing experience in the period. When compared with their contemporary British counterparts, Bastide’s velos were revolutionary in that they:
• Used 26” rather than 28” wheels
• Were minimalist and based on the ‘less is more’ principle. making them genuinely lightweight
• Had compact frames making for several inches of seat pillar being visible
• Had top tubes parallel to the ground and lower bottom brackets
• Had rear triangles brazed to the main frame triangle rather than bolted to it
• Used special Reynolds tubing with smaller, round and tapered seat and chain stays with the right chainstay indented for chainwheel clearance as well as having round fork blades
• Were fitted with cable operated calliper rim brakes (single front for fixed)
• Introduced the two-plate fork crown during the 1920s
• Had wooden (‘cane’) sprint rims typically made of laminated maple rather than steel rims
• Employed BSA hollow axle double sided rear hubs with two spindle holes which allowed for rapid reversal of the rear wheel to access a single sprocket with a different number of teeth (de rigueur in races like the Tour de France back in those days)
In short, the Bastide velos were the very antithesis of the cumbersome British machines of the period. They were state-of-the-art French lightweight racing thoroughbreds.
The Constrictor Tyre Co.: Catalyst of early 20th century lightweight design
In pre-WWI Britain, the established London-based Constrictor Tyre Co. provided Leon Meredith with an ideal opportunity to capitalise on his status as a well-connected cosmopolitan cycling champion with entrepreneurial ambitions. On his extensive racing travels he had established international contacts in the cycle trade, particularly in France. Through his family connections, he had access to both financial resources and business acumen. Meredith was thus ideally situated to take over and transform the Constrictor company into a specialist lightweight bicycle enterprise. This he initiated in 1912 when he was 30 years old and at the height of his fame as a racing cyclist.
Meredith’s first project on joining Constrictor involved the introduction of a novel racing tubular. However, his major commercial breakthrough with the firm came at the 1913 Olympia Cycle Show in London. He was responsible for the revolutionary Bastide lightweight being exhibited in Britain for the first time at this show. it created a sensation and precipitated a paradigm shift in the design thinking of leading British lightweight builders. But it could not have happened at a worse time for this was on the eve of the outbreak of WWI.
When the war is over’: The post-WWI cycling revolution in Britain
Whereas before the war both leisure cycling and cycle sport in Britain had been largely the preserve of the haute bourgeoisie (with a few notable exceptions like Leon Meredith), this changed dramatically after the war ended. Cycling for both sport and leisure was rapidly expropriated by the British proletariat. In the process it became a mass recreational activity. This was a by-product of the social dislocation of the British class system together with increased gender equality both ultimately caused by WWI. British men and women of the industrial working class now enjoyed limited but nevertheless significant increases in both disposable income and leisure time. This placed them in the position of being able to afford to purchase a bicycle on which they could regularly escape from the industrial cities into the countryside for either pleasure or competition or both. Writing of developments during this period the modern British historian Richard Hoggart observes:
The working classes went on to the dales and hills and moors, which luckily are not too far from most of the large towns. If walking is not markedly typical of working-class people, then cycling is. Buying a bike on the hire purchase system, paid for out of weekly wages, one goes out at week-ends with a friend who bought a bike at the same time or with one of those mixed clubs which sweep every Sunday through town and out past the quiet tram terminus. For those who want club companionship, exercise, “a good day out”, there is the Cyclists’ Touring Club and there is the National Cyclists’ Union for those who go in for racing … [these two] have a quarter of a million members.
R. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, quoted in the Penguin Book of the Bicycle (p.144)
The interwar period is often referred to as the ‘golden age of British cycling’. It was a situation which Constrictor, astutely guided by Meredith, was uniquely positioned to meet. Constrictor continued to import Bastides but they remained relatively expensive. However, small specialist British lightweight framebuilders with strong local cycling connections began to proliferate as demand for lightweights escalated. They rapidly incorporated Bastide design principles into their machines, adding personal flourishes but following the French master. Granby, MacLean, Grubb, Saxon, F.W Evans, Selbach – all are names of specialist framebuilders redolent of this period. Several became involved in exporting their lightweights to the colonies. For instance, Selbach did a brisk trade in his machines in South Africa. In this manner the Bastide lightweight design template became further diffused. In the process, however, its French origins were increasingly obscured.
Constrictor chose a rather different path. The company began to diversify its range of lightweight products to capitalise on the expanding British market. In addition to tyres and tubulars, it distributed highly innovative components and accessories. Often these were produced by major companies like BSA or continental manufacturers and then rebranded as ‘Constrictor’ or ‘Conloy’. The Constrictor range came to include lightweight rims, pedals, cranks, toeclips, lamp brackets, derailleur gears, handlebar stems, brakes, wingnuts even bar-end puncture kits. These items remain highly prized by modern collectors of classic lightweight equipmen
Leon Meredith’s untimely death in 1930 at the age of 48 did little to inhibit Constrictor’s reputation or success in the pre-WWII British cycling world. He had clearly laid firm foundations which allowed the company to continue to flourish. The institution of the Leon Meredith Memorial Trophy for a prestigious annual season-long British track racing competition in the early 1930s served to perpetuate his name in British cycling circles for decades to come.
However, the 1960s saw the rapid decline of cycling as both a sport and a pastime in Britain and with it the collapse of the British lightweight cycle industry. Inevitably this led to the demise of the Constrictor Tyre Company in the same decade. It was the end of an era. As this article has sought to highlight, the roots of this lightweight culture can in large measure be traced back to the early 20th century. This was when the paths of a remarkable British champion cyclist, Leon Meredith, an obscure but innovative Parisian lightweight builder, E. Bastide, and a London bicycle tyre manufacturer, Constrictor, crossed. For 20th century cycling this was definitely a case of ‘serendipity’ – an entirely happy coincidence.
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