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Memories of Cycling in the Fifties

Posted: Friday 21st August 2020

Author: Bernard Howard

I left School in 1949 when I owned a pseudo sports bike and with two friends decided on a great adventure, a 14-day tour of the Lake District using Youth Hostels for accommodation.  I knew it would be a bit hilly so I had a brainwave and added a 3-speed Cyclo derailleur to my 3-speed Sturmey hub gear.  It worked so I had  nine gears now. We really didn’t know what to expect but nevertheless we made it, cobbles, tramlines, the dreary smokey Midlands and all. What an eye opener and what hills!!!!  On our return journey South we met the `Brighton to Glasgow Race` peleton  heading North. They must have been having a quiet spell because they had plenty of breath to shout friendly ribald remarks in our direction, we must have looked right wallies.

After that I was not earning much money, wages were £3 per week, and I was living in Dagenham with a job in the City and travelled on the Underground where we were packed like sardines, so I decided to ride a bike to work instead. I soon found that the road to London was full of  blokes, old and young, cycling to work,  I suppose all as skint as me.

A lot of the youngsters I knew were leaning towards club cycling so I decided to get a ‘decent bike’ and join a club with them.   In those, what in retrospect, were very drab times the finish on Harry Rensch’s Paris frames  was ‘eye-catching’  to say the least,  so I was hooked. The price of a frame was about 4 weeks wages,  so ‘on the book’,  at Rory O`Briens  in Manor Park. Complete bikes were subject to Purchase Tax so the only option was to buy the bits and put them together yourself,  I even built my own wheels.  (Sorry Dave Bedwell, he was the wheelbuilder at Rory’s).

So now I owned a  Paris ‘Professional’  welded frame, which was the cheapest Harry did, and it was brightly finished in Red White and Blue  I fitted an Osgear 5-speed with Gnutti  double chainset (with genuine cotter pins as I couldn’t afford the new-fangled cotterless). Yes you could use a double ring with an Osgear 5, contrary to comments elsewhere. I had a Simplex front changer, Gnutti hubs,  San Georgio rims  (with serrations on the braking surface), the noise was frightening every time you applied the brakes, D’Allessandro Leone tubs,  South of France Bars, which were awful so I soon changed to Coppi.  As you can see I used all  the cheapest stuff available except for the Brooks B37 saddle which was ‘blocked’ for more comfort.   (B37 similar to B17 except  for an alloy frame which was lighter.)  So, here I was, up and running, cheap and cheerful, and mechanically a lot more knowledgeable.

(Ed. I asked Bernard to explain ‘blocking’, here is the reply: I never actually saw it done, or by who, but saddle went away somewhere to be reshaped at the back, i.e. slightly more rounded. The back of B17’s were fairly square or flat looking, the ‘blocking’ rounded off the rear profile slightly, that little bit more for comfort. Possibly this was arranged at shop when I bought it. Most likely done by some ‘Fred Dibnah’ in his shed with a block of wood and a big hammer !!!!!  I can’t imagine Brooks doing it.  I just cannot remember where the idea came from, one of those ‘fashions’ that does the rounds. Couldn’t have been ‘too’ drastic otherwise the saddle shape would eventually have suffered.  I think the ‘Ideale’ saddle had that sort of rounded profile as bought but I am not certain.)

I joined the ‘Barking Rotrax’ club, (NCU – The Union) and  rode a few novice Time Trials but was ‘pathetic’.  0ne of our number rode the ‘Glendene Novices 25’ on the A13 and did a long  59 minutes.  That raised a few eyebrows of disbelief, although we knew he was well capable.  We watched  the massed start racing at Matching Green Airfield which was a Bloody carnage and I decided to give it a miss as I wanted to live a bit longer. NCU

One race we watched  c1950 was won by an Australian, Jack Hoobin, he was riding a borrowed bike using a single free wheel !! The same, or following year he won the Amateur World title, again I believe on a single-speed machine.  Jack Hoobin apparently became a well known political figure in Australia and, so I was told by a Museum in Australia, was due to open the Olympic Games in Sydney but passed away shortly before the ceremony,  I have an idea his wife did the opening instead.   He must have been quite a character.

Nevertheless, I rode a race at Brands Hatch at Easter 1950.  It snowed and everybody was falling off so I packed in after about 3 laps.  Later on I rode a  time-trial from the George public house at Wanstead to Cambridge and back, which was 100 miles plus, on what  turned out to be the hottest day of the year.  By the time I got back to Epping, where there was a lovely inviting horse trough, I was just about all in; and  to add insult to injury a young local lad rode slowly up alongside and asked me if  I was racing.  Just about made it back to the ‘Alpha’ café.   Where did I finish ?  I don’t know and didn’t care.

My daily cycling routine was to ride from home to work and back, then after work from home to the Café in Romford, where we met the boys for a burn up and down the Southend Arterial road and then back home which altogether totalled about 60 miles each day.   Sometimes for a change we went up the Epping Road via the Alpha, another café, to Ma Thompson’s café at Potter Street.  This was a really old and famous hang-out, well known to all East London cyclists for years.   The return journey was hairy to say the least.  It was pitch black with 40 or 50 riders hurtling through the Forest roads with only dim Ever Ready lights.  I don’t remember anyone getting killed, but how they didn’t I have no idea.

On Saturdays we rode off to Rory O`Briens where we all met up to ogle all  the ‘goodies’. Sometimes he insulted us but he was a lovely bloke really.  Sundays were either racing or training rides usually round about 100 miles.   So this all added up to a regular weekly mileage of around 400 plus.

Soon we became aware of  this other organisation, the BLRC (the League) which  we found very appealing with regard to proper road racing and decided to form our own Club, the Avenue CRC, so named because that was the name of the café where we all  hung out, and the fact that the owner agreed to subsidise our ‘woolly jerseys’. You know the ones, alright in the dry but a foot longer in the wet.   I had traded in my Paris by now for a CNC which was not so flashy !!

By now we felt that we belonged in the cycling fraternity rather than being on the fringes.   We were mixing and riding with  the big boys. To give you an idea of the popularity of club cycling, I don’t know how many NCU Clubs were in  the London area, but in the BLRC 1951 Handbook there were 45 League Clubs in London alone. Our ‘opening weekend’ training run was to Cheddar and back, which was 120+ miles each way and was more of a road race than a training run!!  The Romford RC (Dave Bedwell’s mob) went even further than this, to Exeter and back, which was about 180 miles each way, so we didn’t fancy joining them.

We had week-long tours to the West Country with about £3.50 in our pockets, again more like a stage race and woe betide anyone who got left behind, well not quite that bad but you couldn’t hang about.   Our accommodation was usually in a haystack or a ‘barn full of rats’, it actually happened and we spent all night chasing them with torches!

Bernard 2nd from left in the Herts Grand Prix (Junior) 
Bernard 2nd from left in the Herts Grand Prix (Junior) 

By now, 1951 was the year of the ‘Festival of Britain’.  Everything seemed a bit brighter after the austere post-war years and  we were entering various junior road races, mainly in Kent where there were more hills than we were used to in Essex. A vivid memory is of one race which was whittled down to about five of us and halfway up Crockham Hill near the finish a certain chap named ‘Jock’ Andrews changed up to a higher gear and rode away, I actually stopped breathing trying to keep up and nearly died but I came in fifth.  A few years later Jock Andrews was riding the Tour de France.   I’m glad to say I beat him a few months later in the London Junior Championships. I came 2nd by a tyre outside Vic Humphrey’s shop in Lady Margaret Road, Southall. Jock unfortunately fell off somewhere down the road and Didn’t see him again, shame.

A few months later I joined the RAF for three years and found other interests,  beer, darts and women, as one does. Luckily. I still did a fair bit of riding burning off the locals on their  training runs and riding back down the A5 from Bletchley to Romford on ‘Sports afternoons’  but didn’t get much decent competitive riding. After my three years I was demobbed, got married, took on a mortgage and had a family.  Need I say more?  Like many of my contemporaries I couldn’t get the miles in and then came the end of the BLRC so I decided to pack in competitive riding.

Other snippets:
Whilst in the RAF in 1953, one Sunday  on the way back to Hereford Camp from London,  on a motor bike, I caught up with a cyclist around Gloucester. I recognised him immediately as Dave Robinson (Romford RC/Independent) so I pulled up alongside him and asked him where he was going. It turned out he was on his way  back to his RAF Camp at St Athan’s in South Wales,  from Romford in Essex.  That is some ride.   Mind you, he had ridden in the Tour of Britain a couple of times.

I first saw Dave Bedwell on the grass track,  then he went from 3rd Cat to Independent in 2 years. He was a lovely bloke, one of the boys.   He burnt his hand dropping fireworks down the chimney of the ‘motorbikers’ café opposite ours,  friendly rivalry! I could have made a fortune betting on Dave – if it was a sprint finish he won and if it was a hill-prime he won.  He eventually moved to Devon and I was told recently by the Devon CTC that he was on a Club run when he collapsed, shades of Beryl Burton.

The familiar cry ‘Bring out your Dead’, mentioned in another article as used by cyclists in Blackpool!  It was the same in Romford, how did this get up North, or how did we get it down South?

There is a photo elsewhere on your site of the finish of a time trial on the Southend Road in 1948 with no traffic in sight. Even in 1951 it was no different, in fact there were very few cars on the road at all.   The open road was ours, you could go wherever you wanted with no thought at all of other traffic, happy days.

APC Bowles, Importer, (mentioned elsewhere on the site) was  known to us as ‘Johnnie Bowles’. He lived in a student house in East London in his early importing days.  We would visit him to see what ‘goodies’ he had acquired.  This broadened my sheltered education no end, semi-naked ladies running up and down the stairs and a recital of ‘Eskimo Nell’ that went on for about half an hour.  Perhaps that is why we kept going back for more!

I remember spending all night riding round in London waiting to see the start of the 1951 London – Holyhead BLRC Race. We did it again for the Tour of Britain.  We also went to Herne Hill to see the great Fausto Coppi on his first visit. With hundreds, if not thousands, of London Italians in the crowd it was electric.

I must mention the story of one of our locals who went to France and Belgium for a taste of Continental racing.  He finished up in ditch and when he came round one of  the local peasants was trying to straighten his frame out for him.  Yes, you’ve guessed, it was a Curly Hetchins.  I don’t know the end of the story, sorry.

When I was riding most of us only had one bike which  was used for riding to work, training, and racing. To get to the start of a  race you rode there, no lifts in cars so you were ‘cream-crackered’ by the time you got home.  In the winter we would change to heavier tubs, does anyone remember the Wolber Reds,  the ones that used to split down the middle? We used tyresavers all the time and honestly I don`t remember getting many punctures at all.

Does anyone remember a framebuilder in East London called ‘Jimmy Long’?  My wife had one of his frames, it was a lovely bike and I last heard of it in the loft of a Southend Wheeler!  There was a phase we went through of having a frame built and leaving it ‘as was’ with no paint, just a coat of lacquer, the idea was to save weight and was very elitist.

Thanks for reading

Posted: Friday 21st August 2020

Author: Bernard Howard

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