Road Racing in the 1950's
Posted: Friday 21st August 2020
It all started with a Raleigh ‘sports bike’ given to me as a present for passing my 11+ examination (it came from Halfords for 11 guineas)- with semi-dropped handlebars. As the guy living next door to me was an RTTC Time triallist, he gave me help in trying to make the bike more ‘racy’ but obviously to no avail.
Twelve months later I contracted Rheumatic Fever, missed quite a bit of school and eventually when I returned I was ‘excused all sports’ – to protect my heart! Becoming bored I saved up to buy a frame, a Sibbitt track bike, from our next door neighbour and over time bought all the bits to make a myself a racing bike.
I joined a local CTC club and started their Sunday rides. On club-night they had a set of rollers and we could all have a go on them. In between touring on a Sunday and club-night I accidently saw a club time trial (a 10-mile event on the A580 East Lancs Road). I joined the organising club, Walkden CC, and started ‘training’ doing the odd 10-mile time trial with disastrous results! Then my original club invited me to train and enter the NCU/RTTC Time Trials. After terrible results and hating the 6.00am starts, as well as having to wear black in those days, I started to look around for something else.
Those were the days of Reg Harris, Cyril Cartwright & Alan Bannister. As I was heavily built I was ideal for the ‘big sprint’. Thus we used to go down to Fallowfield Track in Manchester (no longer in existence) to train, practice circuits and the last ‘200 metre sprint’. That was with ‘The Master’s ‘(Reg Harris) permission-it was quite polite and even encouraging for a 14 year old. I was even given the privilege of ‘sweeping the track’ between events at International Track events. Some honour for a youngster!
To pay for my new bike I took two newspaper delivery rounds each morning before school and then each evening after. Plus, on a Saturday, I delivered what were called ‘periodicals’, i.e. supplements, for which I was given an old heavy delivery bike with a single free wheel – no gears. Great training.
Eventually I saved enough money to buy my ‘proper’ racing bike which started with a CNC (French) frame with ten gears (derailleur) and alloy Conloy sprint rims with ‘tubs’ for racing. With this machine I joined a The Domino Road Club which had massed start races, usually held in the afternoon.
In this new club we did lots of miles in Derbyshire, one evening plus Saturday and Sunday, and whenever the ‘seniors’ went racing I tried to join them. Oh what days – riding down to Bournemouth for a two day race and sleeping rough! Because we were all broke due to buying new bike bits, tubs etc. we always rode everywhere, nobody’s family having car – though one time I can remember Harry Hall giving us a lift on his father’s coal cart.
We did anything we could to allow us to ride to and visit the races: I was not yet racing properly. This included roller racing on local theatre stages. The two rollers had a large clock behind the two bikes. They showed the speed and position of each rider. It was tough considering that my prize for being in the final was a ‘tatty’ pseudo-leather saddlebag. We never used them anyway, preferring the musette.
In 1951 for my summer holidays I did a solo ride from Manchester, through Wales, Somerset, Cornwall, across to Brighton, then up to the Festival of Britain in London and finally on to York. On my way back to Manchester both my tyres were in shreds and held together by insulation tape – no chance of using the brakes. Finally, a truck driver gave me a lift home. What an experience and what a tan.
On the left is the machine I used for the tour. At this stage I couldn’t afford gears so was riding it on fixed. The frame was 72° parallel with a long wheelbase and fork rake for climbing as per all the 50’s heroes, Coppi, etc.
In the Winter we usually found an old frame, such as a Raleigh Tourer, fitted 26″ wheels (as against 27) with the fattest tyres we could find. The handlebars were usually an old pair of ‘Maes’ bend bars – cut off to be simply a horizontal bar. Gears non-existent, simply ‘fixed wheel’. Off we would go through mud and snow to keep the legs turning. Maybe these were the fore runner of to-days ‘Mountain Bikes’?
Having spent most of my time riding my bikes and neglecting school work, I left at 16 and started work. This was the real beginning of my short racing career. The year was 1952 and throughout the winter I rode everyday about 11 miles each way regardless of the weather and other road users – I was hit by a dust cart and run-over by a taxi!! No lasting injuries though.
As my work was in Stockport (on the way to Derbyshire) and one of the ‘tinbashers’ in the factory (namely Frank Garvey) used to train every evening by riding to Buxton and back usually via Long Hill or The Cat & Fiddle, I decided to emulate him. I did put in the miles and started proper road racing in 1952. My first success was to finish equal fifth in the Moorside Junior Grand Prix with about 20 others! We all crashed in the final sprint.
More success the following week where I finished third over a tough Pennine course in the Grey Mare Road Race.
This was all a build up for a special event – we had persuaded the event organisers in the Isle of Man that they should invite at least one team from the BLRC. Up until then it was run under NCU rules but we were more experienced at mass-starts and road racing rather than time trialling. To our surprise they accepted us. Unfortunately, without my knowledge we had been invited to ride in the 75-mile Viking Trophy Race. This was OK for the other two of our team – they were seniors but I would only be just 17 on Race Day. I had never raced for more than 35 miles before. Hence I was designated to the sprints and to be general ‘Dogs Body’ if anything happened. Of course it did and our best rider (Bert Hope) was involved in a bad crash and received a head injury (no helmets in those days). Once I knew he was OK and had retired I continued, way behind the bunch and stayed that way for the rest of the race. When I finished they carried a few of us to a medical tent with ‘Ice Beds’ to cool us down – it must have been middle 20’s plus. As you can see from the results our other team member finished in the top 20 .
I was quite pleased, as I had only one season as a senior and did not have a 1st class licence. Following this I was entered in the Junior NW Championship event around the Derbyshire hills and particularly finishing not long after climbing Mam Tor (Now closed!). Nobody knew me and I was considered an outsider – but the pain and suffering of having climbed ‘the Mountain’ twice in the IOM helped me. I chased the favourite who had broken away before Mam Tor because he was known as a superb mountain climber. I followed but he left me for dead. But remembering the IOM Mountain I pushed on and caught him on the flat 200-300 yards from the finish. My first and most important win.
A couple of months later I won the Rhuallt Junior Circuit Race, twice up Rhuallt hill (Near St Asaph), also I won both primes. This win including the 2 prime awards netted me less than the cost of 1 tub!
After that came the Junior National Championship Race, on my own territory but I had not been accepted to ride! Thus for the NW Junior Champion to be excluded was a disaster and they entered me as a reserve. See Circuit of Hyde Cycle Road Race details – particularly note the massive prizes, equivalent of £2.10s for the Junior National Champion !!
After 2 laps of the circuit I decided to quit! Just not worth it, why train and flog yourself for £2.10 – my tubs each cost more than that. I went home, told everybody I was quitting cycling, and sold all my gear the same evening. It was bought by a neighbour Norman Blackshaw (see image below) who went on to become Junior Champion himself in 1954. When he bought the gear off me he was just starting as a racer so he achieved a lot in a short time.
I started in October at the Manchester College of Science & Technology studying Metallurgy and never rode again though I had a few offers from manufacturers for support but I had finished with all that physical pain.
We did not know anything about diet, had no people to train us: the nearest we got to ‘aftercare’ was one of the boys massaging your legs after a race.