My maternal grandparents were staunch Methodists who believed that the path to heaven was paved with hard work, serious thoughts and rich slice of well deserved suffering. ‘Having fun’ or even smiling were delusional activities that wasted time that would be better spent on something else, preferably something vaguely onerous or slightly unpleasant. Medicine won’t do you any good unless it tastes bitter, no gain without pain, beauty must suffer. I have some dozens of photographs of my grandmother and she is smiling in precisely none of them.
Don’t get me wrong, theirs was not a victim culture, these were fiercely ambitious, competitive and meritocratic people. They would even consider themselves to be happy and modestly successful. They just had no time for any showy, papist, nonsense like enjoying a drink, having a dance or laughing at a shared joke.
When I first stumbled across the world of British club cycling in the early 1970s, I was stunned to find that my grandparents’ world view was alive and well and living in most every cycling club hut. Cycling was defiantly working class (my grandfather trained as a cobbler), dominated by folk ‘from the north’ (my grandparents were from Yorkshire), and driven by a distinctly Protestant work ethic (we’ve already discussed the Methodism). The chosen form of religious observance was the 25 mile time trial, held extremely early on a Sunday morning (while sinful folk were still abed), in all weathers, on a god-forsaken length of wind-swept road known only by an obscure code number. It was, indeed, the race of truth. The time trial offered you no opportunity to ‘sit in’ on a break and save your energy for the final sprint, profiting from the hard work of others in the style of (dodgy Catholic) French or Italian cyclists. There was no massed start in a historic town square, to give you a chance to mill around preening in front of adoring fans - instead you came to a nowhere road side start, one by one, over the seemingly endless period of an hour or so. There was no opportunity for a bunch sprint finish, half carnival, half bull fight - instead you finished at the same nowhere point, alone and exhausted, your nose dripping and your head down.
The high priest of this terrible but fascinating religion was H. H. (Harry) England. He had been the editor of Cycling magazine for 30 crucial years, from 1929 to 1959. Cycling magazine before, during and after that period was the house journal of British competitive cycling, publishing race results and club news from up and down the country.
H. H. England famously campaigned against women’s cycling, refusing to publish the results of women’s races. But he reserved his real hatred for massed start road racing, against which he ran a relentless and vitriolic campaign. Unfortunately, he was conspicuously successful - Britain never developed a tradition of major road races, and to this day the likes of Chris Boardman, David Millar and Bradley Wiggins are really time triallists who can or cannot make it over the hills of a major tour.
Cycling as a fun filled spectacle replete with colour, drama, subterfuge, heroism and all manner of excesses of emotion? Over H.H. England’s dead body.