Ride And Be Damned, Chas Messenger (1998)

A richly-illustrated, but occasionally confused, account of the post-second-world-war split in British racing cycling

Pedal Publishing £24.95 0 9534096 0 0 Quarto 151pp

Writing at the age of 84, Messenger tells the tumultuous tale of the British League of Racing Cyclists. These were the hardy band of roadmen who, by grit, guile and grim determination brought mass-start road racing to Britain in the years immediately after the second world war.

The author’s perspective is essentially that of a protagonist – he served for many years as an office holder with the BLRC and was subsequently involved in everything from organising the Milk Race, to working with Britain’s Olympic team.

At this distance, the rift that divided British cycling in the late 1940s and 1950s is difficult to comprehend. The sport’s governing body at that time was the conservative British Cycling Union. As cycling boomed in the 1880s, the Police started to prosecute competitive cyclists for ‘furious cycling’. The governing body wanted to ensure that bicycling remained respectable and, in 1888 that had adopted a resolution stating that: “(We) desire to discourage road racing and calls upon clubs to assist it by refusing to hold races upon the road”.

It was this decision – and the maintenance of that position for more than half a century – that prevented mass start road races from becoming the huge spectator sport in the British isles that it is in most of continental Europe. Racers on these shores had to satisfy themselves with secretively organised time trials, and track cycling.

At the end of the 1930s, however, Percy Stallard, a Wolverhampton cyclist, was one of a growing band who wanted the chance to race as they did on the other side of the Channel. His enthusiasm, and that of those who gathered around him, led to a new organisation – the League of Racing Cyclists, and a furious break with the British Cycling Union. Both sides entrenched, cycling clubs split, and there was much bad blood. As a result, however, big, road races were introduced to the UK, even if they were too late to become the mainstays of the sporting calendar that the European races became.

The joy of this book its two-fold. It is a story that is, otherwise, without a historian, and Messenger does his subject great service by setting down these tales for posterity. It is also fabulously illustrated, with flyers, programmes and photographs. There is scarcely a page without some kind of graphic – and seeing the originals really evoke the age from which they came.

The downside is that Messenger makes a somewhat confused historian. Often he seems uncertain whether he is setting down a dispassionate record, writing a polemic in favour of his own views, or producing a personal memoir. In the end, for anyone interested in the development of British cycling, it is a forgivable fault.

PS August 08

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