A Small Good Thing: John Kempe

This year’s Burrington Hill Climb sees an enormous field of 72 riders taking part. In amongst them, taking up a large part of the field, are 28 members of the Bristol South Cycling Club. It’s the culmination of a season where new members have come into the club and really helped to forge the identity of the South as a club that rides. Whether it’s road racing, the classic league, time trials, the ever-popular club run or hill climbs, Bristol South Cycling Club Members are there at the front in the red and gold.

John Kempe in Hill Climb mode for the red and gold

Many of those members have come into the club because of the warm welcome offered to new cyclists. They recognise the camaraderie of cycling and see that the fellowship of the road is alive and well in the West Country. This is what makes a cycling club different to all other organisations: the fellowship of the road. I have close friends who have joined this year and ridden in road races. They were diffident and initially unsure of what joining a club entailed, perhaps even fearful of the implied ‘loss of identity’, a vague worry that a cycling club might be a borg-like collective that thrives in mediocrity of the masses, rather than individual freedom of expression. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Within the club there is no hierarchy, only the formalities of doing things by committee.  This exists in the background and functions only to uphold the name and identity of the club and to support the pledge made in a Totterdown coffee tavern on Hill Avenue in 1893 – constancy of purpose is the secret of success. It is an amateur affair with strong roots in Bedminster and it is an inextricable and fundamental part of the social fabric of the city.

Two days ago our club president John Kempe died. I ride regularly with his son, Dan, and his grandson also races with the club on occasions. Photos of John racing show a bike rider in full flow: souplesse, elegance and speed. In 1961 he was a part of a Bristol South CC team that came first in the National BBAR competition, with Chris Holloway coming third in the individual event and Jeff Fry the third counter.

John Kempe: souplesse

Every club has at least one John Kempe; a figure who lives and breathes for cycling, who is both the witness to and a catalyst for the ceaselessly benevolent effect the sport can have on people’s lives. I’m not sure John Kempe would hold himself up as a paragon of virtue, or any other kind of saint, he was someone who did what he loved and gained great enjoyment from doing it and from seeing other people enjoy it.

style and panache

It’s easy to fall into a cyclical way of thinking in these fickle modern times, that everyone has a book in them, that everyone has 15 minutes of fame, that we all need to achieve something stellar in order to create a lasting impression and somehow overcome our insubstantial and omnipresent mortality. It’s the opposite. No-one is destined for greatness, the only thing we are destined to do is live and then die. But there is a profound and significant meaning in making small but positive differences to other people’s lives, and it’s something I try and remember. We strive to make a significant difference or to have some kind of lasting and profound impact, when in reality the profound impact we have is often not even noticed by us when we do it, it’s something small and almost insubstantial, it’s the accumulation of small things and the positive and lasting legacy we can have on others, both in our lifetime and outside of it.There’s a Raymond Carver story called ‘A Small Good Thing’ that articulates this kind of thing better than I can.


John Kempe achieved many impressive things. His legacy lies in the sustained success of the club and in the shared values of each person who joins. This year’s record entry for the Hill Climb is a fitting tribute and I will be riding with his presence uppermost in my mind. As John Legge put it succinctly, ‘he was a true gent’.

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