This weekend we made the trek en famille to the wilds of Heythrop Park in the deepest darkest Cotswolds in order to attend the annual beanfeast that is also known as the”CTT Champions’ Dinner”. It was ridiculously exciting and my first all-expenses paid trip anywhere as an author. For a few brief moments I almost felt like I was an actual author. My duties included standing on stage for around 90 minutes to give out prizes with Sheila Hardy, the lovely chair of the CTT, followed by a speech to the 300 or so in the audience, and then a hearty dinner with some toasting and drinks. The compere was Michael Hutchinson – the Michael Hutchinson, singularly the most decorated time triallist in CTT history. He was a consummate professional and a delight to speak to. I say this with utmost sincerity; I couldn’t have had a better time. I look back on the evening with slightly frayed memories, a surreal blur of dream-like encounters where cycling legends like Andy Wilkinson appeared in and out of focus, sharing stories and chatting like old friends. It seems scarcely comprehensible to me. I had the opportunity to ask Andy about what it was like to ride from Lands End to John O Groats in 41 hours in a recumbent whilst catheterised. It’s worth noting that Andy has also ridden 541 miles in 24 hours, which is further than most people would want to drive. Skip to the end of the video below to see what it does to you.
In my speech I attempted to articulate why i think amateur sport is important, by speaking about the significance of the club and the reasons why people ride, the links between people and places and the history of clubs like Bristol South CC. I think I got it just about right, certainly people were very complimentary afterwards, with one chap saying it was amongst the best speeches he had heard. Another chap said he really wasn’t sure at all at first, but warmed to it and came away feeling really engaged by the ideas. On the whole, a good few minutes work. It’s rare to have the opportunity to speak from the heart in matters such as these, about cycling, the amateur ethos and life in general. Not being a successful cyclist at a level that might get me a ticket to the ball again, I felt a profound sense of achievement that I had been asked to speak. It’s not something that will ever happen again.
I am incredibly grateful to all at the CTT; Paul Thomson, Keith Lawton, Roger Wakeling, David Barry, Sue Bowler, but especially Sheila Hardy. These are people committed to doing service for the enjoyment of other people, for the good of cycling, people who make the world a better place.
If you are interested and couldn’t make it, this is what I said:
Thank you Sheila and the CTT for the invitation. not being one to turn down a free lunch, it’s a pleasure to accept. I’d like to start by acknowledging vic Clark, national hill climb champion three times in a row in the very early years of the championship, later an organiser on dovers. He was 96, and when I met him three or four years ago he was still getting the bike for half an hour each day. Thoughts with friends and family at this point. In an oblique way I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for vic, he was the first person I interviewed for the book and his fascinating presence and incredible stories of cycling kick started the book and later formed the opening chapter in its entirety. Chapeau.
Ostensibly I’m here because I wrote a book about cycling. I’d like to think it’s because of my cycling prowess, However, when i cycled I was never hugely fast, even if i wasn’t massively slow. perhaps one day I thought I might get so damned fast that I actually won something other than a fish and chipper in North Devon. In the end though, i think it struck me quite forcibly that i wasn’t going to get a ticket to the champions dinner on the back of a win in the Minehead CC hilly when I was the only one on a time trial bike and everyone else was very very slow or Rob Pears was on holiday. after about 5 years of effort I thought it that there had to be a simpler way, so spent three years travelling up and down the country, tracking down long lost people and writing up hours upon hours of audio and putting it in a book. The book is about hillclimbing, so i suspect only three of you here have read it – Matt, maybe Richard, possible Marykka. And that might be because I gave each of them a copy. I have 997 other copies to shift and will be selling them at a reduced price, with an added message for no extra cost.
Congratulations to all the prize winners. I am a cyclist, although not so much right now due to the debilitating and overwhelming power of a 6 month old and a 3 year old. But I am a racing cyclist through and through and will probably always be one. and i know the extent of the commitment involved, the early hours before work and the quizzical look of the non-cyclist and the confusion at the absurd mileages. i know how much effort and time it took me to get 2 seconds under 50 minutes. Maybe that’s the paradox, it took me 5 years to find 2 seconds. I salute you. You have worked incredibly hard, and then somehow found time when not working incredibly hard to ride your bike to an extent which many people would classify as work, and then found yourself at the top of elite amateur sport. Hats off indeed. People think we’re bonkers and i suspect you wouldn’t have it any other way.
it’s a privilege and honour to be here. My club, Bristol South, has some past glories, but not many. Dave Keene is celebrated for his tricycle feats, just shaving the 4hr mark for a 100. He also entered the ‘world tricycle champs’, a massed-start tricycle road race and tt. It’s like Ben-Hur, marginally less violent. Within our club archive there is a black and white picture of the club turning out en masse at temple meads station to wave off Jeff Fry, Chris Holloway and John Kempe as they make their way to the Royal Albert Hall in 1961. They won the team prize in the BBAR, with Chris Holloway 3rd. Within it you see a snapshot of what cycling means to communities and its significance to Bristol. each person is holding up a large letter spelling out ‘Bristol South CC’. People like Ernie Janes, who worked for Thanet and in the bike trade, stood centre, His son Allen rode one of the first low-profile bikes with a crown-mounted handlebar in 1979, built by Arthur Needham of Argos Cycles, who with son Gary made bikes for Dave Lloyd and Stuart Dangerfield. John Kempe is there, his son and grandson are still racing for the club. It’s the link between place and people that seems so important and is integral the sport of time trials, where bike clubs emerge and get their character from the landscape and races, the places and courses used. the club started in 1893, emerging from the leisure movement where suddenly the bicycle became a machine of escapism and empowerment – from the tobacco factories and mines of South Bristol to the docks in the centre of the city in this case. these are the past glories of the club, and outside of the parameters of victories, it goes from strength to strength. I touch on this in my book, both Vic Clark and Gareth Armitage making full use of the empowering capacity of the bicycle, through touring in Gareth’s case, and in Vic’s case, as a means to keep a courtship going by cycling from coventry to Kendal every Friday night. and at its simplest, an evening like tonight is a celebration of the limitless potentiality of the bicycle as a force for good.
I used to dream about getting an invite to the Champions’ Dinner; poring over old clippings and programmes, The 1961 programme for the event attended by the BSCC team features an impossibly glamorous and high-end line-up, Jacques Anquetil presenting the prizes and being interviewed by Jean Bobet. Lower down the list was Lyn Perrie, then a singing star, later Ivy in Coronation Street. Tommy Trinder was the headliner, ‘welcoming you lucky people’, with a strong supporting line-up featuring ‘sensational european jugglers’ and the ‘kuban cossack dancers’. I think we may have missed a trick this evening. If not in terms of the Tour stars, then certainly the sensational jugglers. In the interviews I did for the book a common thread was the sense of intense pride and disbelief at being invited to the Champions Dinner, from Eric Wilson and his prize of a propelling pencil (which he still uses), through Jeff Williams, to Jim Henderson meeting Eddy Merckx.
Times have changed. So much so that it seems faintly remiss for me to be here. It wasn’t so long ago that Eddy Merckx was stood up here. So for not being Eddy Merckx, or Jacques Anquetil, or Stephen Roche, or David Millar, or Brian Robinson, or Lynn Perrie or a dancing cossack juggler, I apologise. But it is hard work that got me here, just as it got each of you here, and i’ve learned to not underestimate the extent of the sacrifice involved or to apologise for that. Writing is just like cycling: there is no money in it, it’s a labour of love. i work full time at the same time. at one point i rode my bike, read books about cycling and wrote about cycling. it was quite tough to find time to do other things, work and family being two of them.. writing requires the constant pursuit of marginal gains, making sentences more aerodynamic, stripping them down, finessing, finding souplesse, what flows beautifully and the simplicity of the aesthetic. it takes time, and effort, every single day, chiselling away at the chalkface, and it’s difficult to see the gains, but over time they happen. And I’d like to think that in some small way I’m here to represent anyone who has taken an interest in the idiosyncratic sport of cycling in the UK, of time trials, but also of obscure framebuilders, of Raleigh Lentons, Major Nichols, Ephgrave, Stan Pike, Chas Roberts, the names that speak of britishness and uniquely british cycling, and of our topography, from the Mendips to the Peak District, the climbs and landscapes through which we ride in hushed reverence.
As i’ve already said, and will say again to anyone who wants to listen me talk again later, It’s an honour. In the book I write clearly about the soul of cycling, and particularly British Cycling; the traditions and the spirit that has shaped the sport we know and love. It’s sometimes seen as anachronistic in this modern world; where the imperative is money, sponsorship, teams and so on. Within this framework, we need cycling time trials, the amateur spirit – the corinthian endeavour – more than ever. It’s a way of reminding ourselves of the importance of goodwill and of grassroots efforts, of the fact that sometimes some things transcend monetary gain. It’s heartening to see the hill climb championship won on fixed, and I laud Richard Bussell’s efforts on his cheaper bike in the National ten. I see a lineation back through the garage inventors, the quirky pursuit of marginal gains by the eccentric individual, like Alf Engers, with every item drilled like Emmental. a million porous holes and a nose inches above the stem.
We are justly proud of cycling’s success, the crest of the wave, where ubiquity is everything and UCI stage races within the UK are becoming the norm, and UK world champions are almost expected. But the wave will break, and what will be left is the institutions with longevity and we have to stick true to what we know, the values and ideals of amateur sport, the ethos and the strength of the community and the places in which we live. We have to uphold the strength and endeavour of people like Pete Longbottom, Ryedale surveyor and olympian. Of Michael Hutchinson, driven by a personal desire to succeed and a love of the sport and even the more complicated people in our fraternity, like Daryl Webster, outspoken but true to himself, opposed to certain things.
It’s easy to sound like a luddite or someone trapped in the past, but the importance of the club is the glue that binds people together. Grass roots sport, run by amateurs, is worth valorising, celebrating, and defending. and in this respect, it’s an honour to stand with you and be a part of the celebration of your efforts and to see you add your names in fine-etched filigree to the lists of people from the past who make us misty-eyed with nostalgia. Thank you.