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Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers One vs Many
Trevor Ward
12 Jun 2015

Cyclist looks at the transformation of the British Cycling Club.

In 1884, tens of thousands of spectators gathered in Seymour Grove, Manchester, to watch a ceremonial ride-past by more than 30 cycling clubs. Among them were the olive-green uniforms of the newly formed Manchester Athletic Bicycle Club, whose members rode 56-inch wheel penny-farthings and brandished regulation whistles. The club would later change its name to Manchester Wheelers and become one of the most successful in the UK.

‘These days it seems people join cycling clubs to get away from their families. But at least it’s bums on saddles

Fast forward to an afternoon in 2015, and committee member Jerry Cross is desperately trying to find volunteers to marshal a criterium race being organised by the club. ‘We’ve got 350 members, yet we struggle to get half a dozen volunteers to marshal at a crit. We’ve scrubbed our annual Open 50 – we almost had to cancel it last year because of a lack of volunteers,’ he says. ‘New members join because they want to do 15 hours of cycling a week, but they don’t want to do five hours of marshalling on a Saturday. For them, it’s like joining a gym. Remember when that was the craze in the 1990s?’

Cross has been racing for various UK cycling clubs for 40 years. He describes his first club, Maldon and District CC in Essex (famous old boy: Alex Dowsett), as family-oriented. ‘The youngsters would be racing while the parents were making the sandwiches or marshalling,’ says Cross. ‘These days it seems people join cycling clubs to get away from their families. But at least it’s bums on saddles. That’s the important thing.’ North of the border at Angus Bike Chain CC, those bums are largely of the female variety. John Bremner, a British Cycling-certified road, track and TT coach with the club, has identified a peculiar trend – a big increase in female members, but hardly any new male riders. ‘I think it’s because men don’t like being told what to do. They think they know how to ride a bike already,’ he says. ‘Look at all the single riders or twos and threes you see out cycling who aren’t club members. It’s a shame – they’re missing out on the epiphany of riding at speed in a group doing 30kmh without even noticing.’

But Bremner, who’s been a club member for the past 21 years, believes there’s an even more important reason why riders should join a club. ‘They don’t want to race, but many of them will be doing sportives, and if you look at the middle or back of any sportive, the standard of riding is, frankly, dangerous. I’ve witnessed some shocking accidents caused by riders overlapping wheels or not paying attention. These people have a responsibility to the other riders around them and need to learn how to ride in a bunch, and the best way to do that is with their local club.’ One reason they aren’t joining clubs, says Bremner, is Strava. ‘They think they don’t need to join a group ride when they can compare themselves against other riders online. I know Strava is a good motivational tool for some people, but it’s a shame some are settling for “virtual rides” rather than club rides.’

Strength in Numbers One and Many

The new generation

One of the UK’s newest clubs, Albarosa CC in Leeds, has embraced Strava and other social media channels to appeal to a new generation of riders. Jonny Southwell, who co-founded the club in 2012 with Jamie Tweddell, says they found existing clubs ‘too set in their ways’. Now the club has 500 members, including 100 women and 26 under-16s, with a range of rides from leisurely social to high-speed chain gangs. ‘But even our fastest group is very much about teaching. It’s not a showfest, like the bad old days at some clubs when a newbie would turn up and the others wouldn’t even speak to him,’ says Southwell.

I don’t think the traditional type of club has survived. In the old days, the clubhouse was the focal point

But a competitive edge remains key to the club’s philosophy, with weekly Strava leaderboards for specific segments. ‘The beauty is that for a 500m drag, we can all compete for bragging rights,’ says Southwell. At the end of the week, the rider at the top of each leaderboard nominates a choice of new segments for the following week. The rest of the club votes on it via Alba’s Facebook page, which is very much the clubhouse, reflecting the club’s younger demographic. ‘There’s nowhere for committee members to hide,’ he adds. ‘We know immediately what our members like and want – and what they don’t want and don’t like.’ For the more focused riders, the club has designed a structured programme that, Southwell claims, can take a novice to categorised racer status in two years. ‘From buying a bike, riding it socially, to working your way through our chain gangs and taking part in our practice crit days, a member can get to become a Cat 3 racer,’ he says.

Historian Andrew Millward of the Cycling History and Education Trust believes clubs like Albarosa are the future. ‘I don’t think the traditional type of club has survived. In the old days, the clubhouse was the focal point, where you met, chatted and showed off your “bling”,’ he says. ‘Nowadays, with social media, you don’t need a clubhouse. Instead of showing off your kit to other members during club meets, you can now just upload photos to Facebook.’

Another club very much a product of the modern age is the one set up at the start of this year by luxury cycling brand Rapha. For £200 a year, members can use any of Rapha’s 16 ‘clubhouses’ (shops to you and me) around the world and enjoy free coffee on production of their membership cards. This development has left purists like Jerry Cross shaking their heads in despair. ‘The traditional cyclist believed in spending as little as possible,’ he says. ‘It was a point of pride to re-use things over and over before you had to replace them. But the new cyclists believe that spending lots of money is part of the sport.’

James Fairbank, Rapha’s head of brand, won’t go into numbers but says Rapha CC is ‘already one of the biggest clubs in the world and certainly the most international’. He also questions whether cycling clubs, unlike the sport itself, have ever been truly egalitarian. ‘There were clubs I wanted to race for growing up,’ Fairbank says. ‘I idolised some of their riders but felt intimidated by how strong they were. Is that egalitarian?’

Millward says Rapha CC has similarities to the very first cycling clubs: ‘They were very exclusive. To join, you had to be a member of the elite. You had to be earning a fair amount of money just to be able to afford a bicycle. You had to be proposed for membership and pay an annual fee of something like a guinea, which was a lot of money. Another reason for their exclusivity was that you would only want a bicycle if you had the leisure time to use it. There was no utilitarian use of bicycles. No one was travelling to work on them.’ Some features of clubs are as familiar today as they were during their elitist days. ‘As the machine quickly evolved with additions such as ball-bearings, high-tension spokes and pneumatic tyres, there was a lot of one-upmanship. If you turned up on an old bike, you’d be laughed out the door,’ says Millward.

The very beginnings

Riders have joined clubs for various reasons since the first – believed to be the Liverpool Athletic and Velocipede Club – was formed in the 1860s. With palatial clubhouses, regular ‘smoking’ concerts and flannel uniforms, the early clubs were the preserve of the privileged. Already resented by the working classes, they did themselves no favours by racing their high wheelers through the countryside and scaring the livestock by blowing their club-issue bugles or whistles at every village. ‘People objected to these new machines, especially stagecoach drivers who saw them as a threat to their business, so riders formed clubs very much for their own protection,’ says historian Scotford Lawrence of the National Cycle Museum.

As bicycles evolved from expensive high-wheelers to mass-produced safety bicycles, the working classes began using them to commute in the week and escape to the countryside at weekends. Clubs offered organised rides and excursions. Cycling suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst recalled her days as a member of the National Clarion CC – named after a Socialist-leaning publication of the day and still active today with 1,600 members across 30 branches: ‘Week in, week out, the clubs took hundreds of people of all ages away from the grime and ugliness of the manufacturing districts to the green loveliness of the country, giving them fresh air, exercise and good fellowship at a minimum of cost.’ Times were also changing at Manchester Wheelers. Club historian Jack Fletcher wrote, ‘The Wheelers’ plus-four suits, collars, ties and bought meals held no attraction for the new generation of club cyclists, nor for the alpaca/corduroy-shorted, “butty”-carrying hard riders of the 1930s.’

Riders should give no impression that they are racing, especially through towns, wear dark clothing and look as inconspicuous as possible.

The weekly club ‘ride out’ from the big cities became popular. One of the most famous was from central London to the Surrey village of Ripley, a round trip of 50 miles, which attracted club riders including Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw. ‘The Ripley pub most popular with cyclists was the Anchor Inn, and the landlady kept a visitors’ book that eventually stretched to six volumes,’ says Lawrence. ‘This is one of the great documents of cycling. Two volumes were bought by a collector from Arabian royalty and are now under lock and key in Bahrain.’ Many clubs didn’t race at all. They existed purely for the weekend ‘ride outs’ and the annual tour, which became even more popular with the advent of youth hostels in the 1930s, according to Lawrence. Riders joining clubs for social rather than sporting reasons was a reflection of the tortured history of competitive cycling in the UK. Hard though it is to believe now, bike racing on UK roads was banned as early as 1890 by the sport’s own governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union, because of the conflict caused by the aristocrats upsetting other road users. ‘They often found themselves vulnerable to someone putting a stick through their spokes,’ says Lawrence.

Racing was confined to velodromes or took the form of time-trials under the auspices of a breakaway body, the Road Time-Trials Council, which organised events as clandestine affairs with pre-dawn starts. Entrants in the Anfield Bicycle Club 100 TT, for example, were warned, ‘Riders should give no impression that they are racing, especially through towns, wear dark clothing and look as inconspicuous as possible.’ It took a further schism in UK cycling and the formation of the British League of Racing Cyclists in 1942 before mass start road races became regular events. Eventually, in 1959, the BLRC combined with the NCU to form the body today known as British Cycling, and the ban was officially lifted.

Changing ways

By the 1960s the social side of cycling clubs went into decline due to a combination of factors, including more affordable cars, urban migration (people living too far from work to commute by bike) and clubs putting their priorities into competition. More recently, the UK cycling boom (membership of British Cycling has doubled since Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012) has seen the emergence of what Jerry Cross at Manchester Wheelers refers to as ‘the New Cyclist’, whose expectations usually clash with existing traditions. ‘I’ve had new members ask me, “When do I see the coach?” or, “When do I get my jersey?” I’m sorry, but you have to buy your kit, and I’m afraid £20 a year [membership fee] doesn’t cover private coaching,’ he says.

As a result, a host of new clubs have sprung up, ranging from Albarosa to the UK’s biggest club, Ilkley CC, which boasts 1,400 members after just four years’ existence. ‘Essentially, whether you’re here to race or just ride, it’s about a community of interest,’ says founder Paul O’Looney. ‘It’s about enjoying the countryside, supporting the town. It’s about something bigger than just riding a bike.’ These clubs have rebooted traditional features by introducing graded social and training rides or promoting cycling to work and school, for example. They have also embraced 21st century trends. Albarosa even has its own blend of coffee, developed by local Italian cafe chain La Bottega Milanese.

But why do cyclists want to belong to clubs anyway? Maybe we should lean towards the Groucho Marx approach when he said, ‘I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.’ Cyclist John Osburg, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rochester University, New York, says it’s all down to human nature. ‘We’re social animals. Unlike many other animals we don’t have “instincts” that guide our behaviour and ensure our survival,’ he says. ‘Instead we rely on skills and knowledge that are acquired by imitating and interacting with others from the moment of birth. I think the primary function of cycling clubs is socialisation.’

A lot of what cyclists do illustrates the purely symbolic component of much human behaviour, he adds. ‘Leg-shaving is a good example. Perhaps there’s a small practical component – a slight aero advantage, road rash is easier to deal with, it facilitates massage – but for most male amateur cyclists, leg shaving is a symbol of group membership, a sign that you’re committed enough to cycling to engage in a stereotypically feminine grooming practice. Amateur cyclists know this intuitively. Just try showing up for a fast group ride with hairy legs – no one is going to want to get too close to your wheel.’

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