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In praise of the cycling club run

Trevor Ward
23 Oct 2019

It may look like a bunch of people riding bicycles, but the club run is actually a complex social ritual

The club run is the staple of grass roots cycling in the UK, and is a great way to meet a cross section of obsessives, anoraks, loners, sociopaths, psychopaths, eccentrics, fettlers and know-it-alls. It is, effectively, a microcosm of British society.

You may think you’re going for a harmless Sunday morning bike ride. In fact, you’re entering a minefield of etiquette, where centuries-old tradition clashes with modern technology, where a sense of hierarchy prevails and a glossary of quasi-secret gestures and cryptic expressions is maintained.

Although no longer as intimidating as in the prehistoric age of down tube shifters and leather toe straps – when the sole purpose of the club run was to ‘rip the legs off’ any newcomer who expressed an interest in taking part – they are still a ritual that can leave the unwary sobbing into their double espressos at the cafe stop.

From parked cars to stray dogs, potholes to gravel, traffic lights to tram lines, no detail of British highway topography is considered too minor to merit a warning shout or flurry of arm gestures (although the most terrifying thing you’re likely to hear is, ‘My Garmin’s frozen!’).

Rite of passage

For many, the club run remains a rite of passage. You never forget your first one. It’s like sending your first email, or discovering The Wire on TV for the first time.

After previously riding on your own or perhaps just with a few friends, you suddenly find yourself in a sea of wheels and being expected to anticipate the idiosyncrasies and unpredictable behaviour of a group of garishly clad strangers you would normally cross the street to avoid.

But now you are one of them. You are a part of this band of brothers and sisters who find joy in the act of riding a bicycle and happiness in the companionship of likeminded souls.

Although you may never aspire to their heights, you’re following in the tyre tracks of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Alex Dowsett, to name just four from the firmament of British professionals who started out with their local clubs.

Former British road and TT champion Cummings (Birkenhead North End CC) still turns out for his club’s midweek 10-mile TT from time to time, while Dowsett (Glendene CC) still joins his club for its Sunday morning ride, if only to keep an eye on his dad among all the half-wheelers.

‘I know the pace my dad can sustain, so if someone starts half-wheeling me I just stick to the pace that I think the club will be happy with. Eventually they end up on the front on their own and are left looking a bit silly.’

That’s one hazard of the club run – some will treat it as a training ride while others will regard it as their own personal echelon in between trying to bag Strava segments. But the clue is in the words ‘club’ and ‘run’. It’s a non-competitive social ride for everyone.

Yet with all those aforementioned sociopaths and eccentrics in the mix, the club run’s stated aims can be difficult to achieve. That’s where the ride captain comes in. His duty is to establish the route, the pace, whether it’s ‘no-drop’ and if it will include a cafe stop.

Juggling act

The best ride captains will take into account the likely number of riders and range of abilities. They will also make contingency plans – in the form of incorporating short cuts in the route – to cope with any unforeseen dramas.

This role requires not just good riding and geography skills, but also United Nations-levels of diplomacy.

I’ve had the pleasure of riding with many clubs all over Britain during the past couple of years, and the icy calm and unflagging humour of the ride captain has never failed to impress. They remind me of airline pilots nonchalantly announcing the suspension of in-flight service because of severe turbulence.

In the early days of the club run, ride captains would carry a bugle, to warn riders of hazards that sound wearily
all too familiar these days.

‘The banding together to ride in a group started for reasons of self-defence,’ says cycling historian Scotford Lawrence.

‘In the 1870s, the bicycles and riders were resented by other road users, such as commercial carters, carriage drivers and the few remaining stage coaches, and it wasn’t unknown for drivers to attempt to push cyclists off the road and assault them with a whip.’

Notwithstanding these dangers, a popular club run in the 1890s saw riders complete the 50-mile round trip from central London to the Anchor Inn in Ripley, where the visitors’ books included the illustrious names of riders such as Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells (who featured the pub in his comic novel The Wheels Of Chance) and George Bernard Shaw.

The club run attracted its largest numbers during the first half of the 20th century, when the mass-produced bicycle was cheap enough to allow the masses to escape to the country at weekends.

Suffragette-to-be and club run regular (with Manchester Clarion CC) Sylvia Pankhurst recalled, ‘Week in, week out, the Clarion 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.

‘Almost every member of the club helped me at some time or other in mending my punctures – I was fearfully unlucky in that respect – and in pushing me up the last little bit of the steepest hills.’

So forget the half-wheeling, segment-bagging and high-intensity intervals, and enjoy the ride itself – that’s what the club run should be all about.

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