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By John Wilcockson
This is the start of a new year, and the start of this new column, so I thought it appropriate to start at the beginning. The beginning of what, you may ask. Well, the beginning of the chain of events that led to bike racing as we know it in North America. With today’s panoply of communication tools bringing you instant news of Americans winning races in the remotest corners of the world, with two Americans having won nine of the past 19 Tours de France, and with a roster of almost 20 professional teams in this country, it’s easy to forget that America was a distant member of the world road-racing community until the fairly recent past.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the first American pro team (7-Eleven) to compete in Europe; but before that the U.S. presence on the world stage was limited to isolated riders venturing across the Atlantic in search of the vibrant racing scene they’d only read about in cycling magazines. Most of these magazines came out of Britain, a country that also had wallowed in the backwaters of international cycling for most of the 20th century – despite its proximity to the Continent.
This year also happens to be the 40th anniversary of the founding of Britain’s first fully pro teams. Before 1965, there were a smattering of semi-pro teams made up of so-called independents, who were allowed to compete against both amateurs and pros. Then, suddenly, the UCI ended the independent class, forcing riders to take out pro licenses; otherwise they wouldn’t be able to race. And the new pros weren’t allowed to compete against amateurs, which forced them to create their own calendar of pro races, ending a “twilight” era of British road racing that had dawned during World War II.
Until 1942, when an enterprising rider named Percy Stallard organized a race from Llangollen, a town in North Wales, to Wolverhampton, his hometown in the East Midlands of England, there hadn’t been a “massed start” bike race held on the open roads of Britain since they were banned by the authorities in the late 19th century.
The new race spawned a new organization, the British League of Racing Cyclists, that was outlawed by the country’s internationally recognized governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union, and caused a rift in British cycling for the best part of two decades – much like the bad blood that developed between the upstart Professional Racing Organization and the U.S. Cycling Federation back in the formative years of American road racing.
Percy Stallard died at age 92 in 2001, but there are still dozens of riders around who began racing in the late 1930s. One of those is a good friend, Alf Buttler, whose first race came in one of the “anonymous” English road time trials that, until the Stallard revolution, constituted the country’s only form of racing on the open road. All the competitors had to wear black tights and black jackets, and the courses were given numbers rather than geographical locations, in the belief that the police would ignore their “breaking the law.” Alf also took part in many of the track races organized by the NCU before he went on (after the birth of Stallard’s BLRC) to ride road races and stage races throughout the British Isles.
So that’s how I came on New Year’s Day last week to be driving out of London on the M40 motorway in search of some cycling history. The weather was typically wet and the rental car’s wipers were having a hard time clearing the waves of torrential rain that a fierce wind was bringing in from the southwest. I knew it was going to be a long journey.
It was also going to be a sentimental journey, one that would take me back more than three decades to see Alf, the friend with whom I’d followed races in the early days of British professional cycling. He now lives in the tiny Welsh village of Llanwnog, in the beautiful green valley of the River Severn, not too far from Llangollen.
The rain had stopped and there was a hint of early-afternoon sunshine when we pulled into the driveway of his beamed, 200-year-old cottage, where his wife, Kathleen, was waiting to greet us. Alf was indoors. In a wheelchair.
I wasn’t sure how his spirits would be. I knew he’d had a right hip replacement a few years ago that forced him to retire at age 75 (!); that he’d had a left knee replacement a couple of years later; and then, last summer, I learned from his nephew Alan Buttler (who’s a mechanic on Lance Armstrong’s Tour team) that Alf had just had his right leg amputated above the knee.
I needn’t have worried. There was Alf’s familiar warm grin; his broad face is barely lined; and his grip is just as firm as it’d been in the late 1960s when Alf first drove me on his BSA motorcycle at the major events on the British calendar. Back then, he owned a motorcycle shop in Nottinghamshire, but his true love was bike racing. From the mid-1950s, he had worked as a team manager and mechanic on several British national teams that competed in Europe and Canada, and at domestic races he gave race officials (and a certain young cycling journalist!) privileged rides on his motorcycle right inside the peloton.
Memories of those pioneering days in British road racing would come flooding back during our visit, memories of events that would greatly influence what would happen in North America during the 1970s and ’80s – and lead to the burgeoning scene that exists today. I’ll talk about some of those memories in this column next week.
John Wilcockson, who has covered the Tour de France and other races for more than three decades, is the editorial director of VeloNews. His books include John Wilcockson’s World of Cycling; Marco Pantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion; and 23 Days in July: Inside Lance Armstrong’s Record-Breaking Tour de France Victory.