“Cyclisme” – A schoolboy description of cycle sport in 1966

I wrote this for my school mag in 1966 aged 15.   “Why don’t you write something about your passion for cycling” my father said.

It’s interesting (almost amusing) to read, and to think how things have changed, but some of my precocious (and rather derogatory) comments make me look like a bit of a sage foretelling the future…

“Cyclisme”

Cycling in the '60sCYCLING in Britain has never really got off the ground in a big way, as it has done on the Continent, particularly in France, Belgium and Holland.

Although it is a very minor sport in this country, there is a professional class, though the bulk of the sport is amateur.  Events are held every week-end all over the country, consisting of road-races and time trials; the latter are held early in the morning to avoid traffic.

Over the Channel, “Cyclisme” is one of the main sports, ardently followed by the public, publicised by the press, radio, newsreel and television.  Just as many here are football or cricket followers, so the “men in the street” on the continent follow this sport.

British cycling

This is where British cycling has one of its many failings: the followers of the sport consist solely of cyclists, or one-time cyclists, with no support from the general public. This is by no means the fault of the public, for little is done in the way of publicity before our weekly races. The spectators have not been granted the chance of seeing and learning for themselves what virtues cycle sport has in sporting entertainment.

Even if one does see a cycle race, the chances are high that it is only the thirty-second burst of a sprint finish, or a race well under way with the riders streaking past, still en peloton, and on into the distance.

The wrong type of events are being organised; to interest the general public, cyclists have to be showmen; they have to ride fast, thrilling races. The only good way of doing this is to ride short-circuit races, with a large number of riders on the starting line, thus ensuring a sprint finish of many riders.

Second-class sport

Being a second-class sport has further disadvantages. Eighty per cent of the riders are second-class athletes, who have found themselves not good enough for the most popular sports. If a boy shows any promise at school, he is soon snapped up by the soccer, rugger, athletics or swimming coach.

There are exceptions of course, but it is a fact that these top-class sportsmen came into the sport completely by accident: Reg Harris, five times world sprint champion, came to cycling from running.  Beryl Burton, winner of the women’s pursuit and road world championships in the past, wanted to be an ace swimmer, but by chance, like professional Tom Simpson, came from a cycling stronghold, Yorkshire.  Peter Hill, now racing in France is Britain’s big hope for the future; the future Simpson.  He won many races last year against the top French amateurs.  He wanted to be a soccer player, but had ‘flu on his trial day, ruining his chances.

Cycling is far more highly organised over on the Continent.  So much trouble and effort is put into the game by the organisers and government as well as by the riders, but above all, vast sums of money are spent every year by commercial enterprises seeking advertisement. The riders are pampered and highly paid by them to wear the name of their goods on their racing jerseys.

The other outstanding feature of every race is that the roads are closed to traffic as the race covers it.  Here in Britain we have no such restriction and thereby often turn a race into chaos.

Tom Simpson

Tommy Simpson
Tommy Simpson

The success of Tom Simpson has given the sport a real boost in this country, putting cycling more in the picture.  One should not look at Simpson as a potential Tour de France winner, for the Tour is a race that requires sustained energy and stamina, as well as ability at climbing, time trialling and sprinting.  Simpson is much more the single-day race man, and comes well up in all the French and Belgian classic races.  We can expect many good performances from our world champion this season.

The Laxtonian  –  March 1966

About Tony Varey

Tony Varey took up cycling at school in the 1960s and became an avid follower of the sport. Struggling to understand the rapidfire RTL race commentaries on a transistor radio certainly helped his French! He then left it behind and followed a career in the oil business including time in Latin America and the Middle East before returning to cycling in his fifties. His enthusiasm has recently been invigorated by the rediscovery of the joys of riding vintage steel-framed bikes around the lanes of West Sussex.

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