Title: I Like Alf – 14 Lessons from the Life of Alf Engers
Author: Paul Jones
Publisher: Mousehold Press
What it is: A biography of Alf Engers that’s also a meditation on why we ride and a bit more besides
Strengths: Goes beyond the who, what, when, where and how of most cycling books to ask the question why
Weaknesses: It’s going to be seen by some as only of interest to the UK time trial scene, when really it’s about a lot more than that
“Maybe you can explain things to me. Tell me where I went wrong. Where do you find contentment?”
~ Alf Engers, I Like Alf
The power of numbers is a strange thing. When you start time trialling, you start chasing evens, twenty miles an hour. If it’s a ten you’re doing, you’re looking for a sub-thirty ride, if it’s twenty-five, to be home in under an hour fifteen. As challenges go, evens isn’t much of a challenge. But once you accept it, it’s hard to escape. In a twenty-five you’re immediately looking to go sub-sixty. You get to there and you dream of sub-fifty. If you ever make it to that far-off horizon, it’s hard to stop, ‘cause now you’re chasing the record.
When Alfred Robert Engers – Alf to one and all – started out, in the early fifties, it wasn’t meant to about the mythical power of numbers, rather it was the mythical power of Fausto Coppi:
I used to cycle down to Leicester Square, there was this mews and a stationer’s shop where they sold Le Miroir des Sports and I collected the magazines. Time trialling didn’t interest me, I wanted to be a road man, or a track man.
In 1952 Engers rode rode his first twenty-five, beating evens and clocking one-twelve. A year later he had it down to one-seven. The he went sub-sixty. He was thirteen at the time. The record was 56-24. Engers immediately had a new number to chase after.
The power of numbers was shown most clearly in 1954 – the year after Engers went sub-sixty – when Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. To be able to say you’ve run a sub-four mile, rationally it’s ridiculous. What’s so special about four minutes, what’s not special about three-fifty, or four-ten? It’s as dumb as Charlie Murphy wanting to ride a mile in under a minute: a ridiculous undertaking. But one that is, emotionally, eminently sensible. One we all understand. Or think we do.
It took Engers six years to pass 56-24, six years that included a time out of a year with a knee broken in a crash. Six years in which 56-24 had been surpassed and a new target took up position on the horizon, 55-38.
I certainly remember the day. I wanted to do a long 55, what Norman Sheil was doing. He was a pursuiter and a pain in the arse. He was a strong rider, which was why he was a pain in the arse. But he was also a bit of a pain in the arse. I put it down to the North-South divide. If you were a southerner, then double thumbs down for you.
Turning round in the road and coming back, it was quiet and old Al was down the road and shouted to me. I pedalled so quickly and got to the finish and back and old Al said ‘55-14’. I refused to believe it. Al looked confused by the watch. I couldn’t believe that I might have beaten Norman Sheil. Someone else said, ‘55-12,’ and I thought, ‘Christ, it couldn’t be that, I must be outside 55 but I had done a PB. They must have got it wrong and it was going to be corrected to a 56.’ I wanted to do 55 minutes; he’s saying ‘55-14’ and looking puzzled.
Then someone else said, ‘The timekeeper says it’s a 55-11,’ and it began to sink in that maybe I had broken the record. I get a lump in me throat, even now. I went fishing straight away afterwards and I got a picture of me, with me dog sitting there. Fishing maybe is the saviour of it all.
Engers got the fishing from his father, who gave him sod all else besides rejection and a life lesson:
Anything my kids have done, I’ve always said, ‘Well done,’ whether it’s work or anything at all.
The lack of recognition and support that Engers got at home, it became a motif of sorts throughout his racing career, the racing authorities smothering him with negativity as his fellow riders showered him with praise. There was something about Engers that got up the noses of those in power. Mentally, those in power had barely moved an iota since the days of George Lacey Hillier, the Herne Hill impresario who had very fixed views on the purity of the sport and the need to protect the Corinthian spirit. Engers was everything such people fought against: Engers was modern; Engers was working class.
He was born in University College Hospital on the Euston Road and grew up on Copenhagen Street, between King’s Cross and Islington. This was the 1940s, long before gentrification. He was the son of a baker and learned the trade. It was hard work, a day that started at eight o’clock the night before. German bombs forced the family out to Barnet, out in the Hertfordshire countryside. Peace saw them back in London, the Elthorne Road, up by Archway. London was in his blood, London is in his voice.
Engers was a child of his time. He got into bike racing through cycle-speedway, a precursor of BMX that blossomed among the Blitzed bomb sites, buildings turned to rubble. He got into skiffle. He got into fashion:
Just after the war, teenagers didn’t have an identity: if you were a teenager, a kid in the late 1940s or 50s, you copied your dad with sports jacket and grey flannels. It wasn’t until the American influence that things changed, with the introduction of gabardine. People would wear a midnight blue gabardine suit with a cutaway collar on the jacket and knitted tie. This shifted into the Edwardian look, the Teddy boy, with its four-button jacket and velvet collars.
Fashion is a large part of the Alf Engers myth. There’s the story about him being so weight-conscious for a time trial that he took his earring off. There’s the collars and cravats you can’t help but notice in some of the photographs. And there’s the fur coat:
I bought it off a girl for fifteen pounds, I used to turn up to races in it, this big thick Afghan coat. That was the fashion then. There wasn’t a lot of cyclists turning up to bike races in fur coats. It wasn’t mink, maybe it was musquash or something.
Add it all up and if you were one of the blazers, if you ruled the world of British time trialling, Alf Engers was not one of us. So, given the chance, of course they were going to make an example of him. Pour encourager les autres, you could say. They waited, knowing their chance would come.
And it did. In 1962 Engers dipped his toe into the world of professionalism, becoming an independent, an intermediate step between professional and amateur. He followed Tom Simpson to Belgium:
We stayed in Ghent, just down the road from Albert Breurick’s Cafe Den Enghel. The best placing I had was fourth and I was only there for a ruddy week. The wife didn’t like it; she broke down in tears straight away, and it was raining all the time. She asked, ‘Why did we have to come here?’ That more or less cancelled staying abroad. I wanted to be a Tour rider, but I had to earn a living, that’s it. Living had to come first, full stop.
Reconciling the need to make a living and not really making a living riding as an independent, in 1963 Engers decided it was time to go back to being an amateur. The blazers said no. Perversely, those blazers were actually black-balling someone who understood and respected the sacrifices it took to be am amateur. Here’s author Paul Jones explaining it:
And it comes back to work, to those who make sacrifices, to pursue the amateur lifestyle and try and reconcile the tension with an uneasy equilibrium between work, family, and sporting achievements. It’s this that Alf admires, and regrets. The admiration for Beryl Burton is apposite: between them they are arguably the greatest exponents of the sport, possessed of a unique fanaticism and determination, a refusal to be beaten by anyone, whether that is other competitors, the authorities or members of their own family. Their careers spanned a period of enormous social and cultural change and they somehow rode blithely across and through those periods, as though ungoverned by the precise temporality that affects the rest of us, existing within a different sense of time where raw willpower and a solipsistic charisma transcends everything else.
It took until 1968 before Engers was readmitted to the ranks. Caught in a limbo between one state and the other, he couldn’t race. So he went fishing.
When he returned, Engers ended up back in time trials, back chasing that ship on the horizon of the twenty-five. His 1959 record of 55-11 had lasted a couple of years before being broken, the new target was 52-28 set in 1966. Ten years on from breaking the record for the first time, Engers did it a second, taking the time down to 51-59 and then, a short while later, 51-00. Now a new target hove into view on the horizon: the first man to go sub-fifty, with the Comic having promised a gold medal for whoever did it.
I Like Alf came about partly as a result of Paul Jones’s previous book, A Corinthian Endeavour – The Story of the National Hill Climb Championship. He was giving a talk about it one time to a bunch of old riders, which included guys like Maurice Burton, Carlton Kirby, Peter Keen. The Q-and-A was drawing to a close:
From the back of the room, to the left, a tall figure rises, wearing worsted, immaculately dressed. Not just that, but individually and sartorially perfect in the way that that some people just are. A dandy, a tweed and worsted suit with a pair of cracking brogues, bi-coloured, practically solatios crossed with brothel creepers, but worn to perfection. And a twill shirt, checked; neatly cropped hair. A voice starts; it’s high pitched, almost abrasive, a nasal, slightly reedy but clear tone, a cockney accent. And I suddenly realise with a jolt that I am about to be asked a question by Alf Engers or, as he is more commonly known in time trial circles, The King.
A month and a half later, out of the blue, there’s a phonecall. Engers. He wants to tell his story. He wants Jones to tell his story. There’s anecdotes, like the time he failed to follow the script set out by Peter Post in a pursuit match at the Skol Six in London and ended up not just beating the Emperor of the Sixes, but catching him in the process. There are stories about races and run ins with the authorities. There are the entries in the record books. There’s pretty much everything you expect in a sporting biography, really.
It’s tempting to say of I Like Alf – 14 Lessons from the Life of Alf Engers that it’s the Tao of Time Trialling. It’s also tempting to think of it as being about the pursuit of that first sub-fifty twenty-five. But it’s all a lot more complicated than such simplifications suggest. Because as well as the anecdotes and the races, Engers brings something else to the whole thing: introspection. Some of it comes easy, Engers has that way about him. Some of it has to be dug out, like the two years spent talking around the topic of Engers’s father before Jones got an answer to the question of what really happened between them. Hard or easy, it’s all worth it.
It took nine years for Engers to go from 51-00 to sub-fifty. Nine years to shave off a minute and a second. Nine years in which the record at times seemed to be within touching distance only for it to be snatched away. Nine years in which there were more time-outs as the blazers lashed out at him.
It was nine years in which Engers did on his own what it took Coppi and Bartali to do in Italy, what it took Anquetil and Poulidor to do in France: divide the local cycling community, into pro- and anti-Engers camps.
Nine years of pain. Nine years of pleasure. Nine years filled with stories.
And when it was done?
I had a vague sense of anticlimax which I wrote about at the time: the absence of the heavenly chorus, instead a dog barking. It was a hazy day. What else can you do but go fishing?
Across a quarter of a century, from 1952 to 1978, with time out for a wreaked knee and time on the naughty step for dallying with the professional ranks and then for crimes real or imagined in races, Engers had never really been driven by the pursuit of numbers. The power of those numbers is such that they obscured what was really driving him. Contentment. But regrets over things not done stopped contentment being found in the things done:
I’m always searching. I’d like to achieve something. Don’t ask me what it is, but I haven’t found it yet. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything yet.
Many will disagree with Engers and the feeling that he hasn’t achieved anything yet. And they won’t point to the races won and the records broken to prove their point. It’ll be the lives touched, the happiness given to those who looked on, the inspiration to those who followed. With I Like Alf that’s now extended out to a new generation not even born when Engers was chasing contentment hidden behind the first sub-fifty twenty-five.
With I Like Alf Engers – with help from his Boswell, Jones – has given us something rare and magical, a cycling biography that dares to chip away at the surface to see what lies beneath. A cycling biography that transcends its time and its subject and speaks to us all. We’re not all trying to do a sub-fifty twenty-five but contentment is something we’d all like. I Like Alf has a lot to say about how to find it.