Title: Ride! Ride! Ride! - Herne Hill Velodrome and the Story of British Track Cycling
Author: Mark Wellings (with a foreword by Graeme Obree)
Publisher: Icon Books
What it is: A history of Herne Hill and British track cycling
Strengths: Herne Hill is a good angle to tell British cycling’s rags-to-riches story from
Weaknesses: Simply repeats stories already told in recent books without adding much new
No matter how many times the story of British cycling’s transition from rags to riches is told, there will always be room for another telling. So long as the author brings to the story a fresh angle. The angle Mark Wellings – “publisher, writer, historian” – brings to the story is the little velodrome near Dulwich that has played host to the Olympic Games and Fausto Coppi. Consider this opening:
Two great cycle racing institutions were born in 1903: the Good Friday Meeting at Herne Hill in south London and the Tour de France across the Channel.
At the heart of Ride! Ride! Ride! – Herne Hill Velodrome and the Story of British Track Cycling sit a couple of set piece stories: there’s Reg Harris and the 1948 Olympics, the track cycling events having been held at Herne Hill; and there’s Fausto Coppi, the campionissimo having taken part in some exhibition races on the track in the 1950s. The rest of the story is the history of British cycling, with an emphasis on the track, and some stories about some of the Good Friday meets at Herne Hill.
Let’s take an excerpt from the Olympics:
Harris was first on to the track, looking confident and relaxed with Brylcreemed hair and his parting just off-centre as he waved to the crowd. He wore NCU regulation-issue black shorts and his heavy woollen world champion’s rainbow jersey – a far cry from the skin-suits his countrymen would wear 60 years later in Beijing, and entirely inappropriate for racing in 80-degree heat.
After a ten-minute wait Gella eventually came out in the most bizarre and suspicious manner. With thick dark hair and brown lifeless eyes, wearing the blue Italian jersey, he was carried from the changing room beneath the stands by two assistants, his arms draped over their shoulders and his legs hanging limp. A third helper wheeled in his bike. ‘He was doped to the eyeballs,’ says Alan Geldard. ‘They didn’t want it pumping through his system until he needed it.’
If that rather xenophobic portrayal of dirty Eyeties pulling a fast one on a plucky Brit seems familiar to you then you are probably one of the poor unfortunates who read Robert Dineen’s Reg Harris – The Rise and Fall of Britain’s Greatest Cyclist. This is one of the problems afflicting Ride! Ride! Ride! – too much of it is simply lifted from recently published books. There’s chamoirs from Bradley Wiggins (In Pursuit of Glory), Geraint Thomas (The World of Cycling According to G), and Rob Hayles (Easy Rider) which are probably excusable to some extent. But there’s also room to borrow from Ned Boulting’s On the Road Bike, Ellis Bacon’s Great British Cycling, and Chris Sidwells’s The Long Race to Glory.
Among the problems with building your book on other books is that you can’t tell what hasn’t been told before by others. Let’s go back to the comparison between Herne Hill’s Good Friday Meeting and the Tour de France. That’s an idea that actually has legs, for Herne Hill has its own answer to Henri Desgrange, in the form of George Lacy Hillier. Described by Wellings as “an amateur racing cyclist, race organiser, journalist and stock-broker” Hillier’s is not a name that has featured much in many of the other cycling books hymning the history of British cycling. If memory serves me correctly, he’s mentioned in passing by Bacon, and he’s mentioned in passing in Carlton Reid’s Roads Were Not Built for Cars (another of Wellings’s sources) but I don’t recall his name cropping up elsewhere in the recent crop of books.
Here’s how Andrew Ritchie describes Hillier in Early Bicycles and the Quest for Speed: A History, 1868–1903:
George Lacy Hillier was one of the leading figures in British cycling in the 1890s, a dominant, assertive, and ambitious personality who was intimately involved in many of the social tensions and economic contradictions within the sport, and undoubtedly had considerable influence on the future direction of cycling. In addition to being president of the London County Cycling and Athletic Club, director of the Herne Hill track, and editor of one of the most influential weekly cycling papers, he played a significant role as a committee member of the National Cyclists’ Union, and was instrumental in the formation of the International Cyclists’ Association and the creation of the first amateur World Championships.
Hillier has had a lasting impact on cycling. It’s because of Hillier that many people credit the first Hour record to FL Dodds - a Briton named Frederick Lindley, not an American called Frank, despite what all the books and articles that glean their ‘facts’ from Wiki claim - a ‘gentleman’ who set his record during a race in Cambridge, rather than James Moore, who was just an oik on a bike and raced for money. (Some will tell you that Moore’s record can’t stand as it’s clearly an estimate. What they fail to realise is that Dodds’s distance is also an estimate, made by Hillier long after the fact.) And, of course, it is because of Hillier that the American rider WA Rowe’s last penny-farthing Hour record has been denied. (In a curious twist, the man many say holds the record is FJ Osmond, who actually set his record on a pneumatic-tyred safety in a race promoted by Hillier at Herne Hill, just a couple of months after the track opened.)
Pretty much all we learn of Hillier from Wellings, though, is that – apart from creating Herne Hill – he “still clung to the outmoded idea of ‘gentleman amateurs’ riding pure machines (in other words, no pneumatic tyres or safety bicycles)” even into the late 1890s. I can’t even be bothered telling you how wrong that last part is. Well, actually, I already have with talk of Osmond. Then there’s Arthur Zimmerman, the first great American cycling export, who spent much of 1892 racing in the UK, hosted by George Lacy Hillier. (Is there even a passing mention of Zimmy in Wellings’s book? Well, let me put it like this for you: few other books on Britain’s cycling history mention the American.)
Wellings, to be fair, isn’t much interested in cycling’s first few decades: despite it filling the first quarter of the book he tells the story in a mixed up manner, bouncing around between the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s in a fashion that does nothing but confuse and make you reach for the Nuerofen.
He also has Arthur Linton setting a new world record for the unpaced Hour.
Okay, so the guy knows sod all about cycling in the nineteenth century save for what he read in Gerry Moore’s The Little Black Bottle, so what? Isn’t this book about the Good Friday Meeting at Herne Hill, and didn’t that only start in 1903? Well, yes it did and no it isn’t. For while Wellings does remember to revisit the Good Friday Meeting in between telling stories of Tom Simpson and Tony Doyle and other recognisable names, I’m really not sure if I learned all that much about it.
The 1917 Good Friday Meeting was promoted as United Services Sports and also included athletics and other entertainments. There was a ‘novelty race’: a match between Mrs Andrews, a well known rider and ‘an unknown lady’ (women’s races were still considered a novelty, and some riders were not prepared to reveal their identities in the programmes due to social stigma). The anonymous racer won the one-lap pursuit by two seconds, then Mrs Andrews won the scratch by inches.
Where the Good Friday meet in Herne Hill is concerned, I know very little and am waiting to be filled up with stories. Wellings just doesn’t do it, though. I can honestly say that I felt I got a greater understanding for what early Good Friday Meetings must have been like from Martin Cathcart Froden’s anachronistically inventive Devil Take The Hindmost than I did from anything Wellings wrote.
In 1955 the CurAcho Company sponsored the Golden Wheel pursuit trophy at the Good Friday Meeting for a second time (the first trophy having been won outright after three wins): it was won by Norman Shiel, an amateur endurance rider from Liverpool, of slight build with dark hair in a Tintin quiff. He went on to become world pursuit champion later in the year – and then won the Golden Wheel pursuit in the two following years, making the trophy his property and meaning CurAcho had to put their hand in their pocket yet again. Shiel also won the world pursuit championship again in 1958 and then switched to ride on the road in Europe, competing in the Tour de France in 1960.
What I did get from Wellings was his curious fascination with hair. Bill Bailey (not that one) had “light brown wavy hair”. Albert Richter had “blond hair and blue eyes”. Jim Wallace had “dark hair slicked back, arched eyebrows and a wide smile topped off with a pencil moustache”. Cyril Peacock had “brushed-back, dark brown hair and a prominent widow’s peak”. Jef Scherens had “blond hair and a wide smile”. Enzo Sacchi – “a stereotypical looking Italian rider” – had “tightly curled black hair, a low hairline and a broad face”. Hugh Porter had “brown hair and a long face”. Alf Engers had “long frizzy hair”. There’s so much hair here the book should be sponsored by Toni & Guy.
The problem with Ride! Ride! Ride! isn’t that it lacks stories, original or borrowed: it’s that it’s all presented badly. The tales of Herne Hill’s Good Friday Meetings are intertwined with all the history of British tack cycling and a lot of the history of British road racing and a lot of biographical sketches and all the developments and redevelopments that the track went under and a lot of other digressions. Herne Hill should be at the heart of the telling, but somehow it’s lost among all the digressions. Maybe if you don’t know the history and don’t have the stomach for Richard Moore’s love letter to Chris Hoy (Heroes, Villains & Velodromes) – where, to be fair, a large part of British track cycling’s history was told – then Ride! Ride! Ride! does tell you the essential parts of the story. It’s just such a pity that the author makes you work so hard to dig them out of all the other things he’s trying to tell you.