My 80 years as a member of the High Wycombe Cycling Club
by former Vice President Jack Pearson
The Club was formed in 1924 by a group of cyclists on a run to Burnham Beeches. Some I can remember; Ernie Howes, Bill Smith, Cliff Hoing, Perce Ganzell, “Twig” Branch, Fred Madge, and Dick Piggot. I joined as a very junior member for 2 shillings and 6 pence in February 1927. It was a fledgling club with some 20 members; full of enthusiasm, but with no experience of running a club. Fortunately about that time 2 members joined who had belonged to much older London clubs with a club handbook and after a series of meetings a constitution was established and a rule book drawn up, much of which is the same today.
My Early Years in the Club
I was about 16 years old when I joined the club and I wasn’t allowed to go out on Sunday runs at first because my parents wanted all the family to be at home for the ritual Sunday lunch.
We had Saturday afternoon runs meeting at the Guildhall at 2.00 pm and led by some members who had planned a route to a tea place. One of the favourites was to ride by devious ways to Brill, north of Aylesbury for fish and chips. Fish was 9 pence, chips 3 pence, a slice of bread and butter 1 penny and a mug of tea 2 pence. Cholesterol and calories didn’t have to be measured then as they hadn’t been invented!
Sunday runs were all day with lunch at a pub, usually a real ploughman’s lunch, bread and cheese, pickles, beer or mostly stout shandy all inclusive for 2 shillings. We had tea at a suitable venue for about 1 shilling and 3 pence.
It was usual before World War 2 for the Cycling Clubs to have a country head quarters and the High Wycombe Club had theirs at the Prince of Wales pub at Marsh near Kimble. Thursday was club night and we would start from the Guildhall at 7 pm, go by various ways to Marsh where we consumed huge pots of tea or plenty of beer, pork pies and bacon sandwiches (real fat bacon, not the rubbish we get today). Quite often we would be joined by the South Bucks CTC and the Vale of Aylesbury Club. Quite a few romances started on club night. The CTC had quite a lot of lady members as did the Aylesbury Club whereas we were an all male club until 1933. Sausage suppers and bonfire nights were specials at Marsh and the pub was very pleased to have our custom.
The Roads and the Countryside in the 1920s and 1930s.
Imagine, if you can, the roads with few cars, no white lines, or any other coloured lines, no crossings, no bollards and few street lights. The road surfaces were gas tar, a by-product of the town gas production and chippings. Country lanes were often just rolled in flints. Punctures were frequent. A puncture or two was part of a club run. For the first year or so after joining the club my cycling was confined to short rides partly because of family opposition but also because as an apprentice in the furniture industry, I didn’t have enough money to pay for lunch and tea.
The countryside was different then, no artificial fertilisers or herbicides. In June the scent of new mown hay wafted across the fields as did the scent of honeysuckle and wild flowers. We could eat blackberries from the roadside without fear of being poisoned by lead or some spray. I often think of those days when I am nearly choked by petrol and diesel fumes.
I believe the years between 1919 and 1939 were the best from the cyclist’s point of view. Cycle touring flourished and the CTC had many thousands of members. Accommodation was cheap and plentiful for touring and Youth Hostels were so busy they had to be booked up in advance.
Cycling as a sport was at its height and time trials were nearly all over subscribed. Technically they were illegal as was any competitive cycling on English roads by an Act of Parliament passed in the 1890s. Tandem events were very popular and entries were limited to 100 tandems per event. The Tricycle Association had hundreds of members and ran a lot of their own events.
Track sport flourished to a degree that if you had a licence (you did not have to have a licence in your first year of competing) you could ride several times a week between Easter and September. Grass track events were often run in conjunction with athletics meetings with the proceeds being given to finance a local hospital or children’s home. Remember this was in the days before the NHS.
By the age of 18 I was earning a little more money and I managed to escape the family Sunday lunches and went on all day club runs. My parents never drove cars and club runs to places of interest such as Kew Gardens, the Oxford Colleges or Blenheim Palace added a new dimension to my life. My bike was my passport to freedom
Racing and competition
Much as today a tear up would usually develop on a club run and although I was one of the youngest riders I discovered I could stay in the bunch both in terms of speed and bike riding skills. The Club had run several 25 mile Time Trials on a course between Loudwater and Uxbridge but times were slow with the two hills. It was decided to run a 25 mile on an RTTC course on the Bath Road (old A4), and as club membership was increasing rapidly there were at least 15 riders. One of the members had access to a watch; a Railway Time check, only varied one second in 24 hours, so good enough for a Club event.
I decided to enter. My parents thought I was daft; I would only make a fool of myself and get lost. They never got lost as they never went anywhere.
I started No.9, I soon began to catch some of the others, but could I last the 25 miles? As I turned at the 12 and 1/2 miles point I was overtaken by a rider from another club - they were using the same course the other way round. I kept him in sight for some time and I had passed all of our riders in front of me. I did just finish with a time 1 hr 7 mins 42 secs, a club record (at the time). It seems a bit ridiculous compared with the times being done today, but I will describe the bike I was riding on the course. I had recently bought a new Raleigh sports 21 inch frame, 42 inch wheelbase, steel Endric wheels and thick tyres and tubes, fixed wheel 78 inch gear, one front brake stirrup (if you put it on hard you went over the front). Total cost £3.19s.6d.
The course was the old Bath Road through Slough, Colnbrook with its mile of spine shattering cobbles, turn near top of Hounslow High Street (at that time there was a row of cottages on a piece of heath land with orchards, now Heathrow airport). All competition had to be on roads such as this as the majority of side roads were just rolled stones and mud.
First real success
By now we had a number of really good strong riders, Sid Busby, Les Chown, Les Stone, Wilf Hollis, Bill Higgins and several young and up and coming riders. I didn’t race for some time as I wanted a pair of sprints and tubs and I hadn’t saved up enough money. I also had exams to pass (sounds familiar to the young of today? At this time I was an apprentice cabinet-maker). My father was a self employed wood carver and I also helped him out from time to time. So, in the meantime, my 25 mile club record was lost to Les Chown who was to become out star time trialist and went on to become one of the best 50 milers in the country. Amongst other things, he won the classic Oxford City 50 mile time trial with a time of 2hr. 12m. 30secs. beating many of the top 50 mi1ers and put the High Wycombe Cycling Club on the competitive cycling map.
I eventually saved enough money to buy a good pair of racing wheels. This enabled me to enter lots of time trials, with varying success, mainly making up the team in open events, where, for a small club, we were very successful.
Having finished my apprenticeship, my finances improved. I had been to several track meetings and fancied myself on the track. I could ride in some events for the first year without a track licence and for the first time in my life I had some real money. I bought myself a made to measure track bike with the latest wheels and entered a grass track event near Windsor. It was a 1 mile event for novices who had never been placed in an event before. There were so many entries it was run off in heats first and I won my heat. In the final I was placed third – not a bad start. I won a camera valued at 1 pound 1 shilling. It was the first camera I had owned.
I had better describe the camera to all you people who carry digital cameras and mobile phones with a built-in camera. It was an Ensign All Distance model. It had bellows with a sliding carriage so you could take portraits or long distance shots. The only films we could get were black and white, and you had to get it developed at the local Chemist. I did get some good photos with it but they turned yellow after a time.
I rode on the track whenever I could and obtained my track licence. I rode to get experience and for a season or two I improved my tactical track skills. At first I was often in the wrong place and got boxed in but one learns from one’s mistakes.
It was decided that the Club Time Trialling Championship was to be best average speed over 25miles, 50miles, 100miles and 12 hours. Sid Busby had won it twice and I decided to have a go. I was a little faster than Sid over the shorter distances but I had never ridden a 12 hour. I knew I had to equal his 12hour distance or even beat it. I did – by 1 and ¼ miles. I managed a distance of 212 ½ miles. I only ever rode 2 other 12 hour events completing 218 ½ miles and 225 miles respectively. The last one was an open event out in the fens. It was about the hottest day in the year; the tar on the roads melted and plastered both me and my bike. It took 2 days to get if all off. And you have to remember that I had to cycle there to start, none of this putting the bike on the car and driving over there. This meant that over the weekend I rode 330miles in total. That was the end of long distance time trialling for me.
Touring and Social events
At this point, I think I should mention the Club’s Touring and Social programme. My first trip was to North Wales. An old aunt of my mother said that was a foreign land, and I should never get back from there! There were seven of us on the trip, with all bed and breakfast booked ahead. We consumed a lot of fish and chips and bread and cheese for other meals. It was quite an eye-opener for me as I had never seen mountains before, let alone tried to ride up them! We were all on single fixed gears so we spent quite a bit of time walking but the weather was good, the scenery was superb and it was a marvellous experience for me. Another new experience was at Bala where everyone spoke Welsh and we had to ask a school child for directions to our B & B.
My second club tour was to Kent and the South Coast. Perce Ganzell had organised. B & B was all booked for the eight of us, other meals we had to find. It was a much easier trip than Wales and we visited some pretty villages round the North and South Downs on the way there and back. It seems incredible now, but on that trip at least five people had never seen the sea. At Eastbourne we were refused tea as we were improperly dressed, wearing shirt and shorts! So we came a few miles inland and had an excellent cream tea for 1 shilling and 3 pence.
The social side of the club was expanding rapidly, we had a small dance band and we had dances on Tuesday evenings in conjunction with the South Bucks CTC, held in a small hall in Desborough Road. But it was not to last, the police banned it as there was only one exit from the hall. The police chief who lived near us sent a message that he would like to see me, so I met him at the police station. He said that he didn’t want to spoil our fun and how could he help? I explained that we could not afford to have the Cadena Hall, with its posh dance floor, so he said he would see what he could do. Somehow, he persuaded the Cadena that we could have it Tuesday nights at a price we could afford – we charged a shilling entrance fee and called it a private function, entrance by invitation. It was a real success. We sold tea and cakes at half-time and made a profit. Two ladies who taught dancing were invited and events carried on for several years.
But we had some problems; some of the fellows had girl friends or were married and the ladies wanted to joint the Club which until then was men-only. In 1933 at an AGM there was proposal to admit lady members. By this time, I had considerable experience of meetings and I was asked to take the chair. The debate went on for ages and it looked like it was not going to be approved, so I took a vote and it was passed by 4 votes! Although I had only known Kath (my future wife) for a few months I paid her subscription and she was our first lady member.
Back to Racing
By now I was an experienced clubman and was made Racing Secretary, a job I held on and off for 15 years, both before and after the Second World War.
I rode a few more Time Trials, and, although I was recording some good times I wasn’t a time-trialist at heart. I had been riding on the track for several seasons, with some success. The NCU (National Cyclists Union) Berks, Bucks and Oxon Championships were to be run at Palmer Park at Reading, so I decided to enter. If you don’t ride against the best then you don’t know how good you are. To give you some idea of the size of the competition, the Quarter mile sprint had 142 entries. I got through the early heats and the semi-final fairly easily. Now I was up against some of the best both in terms of tactical riding and pure speed. In the quarter-mile final I finished 3rd and got a bronze medal. In the half-mile I was beaten in the semi-final, and the same in the one mile.
The next meeting was on Whit Monday and I entered for the 5 mile on grass. The track was wet from overnight rain and sawdust was put on the corners, but even so the track was slow and slippery. I made a break about halfway through the race and split the field and had only one of the real sprinters with me. I was able to use my strong finish and crossed the line as winner. I had my first gold medal! That season at Wycombe in front of my own crowd I won 3 chairs and the One Mile Trophy.
My shot at Stardom
I had obviously been noticed by some of the officials of the governing body of cycling sport as I had a letter inviting me to participate in the trials to represent Great Britain in the Worlds Championships. I was one of 100 riders asked to attend Brooklands motor racing track. The idea was to try to find competitors who could ride in a tight bunch at speed for 62 and ½ miles and had a strong finish. Of course, I accepted and initially went to Brooklands to try the track and, have a medical examination. The whole thing received a lot of publicity and even made the national press. At my medical I was asked at what distances I had competed. I responded truthfully that I had competed at every distance from ¼ mile on the track to 12 hours on the road. The doctor was surprised by the scope of my cycling activities but advised that, in his opinion I was more suited to a short explosive effort. I passed the medical having demonstrated a slow heart rate, big chest expansion and a good heart cavity.
The day of the actual trial finally arrived amid crowds of press, actresses to present the prizes and a very nice lunch with a speech or two. I even had a new club vest and shorts. Just before lunch I was approached by the Dunlop representative who offered to change my tyres to Dunlop number 3s, an offer I couldn’t refuse. Later I found out that everyone was riding on Dunlop numbers 3s. There is nothing new in trying to get a free advert for your product.
Between 80 and 90 riders lined up at the start and the first lap was very slow as it was neutral. The Brooklands track was not really suitable for cycle racing. The banking was designed for 100 mph plus motor racing and any break in a cycling event would have to come on one of the straights. I knew there would be a break and I was fortunate to be in the leading group when it came after several laps. We were really moving when a photographer stepped out onto the track with a black cloth over his head carrying his camera on a tripod! He had misjudged our speed entirely. It brought most of the riders down and I was at the bottom of the pile. I emerged semi conscious, crash helmet cut through, my new track vest and shorts torn to ribbons and half my ear hanging off. That was the end of the Brooklands trial for me. Battered and bruised I went for a 2 week fishing holiday.
The following year I was invited back to Brooklands but I declined. Instead I joined a party cyclists on a ride to Paris and back to watch the Worlds Championships held at the Parc de Princes. During our 10 day stay I was given the chance to ride on the Parc de Princes track and found riding in a bunch on the steep banking difficult but was alright for pursuits. I realised that the chances of the British team winning a world title at that time were just about nil as we hadn’t a track even approaching world class in the UK.
Back to reality!
Back at home I defended my 5 mile track championship but finished a poor 4th however, I was awarded the bronze medal in the ¼ mile sprint. The following season I regained the 5 mile championship and beat our Olympic representative by ½ a wheel to win a silver tea set at a grass track meeting at Bicester. Looking back I enjoyed my cycle racing career except perhaps for the long distance time trials.
In the 1930s our club was about 60 strong after we allowed the ladies to join us. There was no radio or television but there were cinemas in most towns. There were few cars outside the towns and cyclists could ride two abreast all the time. We organised some interclub runs with the CTC and other local clubs. The High Wycombe Cycling Club had its own dance band and during the winter we traveled to other local cycling club dinners and dances. Our whole social life revolved around the cycling club. Touring weekends away were also very popular. Like many fellow club members I met and married my wife Kath through cycling
Sadly this way of life came to an end with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The social side of the club has never been quite the same. Up until then, like many more my only means of transport was my bike and it was not unusual to ride as much as 10,000 miles a year.
I had tried riding tandem with several different partners on club runs and quite by chance Sid Busby and I got on a tandem together and found that we were a good team and could really move. We bought a second hand Chater Lea tandem and tried it out on the Oxford and back place to place record. All went well until coming back up Aston Rowant hill the back wheel started shedding spokes. We retired and decided to have a really good pair of wheels hand built for us. During that season we did a 55min 16 sec ’25′, a 1 hr 55min 20 sec ’50′ and a 4hr 11 min for a ’100′ (the hardest ride of my life).
Single competition records at that time were 59 min 40 sec “25″, 2hr 3min 20 sec “50″, 4hr 30 min 10 sec “100″ and 12 hour was 242 miles. They were of course unpaced TTs.
One of the main winter events used to be the annual Cyclists versus Harriers Cross-country race. It was just a fun meeting. If it was wet and muddy the Harriers usually won and if it was dry and frosty the Cyclists won. It attracted a good crowd at the finish and a collection was usually taken for the Hospital Nurses. After we all had a good wash we sat down to a slap-up tea in the Harriers Hut, however it was demolished many years ago to make room for the new college. It was never revived after the war.
When the Club nearly went to war
About a year before the last war, the County Police asked the Club if they had some experienced riders who could carry messages cross-country in the event of a communications breakdown or roads being bombed and so on. Several of us said we would like to try it and it really worked! We could shoulder our bikes over stiles etc when we had trial runs over 5 miles or so.
We were sworn-in as Special Constables, given tin hats, gas masks and suitable clothing. In the event of invasion we were to be armed and come under military command. Then some higher-up thought it would be a good idea to test the system by riding from Tylers Green to Little Kingshill wearing gas masks. Our local constable was to come with us. He was a middle-aged man, somewhat overweight and had a regulation sit-up-and-beg bike. We started off and before long we were steamed up and couldn’t see where we were going, so we stopped to clear the steam and realised we’d lost our policeman, so we went back to look for him. His bike was in a ditch, he was on a bank blue in the face and gasping for breath! We left him there to recover and decided it was not a good idea to wear the gas mask whilst riding.
With war inevitable we had a weekend away together and parted with; a few limp handshakes not knowing when we should see each other again. The club trophies were put in the vaults of the bank and the ladies in the club tried to keep in touch with members in the services.
As I was in a “reserved occupation” as a cabinet maker, I had to join a mobile working party which was moved around the country to wherever there was a need for our skills. Being a cyclist had its advantages in war time as I was able to get home for the odd day or so when there was no other means of transport available. There is little to be said about cycling in war time except that you were only allowed a glimmer of light after dark but there was very little traffic on the roads except for military vehicles.