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BC Randonneurs Cycling Club


Part II --->

Part I - Introduction: A Divergence Of Styles

In 1891, the Velo-Club Bordelaise - at that time the largest cycling club in France - organized a long distance cycling event on the roads between Bordeaux and Paris. Conscious that a road cycling event of the contemplated distance was unprecedented in France, the event organizers invited the participation of cyclists from Britain, where a long distance road sport had already developed.

What the organizers of Bordeaux-Paris had in mind was a randonnee - a kind of tour, but one conducted at a rapid pace. The organizers had arranged sleeping accommodations and lavish meals for the riders along the route. However, the lead riders - largely the contingent of riders from Britain - ignored the meals and rode through the night. In doing so, the British riders were subscribing to the conventions of their own sport.

In its event structure, its competitive ethic and, above all, its attitude to cycling in company, the British sport has come to be markedly different from the long distance cycling sport that has evolved in France. Accounting for these differences requires an understanding of the development of cycling in Britain and, in particular, an understanding of the legal status of the British road network and of the evolution of the organizations of British cyclists.

Though there is no more hotly contested question in cycling history, it is probably fair to say that the first enduring application of a mechanical means of propulsion to a two-wheeled vehicle probably took place in France in the early 1860's. The resulting invention, named the "velocipede", became the basis of a flourishing French industry that, by the end of the decade, had promoted the first inter-city road race (Paris - Rouen) and sponsored the beginnings of a fledgling cycle-sport press. This industry was converted to support the war effort against the Prussians in 1870 with the result that, in the aftermath of the French debacle, these manufacturing firms were completely wiped out. Leadership in cycling passed to the British who came to the forefront in manufacturing and technical innovation. Consequently, by the time of Bordeaux - Paris, cycling was more developed in Britain than in any other nation in the world.

In no other country were the raw numbers of cyclists on the road larger than in Britain. The cycling population of 60,000 in 1878 had grown to 400,000 by 1885. While the price of bicycles still made ownership largely a prerogative of the middle classes, the mass manufacture of bicycles towards the last decade of the nineteenth century was beginning to open cycling to a wider swathe of the British populace.

This was the era of the dominance of the "Ordinary" or "high-wheeled" bicycle. The Ordinary was the machine of choice of most cycling purists and club racers. However, there were sizable market segments devoted to the tricycle and, increasingly after 1878, to the "safety" bicycle. The tricycle drew substantial interest from the relatively affluent, those able to afford the hefty price that these machines commanded. Though racing and touring on tricycles was not unknown, the bulk of tricyclists were largely interested in the social opportunities that cycling provided. Tricyclists organized themselves into clubs, a structure parallel to the club system being developed by their colleagues on two wheels.

British cyclists began to organize themselves nationally in 1878. The organizations of touring cyclists and racing cyclists were in Britain, from the outset, separate. Touring cyclists founded the Bicycle Touring Club (soon to be the more encompassing Cyclists' Touring Club), drawing subscriptions from individual members. In 1878 as well, the Bicycle Union, an umbrella grouping of local clubs devoted to social activities and to club racing, was created. The Tricycle Association, grouping clubs of tricyclists, came into being a short time later, merging with the Bicycle Union to form the National Cyclists' Union in 1882. The N.C.U. remained the predominant organization of sport cycling in Great Britain until the late 1950's.

Several models of the "safety" bicycle - notably the lever-driven Facile - preceded the Rover design of 1884, the now familiar diamond frame design of the modern bicycle. The overwhelming success of the "safety", however, had to wait until the introduction of the pneumatic tire in 1888, an innovation that put a decisive end to the three-part division of the bicycle market. By the time of the advent of the "safety", the developments in British cycling that were to influence the shape of the long distance road sport in that country, had already occurred.

Part II --->