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BC Randonneurs Cycling Club


Part IV --->

Part III - The Decline of Paced Cycling

Opposition to road racing in Britain was brought to a head by a twenty-five mile handicap road race promoted by the West Road Club in October of 1887. The furore caused by this race led to the withdrawal of the N.C.U. from the authentication of road records, and marked the beginning of the formal opposition of British cycling authorities to the practice of racing on the road.

The race was, by all accounts, an ordinary enough event that passed without adverse incident. It was an "open" race: that is, open to participation by club members and non-members alike. In consequence, it attracted a large field of about seventy entrants. As was frequently the case in this era, the race was handicapped. Racers were assigned a handicap based in large part on the equipment being employed - the class of cycle ridden, the type of tire, and so on. It was a rider's handicap that determined his position in the start order. Riders were typically bunched in groups, with slower classes starting first chased by faster groups with the objective of being first over a common finish line.

It was the usual practice that each race entrant was supported by one or two pacers, riders accompanying the race entrant who themselves were not competitors in the event. It was this - the practice of pacing - that gave visibility to road racing and attracted the attention of local authorities opposed to the sport. Groups of cyclists, traveling at high speed and jostling for position on the road were thought to create a menace to local road traffic: "furious riding" was condemned. Bunched sprints at finish lines, particularly if the race finish came anywhere close to a town, were thought to pose a danger to townsfolk and animals alike.

Pacing had been, from the outset, an integral part of the British road sport. This had to do with the origins of the sport in touring. The initial attempts to push the limits of what might be done on a bicycle were undertaken, frequently, by cyclists traveling in pairs or in small groups. Solo riders were often accompanied by friends who rode some part of the route, sometimes carrying the solo rider's baggage, sometimes simply providing companionship. It was often the case that, as local riders got wind of a record attempt in progress, club riders would cycle out to greet the would-be record breaker to offer whatever assistance they could. Eventually, more ambitious riders came to post friends and fellow club members at stages along the record route, to provide fresh pacing legs at regular intervals.

As distance races on point-to-point routes began to be introduced, an attempt was made to replicate the conditions of the record attempts on these routes. The road pacing that was an essential part of record attempts thus became an essential part of the way that British road races were conducted.

Through time, as the sport developed and formalized, the conduct of pacing became still more sophisticated. Wealthy riders began the practice of hiring riders that could assist them in riding at a rapid pace. Some riders, too, sought trade sponsorship, using sponsorship funds to hire a burgeoning class of cycling professionals.

The British success at Bordeaux-Paris in 1891, arguably the height of British paced road racing, was founded on the teams of pacers organized for the event. While some of these were British club men who traveled to the continent to support their club colleagues, some were local French professionals hired specifically for the event. Among these latter was Charles Terront who, later in 1891, was to be the first winner of Paris - Brest - Paris. In that race, Terront himself relied on a team of pacers organized and paid for by his sponsor, Michelin Tires. It was the reliance on sponsored pacers that prompted the N.C.U., as part of its war on road racing, to question the amateur status of the winner of Bordeaux-Paris, George Pilkington Mills, inquiring into the nature of the relationship with his employer, the bicycle manufacturer, Humber-Beeston.

In the year that the N.C.U. stopped authenticating road records, they took the further step of outlawing a road event that was to be held later in 1887 by the Catford Cycling Club. In response, the N.C.U. clubs deeply interested in road racing organized the Road Records Association, and carried on with their events outside the vale of N.C.U. approval. If anything, in the immediate aftermath of the N.C.U. ban, interest in British road racing began to increase.

What was decisive in changing the character of the sport, was the position of the local authorities with respect to speeding on the road. Local authorities were interested in protecting what they perceived to be the well being of local road traffic, that is, horse-drawn traffic. Speed limits had been instituted on the roads as early as the 1830's, initially as low as 4 m.p.h. in the countryside and 2 m.p.h. in towns. A 12 speed limit was instituted for cyclists. These limits were still in effect as motorcars began to be introduced to the roads of Britain in the mid-1890's. The first motorcars were required to be preceded on the road by a walking man carrying a red flag. The speed limit was raised to 14 m.p.h. in 1896 and to 20 m.p.h. only in 1903. These were limits that a racing cycling in full flight would easily exceed.

The speed limits were enforced by local police forces under the control of local authorities. The police would often lie in wait for racing cyclists at points along a race route, frequently spreading tacks or twisted nails across the roadway to puncture tires. Often, too, the police would be alerted to the existence of a race event by the officers of the N.C.U. In several counties, particularly those close to London, bicycle racing was expressly prohibited by local councils.

The promoters of road events, principally the cycling clubs associated with the R.R.A., adopted a series of measures to counter this persecution. One countermeasure was to surround a race event with secrecy. Race events were not publicized by race organizers who relied instead on issuing invitations to potential riders. Race route information was closely guarded, with route sheets distributed to event participants only on the day of the race. Secrecy became deeply engrained in the British road sport. Until as late as 1966, prior publicity of a record attempt was expressly forbidden by the R.R.A.

Efforts were made, as well, to make race participants inconspicuous. Riders were required to wear dark clothing - customarily a black jacket and tights. Bells were required to be affixed to handlebars to disguise a racing cyclist as an everyday cyclist out for a stroll. Events were usually held early in the morning to avoid traffic.

Measures, too, were taken to alter the way in which road events were conducted. During the early part of the 1890's, clubs experimented with various limitations on pacing, prohibiting pacing in towns in some instances, and permitting pacing only on some part of the race route in others. Race organizers experimented, as well, with requiring pacers to drop out before the final bunch sprint.

At the same time, some road cyclists were taking pacing to an extreme. Following the use of tandems, triples and quads as permitted vehicles for pacing, motorcycles, and then motorcars began to be employed. These developments hardened attitudes among those who opposed racing on British roads. An attempt on the 12 hour record paced by a motor car (and several motorbikes) in 1899 succeeded in raising the paced record to 245 miles. Following the ride, the cyclist and his pacing crew were summonsed and fined by eight local magistrates. In the subsequent year, the R.R.A. banned the use of motor vehicle pacing.

While paced racing had been under pressure for some time, the end of pacing was played out through a series of events that transpired between 1894 and 1897. In July of 1894, the North Road Cycling Club held its third annual 50 mile open race. The race saw the setting of a new record time at the distance. What was significant, however, was a collision between a horse-drawn trap and a member of a paced group of tricyclists. The accident, by club accounts the fault of the driver of the carriage, led to a complaint to the Chief Constable of the Huntingdonshire County police force. This county lay at the heart of the North Road Club "territory". The resulting suppression of racing was a severe blow to the club's racing calendar, leading to the abandonment of some races, and the radical re-routing of others.

The club proposed a further 50 mile race in October of 1895. To avoid police scrutiny, the race format was substantially modified. Rather than a bunched start, riders were started individually at intervals of a few minutes. Fastest riders were started first so that, theoretically, there would be no overtaking on the road. The race winner was determined not by being first across a finish line, but by the fastest recorded time on the day. This was the first unpaced road race. Perhaps in response, the N.C.U. in 1897 banned all riders holding an N.C.U. license from all paced record attempts and all road races - whether paced or not.

By 1901, the North Road Cycling Club promoted unpaced events only. Strict race regulations were added prohibiting cyclists from riding together in company, establishing protocols for cyclists passing one another. Pacing persisted in the events of a few clubs in the North of Britain, but the model adopted by the N.R.C.C. became the standard form of road racing in Britain.

In 1897, taking the North Road C.C. experience into account, the R.R.A. created a new class of "unpaced" records. The effect of the rule change can be gauged by an examination of the R.R.A. record book. Although paced records (other than those assisted by motor vehicle) were permitted until 1933, in the period subsequent to 1897 only one new paced record was established (in 1913). Within a decade of the British triumph at Bordeaux-Paris, the unpaced format, or road time trial, had completely replaced paced racing and had become the standard manner in which British road racing was conducted.

Part IV --->