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BC Randonneurs Cycling Club


Part V --->

Part IV - Causes And Consequences

French and British road cycling came together at Bordeaux - Paris in 1891. In the space of a decade, the two sports were on markedly different courses with the result that Britain was separated from the cycling sport of continental Europe. Why did long distance cycling take different paths in Britain and France, and what have been the consequences for the sport of long distance cycling in Britain of the path that was taken?

Evolutionary biologists look at the problem of the distribution of differing plant and animal species as an adaptation to the characteristics of the environment in which each species finds itself. In this adaptation, contingent elements of chance and timing can be important. Biologists frequently find that, once this adaptation has taken place, a species becomes dominant in an ecological niche, preventing the development of other competing species.

As has been outlined previously, British long distance road cycling evolved as it did because local authorities chose to prosecute racing cyclists. Why did this happen in Britain, however, and not on the continent? Were not French racing cyclists equally a menace on French roads and a problem for local French authorities? By all accounts, they were. In making his case for instituting a system of brevet rides in the journal of the Union Velocipedique Francaise, Maurice Martin complained about the behaviour of racing cyclists and deplored the ill repute that he thought that these riders were causing the sport of cycling. What differed was the administration of the national road system between the two countries: this difference was the most important factor in determining the shape of the sport in the two countries, the "environment" in which each sport developed.

In France, the national road system was centrally administered. A system of "routes royales" (after 1830, "routes nationales") was already in place in the early nineteenth century. It was a system that radiated from a central Parisian hub, linking the nation's capital to the major cities and ports of France. A survey in 1824 measured a distance of 28,000 kilometers of national road of which approximately half was in good repair. Work on the maintenance of these roads, and on the extension of the road network, was carried out by a national Public Works Department consisting of a team of civil engineers and a road building task force of several thousand workers.

This work progressed until the middle of the century when competition from the canal system and, particularly, from a newly developed railway network, began to siphon traffic away from stagecoaches on the road. A system of stage posts, used to distribute the mails, fell into disuse. The French failure in the war of 1870, however, led to a renewed interest by the state in the national road network.

The way in which the French national road system was administered had two implications for French cycling sport. In the first place, at the time when French cycling sport was beginning to develop, French interurban roads were already in passably good shape. When Pierre Giffard came to organize the first edition of Paris - Brest - Paris, he had a reasonable expectation that the national road to the west, what came to be known as the N12, was in ridable condition and well signposted. Additionally, gaining the authorization for holding an event on this road was, for Giffard, largely a matter of seeking the approval of a central authority. This was something that, as a prominent journalist engaged by a newspaper with a national circulation, was not unduly difficult for him to obtain.

In Britain, by contrast, the road network had been placed in private hands. Parliamentary patents were issued to private companies - turnpike trusts - enabling them to levy tolls in exchange for building and maintaining the roads. By 1830, there were around one thousand turnpike companies administering about 30,000 kilometers of road. It was, however, a system open to abuse. The great British road builder, John Macadam, appointed as Surveyor-General of the metropolitan roads in the mid-nineteenth century, was pilloried by many in the private sector for exposing the patchwork condition of the road system. He decried the variable quality of road maintenance caused by the propensity of many turnpike companies to provide little road upkeep in return for the tolls extracted.

Competition from canals and railways had an even greater impact on the state of roads in Britain than was the case in France. The turnpike trust system collapsed with the last private company closing in 1895. By the 1870's the greatest part of the British road system was in the hands of local authorities, whose principal interest lay in minimizing the burden on the local tax rolls consistent with fostering local commercial traffic. Such was the state of the roads at the end of the nineteenth century that British road cycling clubs organized themselves around usable stretches of road on which they could practice their sport.

Roughly at the time that British road racing was coming under pressure, local responsibility for the the road system was being formalized. The Local Government Act of 1888 established Councils in each county in Britain. Each County Council was given responsibility for the maintenance of the main roads. The task of organizing a local constabulary, that embraced the task of policing local roads, was also a matter of Council responsibility.

Timing is a crucial element in this story. By the mid-1890's, the introduction of the pneumatic tire had put an end to the era of the Ordinary bicycle and increased interest in road cycling. Prior to this time, given the hazards of riding an Ordinary bicycle on the open road, road racing was a distinctly minority sport: long distance road racing decidedly so.

A more mainstream preoccupation of British cyclists was seeking improvements in the roads. 1886 marks the beginning of the withdrawal of N.C.U. support for road racing. Not coincidentally, in that year the N.C.U. and the Cyclists' Touring Club had joined together to form the Road Improvements Association to work for the making and maintenance of better road surfaces. That year saw only five "open" road events in Britain - North Road Cycling Club promotions at 50 miles, 100 miles and 24 hours, a 25 mile handicap race organized by the Catford Cycling Club, and a 45 mile handicap in the Manchester area organized by a local sports periodical.

The N.C.U. was thus in the position of seeking road building concessions from local authorities on the one hand while having to defend the actions of a small part of its membership from local authority concern on the other. In the circumstance, it was easier to sacrifice the road racers. The bulk of bicycle racing in the era of the Ordinary was located on the track: most cycling clubs were happy enough to adjourn their activities to the velodrome.

The mid-1890's, as well, saw the introduction of the motorcar, an innovation that was to change radically both the road safety concerns of local authorities and the condition of British road surfaces. British road cycling sport came to maturity too early: it suffered the consequence of being the pioneer.

For a few years following the inaugural Bordeaux-Paris in 1891, British and French road sport ran in parallel. Indeed, British cyclists continued to compete at Bordeaux-Paris, taking positions on the podium in 1892, 1894 and 1896. Pacing was an integral part of subsequent editions of Bordeaux-Paris and remained so almost until the cessation of that classic race in the late-1980's. Pacing was a prominent part of the inaugural Paris-Brest-Paris and of the subsequent edition in 1901. Marseille-Paris, held in 1902, also permitted pacing for the "vitesse" class of race entrants. Pacing remained a part of the other classic marathon race of the era - Paris-Roubaix - until 1909.

Two things changed the French sport, the introduction of professional cycling teams and the innovation of stage racing. French road race cycling was, almost from the outset, a professional sport. Sponsors began to ask why they should foot the bill for pacers who themselves were excluded from the competition and, consequently, had no opportunity to place in an event. Eventually, the team of paid pacers were replaced by members of professional teams each entered into the race: any team member, in theory, might be a race winner.

A second French innovation was the stage race, introduced in order to extend the commercial opportunities afforded by a bicycle race over a period of weeks. While, at first, race stages were relatively few and of marathon length, through time they have become shorter and more numerous.

These developments decisively changed the character of the continental sport from the model of British paced cycling from which it derives. The ultramarathon distances favoured by the British sport are no longer a characteristic of the continental sport: the premier ultramarathon races - Paris-Brest-Paris and Bordeaux-Paris - have long since been dropped from the race calendar. Marathon distances do survive in the continental race calendar in the form of the one-day classics. However, it is team tactics and tactical insight into the race as it unfolds, that is more a determinant of success than the raw endurance and speed that were the principal determinants of success in the British sport.

The French sport came to be captured by commercial interests - a three-way alliance between sporting press, bicycle manufacturers, and commercial sponsors. The foundations for this commercialization were laid by Pierre Giffard at the first running of Paris - Brest - Paris in 1891, and extended by him during his tenure as the leading sports promoter of the last decade of the nineteenth century.

By contrast, the sport that evolved in Britain became recondite - hidden from public view. The organization of road racing continued to lay in the hands of the clubs of amateur road racers. In the aftermath of the First World War, these clubs banded together in 1922 to form the Road Racing Council with 24 hour, 12 hour, 25 mile, 50 mile and 100 mile events at the core of its activities. Instrumental in organizing the R.R.C. was F.T. Bidlake, the North Road tricyclist who had collided with the trap in 1894. Subsequent to that accident, Bidlake had been instrumental in devising the unpaced race format for the North Road Cycle Club. Through the R.R.C. he was able to extend a common set of race protocols to a wider set of clubs.

The attitude of the N.C.U. towards time trialling, as this form of racing had come to be known, began to change. One consequence of this softening of attitude was that the R.R.C. reorganized itself as the Road Time Trials Council in 1937. Where the R.R.C. had permitted membership of only a select group of clubs devoted to unpaced road racing, the constitution of the R.T.T.C. allowed affiliation by all British cycling clubs. Many of the clubs that had severed affiliation with the N.C.U. over the issue of road racing, re-affiliated with that body during this period. Time trials at 25 miles and under became a more prominent part of the race calendar.

In 1933, some devotees of road racing had begun mass start road racing on the closed circuit of the Brooklands motor race course. During the Second World War, the British military took over this - and other closed road circuits - for their own purposes. Out of frustration, Percy Stallard organized a 59 mile mass start road race on quiet roads between Llangollen and Wolverhampton. This was the first mass start road race on British roads in about fifty years. The N.C.U. promptly banned Stallard and all those who participated in the race with him. In response, those interested in this form of road racing formed the British League of Racing Cyclists. The B.L.R.C. promoted the first British National Road Race Championship and, subsequently, a stage race between Brighton and Glasgow. It also sponsored national teams to enter races abroad, notably the Peace Race, and in 1955 supported the first British team to enter the Tour De France.

The N.C.U. maintained its opposition to the B.L.R.C., continuing to ban those who had entered an event organized under B.L.R.C. auspices from participating in N.C.U. sanctioned events. Clubs that chose to affiliate with the B.L.R.C. were expelled from the N.C.U. In this atmosphere of polarization, the Road Time Trials Council sided with the N.C.U., preventing B.L.R.C.-affiliated riders from participating in R.T.T.C. sanctioned time trials. Further, the achievements of B.L.R.C. riders were not recognized by the administrators of the F.T. Bidlake Memorial Prize - the most prestigious award in British cycling. The legatees of British unpaced road racing thus worked to prevent the diffusion of the continental road sport into Britain. While this opposition relaxed after the merger of the B.L.R.C. with the N.C.U. in 1959, time trialling has remained the dominant sport of racing cyclists in Great Britain.

A further consequence of the evolution of road racing in Britain has been that the British road sport, unlike it continental counterpart, has had limited diffusion. The British sport came to be established in Ireland and Australia, both nations adopting the sport in the late nineteenth century before racing came to be suppressed in Britain.

A 100 mile open race organized by the Dublin Wanderers Cycling Club in 1889 resulted in the creation of the Irish Road Club the following year. Cyclists prominent in the establishment of the British R.R.A. took a leading role in encouraging the founding of this organization. The I.R.C. initially promoted races at 100 miles and 50 miles. Since the 1950's, 12 hour and 25 mile events have been added to the calendar. There is also a Belfast to Dublin point-to-point record.

In Australia, a 165 mile event between Warrnambool and Melbourne, recognized as the first road race in the Southern Hemisphere, was first organized in 1895 as a handicap event. The race is still in existence, now considered the longest one day race in the U.C.I. race calendar. As is the case in Britain, several point-to-point routes were established and are recognized as eligible for establishing road records. Six of these link capitals of the Australian States, while a seventh, Adelaide - Melbourne - Sydney, links three state capitals. There is also a 4400 mile Australian end-to-end route between Sydney and Fremantle. 12 hour, 24 hour, 100 mile and 1000 mile records are also recognized.

Australian riders came to participate in the British sport in the 1930's, prominent among them Hubert Opperman. Opperman was himself a holder of most of the Australian road records as well as a multiple winner of Waarambool-Melbourne. He used this experience to set new records at 24 hours, Lands End to London, John O'Groats to Lands End, 1000 miles, and London to Bath return over two seasons of cycling in Britain. As a professional rider, Opperman was able to compete in continental racing without any consequence for his status. He won Paris-Brest-Paris in 1931, establishing a course record. This was perhaps the last triumph of a cyclist trained in the British race tradition in a continental event.

Diffusion of the British sport took place within Great Britain itself. Regional associations began to be established in the 1920's, each with a separate record book for time and long distance records, as well as records on regional point-to-point routes. Currently, there are six regional associations within England as well as Scottish and Welsh associations.

The most startling development has been the diffusion of the model of the British long distance sport to the United States. In the early 1980's, a small group of American riders sought to establish an end-to-end race across America. This race, now known as RAAM, spawned a calendar of events designed to serve as qualifying events for participation in RAAM, and a new body - the Ultramarathon Cycling Association to oversee their organization. Many of these events, and the rules that govern the participation of riders within them, are based on the British model. While a full discussion of this development is beyond the goals of this article, it is interesting to note that this American adaptation of the British sport is now beginning to be diffused internationally, with events taking place in Europe and in South America.

There has been a limited penetration of the sport into Canada. In Ontario, the RSD 24 hour race held in the Midland area had a two-year life at the beginning of this decade. Records recognized by the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association have been set on several point-to-point routes including Vancouver Island end-to-end, and between Calgary and Vancouver. A little-known record was established on a route between Windsor and Ottawa in the late 1980's. There has apparently been no attempt to better the record established by this ride.

Part V --->