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BC Randonneurs Cycling Club


Part III --->

Part II - The Development Of An Event Structure

French long distance cycling is the product of conscious design. The intent of its originators was to create a new sport, one that would be distinct from touring on the one hand, and from racing on the other. French long distance cycling sport largely emerged from innovators concerned with the state of cycletourism and with co-operative cycling. British long distance sport, by contrast, is the result of a series of incremental events that took place over the period of several decades, in which many people - cyclists and bicycle sport administrators - played a part. From very early on in its history, the British long distance sport has been explicitly competitive.

The event structure of British cycling, though different than the French structure of the brevet series, owes its origins to a similar type of occurrence. The foundation of the brevet series, the brevet of 200 kilometers, replicates the approximate distance between Rome and Naples, the distance that the Italian cyclists of Audax Italiano attempted to complete in the daylight hours of a summer's day at the turn of the nineteenth century. Similarly, the event structure of British long distance cycling resulted from a number of point-to-point rides that served as templates for later road cycling events.

Probably the first such ride occurred in 1869. In February of that year, John Mayall set out from London with two companions to see whether he could complete the 40 mile (about 65 kilometer) distance to Brighton on the English south coast, in a day. Though his two cycling partners turned back after 20 miles, Mayall persisted to finish in about 16 hours. What followed was a series of what might be termed "purposeful tours" as individual cyclists and cyclists in small groups attempted to push the limits of what might be achieved on a bicycle - first in terms of distance, and then in terms of speed.

In April 1869, two members of the Liverpool Velocipede Club cycled from Liverpool to London, a distance of just under 200 miles, in three days. This was the longest known bicycle ride on record at that time. It was a record that was not to stand for long as, in August of that year, a Mr. Klamrath completed the journey between London and Edinburgh, close to 500 miles, in five days.

This distance stood as an unofficial mark until June of 1873, when four members of the Middlesex Bicycle Club rode between London and the northernmost tip of the British Isles - John O'Groats - covering the distance of 689 miles in 14 days and 12 and one-half hours. Six years later, choosing the same London to John O'Groats route, H. Blackwell of the Canonbury Cycling Club lowered the time for this distance to 11 days and 4 hours. The following year, cycling with a companion, Blackwell pedaled from Land's End (Britain's southwestern tip) to John O'Groats, taking 12 days and 12 hours to cover the distance of 876 miles (about 1420 kilometers).

Blackwell's rides were significant in two respects. First, his Land's End to John O'Groats ride established the end-to-end route that became the premier event of British long distance cycling, much as Paris - Brest - Paris has become the premier event of French long distance cycling. Additionally, Blackwell, in choosing to cycle over an established route against a well-known informal record, introduced an element of competitiveness into what had been a series of cycle tours motivated by curiosity about cycling limits.

Blackwell, himself, was keen to downplay any notion that his rides were inspired by a competitive impulse. He recalled in a memoir of his London to John O'Groats ride that he had originally planned a cycling tour of Normandy. It was only when those plans fell through that he decided to point his bicycle north from London. Further, according to his account, it was only after arriving in Inverness that, feeling strong, he decided to push on to John O'Groats. Blackwell went on to spin a similar tale of inadvertence concerning his end-to-end ride of the following year.

Whatever Blackwell's true intentions, his rides established a benchmark that subsequent riders were explicit in their intent to better. It helped that the first few attempts on Blackwell's end-to-end mark were failures. It was only in 1883 that James Lennox, already a veteran at the end-to-end distance, established a new mark of 9 days, 4 hours and 40 minutes. He was to undertake a further end-to-end ride in 1885, completing the distance in 6 days, 16 hours and 7 minutes. This time was to become significant as among the first formalized as an official record by an official sanctioning organization.

Blackwell and Lennox established their records on Ordinaries. The end-to-end distance, however, came to be recognized as the ultimate challenge facing the sporting cyclist by riders of tricycles and "safety" bicycles as well. In 1882, Alfred Nixon became the first tricyclist to complete the route. His vehicle weighed 110 pounds, exclusive of baggage. In 1885, a tricyclist - Tom R. Marriott - challenged and beat Lennox's then current record time on an Ordinary, cycling end-to-end in 6 days, 15 hours and 22 minutes.

Similarly, riders of "safety" bicycles attempted to establish records on the course. The first such successful attempt was made in 1884 by James H. Adams riding a Facile. His time of 6 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes beat the then existing record time set by an Ordinary by over two days.

At the same time that cyclists were beginning to establish informal records on the Land's End to John O'Groats route, others were beginning to pioneer other point-to-point courses. Members of the Anfield Bicycle Club, centred in Liverpool, were active in attempts to lower the time on the Liverpool to London route, first ridden in 1869. A landmark ride on this route occurred in 1885, when an Anfield club member, David R. Fell, established an unofficial time of 20 hours and 10 minutes - the first ride in under twenty-four hours. Similar activity was recorded on routes between London and York, and London and Edinburgh.

Interest also developed around establishing records around particular distances and particular time spans. The London Bicycle Club instituted a members-only 100 mile race between London and Bath in 1877. The winner of this same event in 1878, completed the distance in seven hours, eighteen minutes and fifty-five seconds, an unofficial 100 mile record that stood until 1884.

In September, 1878, Walter Britten rode from London to Bath and back (establishing still another point-to-point route) in 23 hours and 55 minutes, laying claim to the record for the greatest distance covered by a bicycle on the road in a day. Twenty-four hour and twelve hour road races were established to attempt new record distances. One such, on the London to Bath return route, was held for riders of Faciles in 1882. The winner, one W. Snook, covered 214 ½ miles in a 24 hour period. The London Tricycle Club promoted a similar event for tricycles on the London to Brighton return route in 1883, the winner cycling 218 ¾ miles.

Early attempts to establish records on the road depended to a very great extent on the honesty of the self-reporting of the cyclist making the attempt. It was a system open to abuse. A pair of claimants for a 24 hour distance record, for instance, were found to have been assisted in their attempt by a convenient train schedule. With an increasing commercialization of bicycle manufacture in the mid-1880s, there was a growing concern that there would be a market interest in falsifying record claims by cycle manufacturing companies in order to secure a market advantage. Consequently, interest grew in the road cycling community in a system for overseeing and regularizing record claims.

In 1885, the National Cyclists' Union commenced authenticating record claims and keeping a record book. The man largely responsible for establishing the conventions by which records were established was Finlay A. Macrae, an early Secretary of the N.C.U. Record times were, from the outset, recognized regardless of whether they were established by solo effort or in the context of a road race.

During this period, road racing in Britain was controversial, a subject that is pursued in more detail below. In 1886, the N.C.U. voted to actively discourage racing on public roads. After further deliberations, the N.C.U. decided in the following year to no longer recognize road record claims, concentrating its efforts instead on organizing track racing and social and touring cycling.

In response, those bicycle clubs actively involved in the British long distance road sport formed the Road Records Association to carry on the work of authenticating records begun by the N.C.U. The minority status of long distance road cycling is indicated by the depth of the reply to the N.C.U.'s position. Of the well over 150 bicycle clubs affiliated with the N.C.U., only fourteen sent delegates to the founding meeting of the R.R.A. in April 1888. A poll of N.C.U. affiliates conducted by one of the R.R.A. founding clubs found widespread concern with racing on the road, particularly with short distance races of under fifty miles. An attempt by the newly-formed R.R.A. to organize British road racing under its auspices, met with indifference and the initiative was dropped.

Instrumental in bringing the R.R.A. into being was A.J. Wilson, self-named as "Faed" as a result of a childhood onset hearing affliction. Wilson had two years earlier, in 1885, founded the North Road Cycling Club to foster amateur road racing on the main road north from London. The N.R.C.C., together with the Anfield Bicycle Club (founded in 1879) and the Bath Road Club (founded in 1886), were the clubs devoted to long distance road cycling that became the most influential in the thinking of the new Association.

The R.R.A. moved to recognize and carry on N.C.U. authenticated records at 50 and 100 miles, at 24 hours, and over the Land's End to John O'Groats route. Separate record categories were established for Ordinary and safety bicycles. Records established by Ordinaries, however, were effectively frozen in 1892 as high wheeled ridership melted away. Tandem, tricycle, and tandem tricycle records were accorded equal status with records established by bicycles. Record attempts were opened to professional and amateur cyclists without distinction. Women, however, were denied eligibility as record makers. Women were to later (in 1934) form a parallel organization. The Women's Road Record Association merged with the R.R.A. only in 1989.

The initial event structure adopted by the R.R.A. was augmented almost immediately by the addition of further record categories. At the inaugural 1888 meeting, a new record, at 12 hours, was authorized. In December of that year, the R.R.A. added London to York, London to Bath return, London to Edinburgh, and Liverpool to London as additional point-to-point routes on which record attempts were to be authenticated. London to Brighton and back, and Liverpool to Edinburgh were added in 1890, with Edinburgh to York following in 1893. London to Portsmouth and back, and Land's End to London were added in 1899. This brought the number of point-to-point routes to ten. The longest event in the R.R.A. event structure was instituted in 1897 with the addition of a 1000 mile record.

The event structure put in place by the prime movers of the R.R.A. at the end of the nineteenth century has remained essentially unchanged to the present day. Three new point-to-point routes and a twenty-five mile record event were added in the post World War II period. The diligence with which attempts are monitored and recorded, and record claims adjudicated, however, has changed little since the earliest days of the sport.

The major change in the conduct of the sport has come about largely as a response to outside pressures on the practice of road cycling. This change has to do with attitudes towards pacing.

Part III --->