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50 Years of British Cycling - How the BCF Was Formed

The formation of the British Cycling Federation in 1959 brought to an end an era of cycle racing in this country which was overshadowed by some remarkable schisms within the sport which reflect as much on the society of the time as they do on cycling itself.

To fully understand the events which led to the formation of the British Cycling Federation, in 1959, we have to go back almost 70 years to a time when cycling faced a very uncertain future and when the governing body of the time took a most unusual decision, one which was to have a profound effect on cycle racing until well after world war two.

The first governing body of the sport in the UK, the National Cyclists' Union, was the originator of a ban on racing on the open roads in 1890 which was to persist into the 1950s. That ban, which to modern eyes seems all the more bizarre in that it was the work of a governing body, actually had a kernel of good sense to it. With cycling rapidly taking off in the second half of the 19th century, racing was soon becoming a popular pastime.

However, the bicycle was, on the whole, seen as a machine of working classes and a strong resistance to racing rapidly emerged from the wealthy ruling classes. There are some who believe that we came close to a total ban on cycling in this country as the upper classes railed against the mobility it gave the "common" man and the resultant incursions into their beloved countryside. It was against this background, which seems so unreal today, that the NCU banned cycle racing on the highways and insisted that all racing must take place on velodromes and later on closed circuits.

Not surprisingly, this ban was not accepted in some quarters and the scene was set for a split in racing cycling which has never completely healed.

The first major movement away from the NCU and its ban was the Road Racing Council, later to become the Road Time Trials Council (RTTC), today known as Cycling Time Trials (CTT).

The Road Racing Council promoted time trial races, where riders were timed individually over a set distance, starting at one minute intervals. An element of cloak and dagger surrounded time trials, with dark clothing, no racing numbers and a "secret society" approach to the racing. There was little or no publicity for events, which often took place early in the morning. The aim was always to avoid publicity.

The NCU initially banned riders and clubs involved with this new sport, but eventually joint affiliation to the two organisations was tolerated.

As the sport of road racing as we know it flourished on the continent through the early decades of the 20th century, with races like the Tour de France and the Giro D'Italia capturing the imaginations of whole countries, back in the UK its growth was stunted, stifled by a culture of secrecy, which changing social conditions of the time no longer warranted.

The bicycle was no longer viewed with suspicion: it had become a totally integrated part of society and with motor car ownership making inroads into the working classes, there was no longer a danger that cycling would be banned. Yet the ban on racing on the roads continued.

It took the biggest upheaval of the 20th century, world war two, to set the wheels in motion for the return of bunch racing to the roads of Britain. In 1942, a leading rider of the time, Percy Stallard, put pressure on the NCU to allow road racing and when he was rebuffed, he went ahead and organised a race from Llangollen to Wolverhampton.

Stallard and all his fellow competitors were suspended by both the NCU and the RTTC. The scene was set for the foundation of a rival organisation and on November 14 1942 the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) was formed at a meeting in Buxton, Derbyshire. Stallard was a pragmatist. He knew that the war was going to radically change the social fabric of the country and he saw no reason why the ban on road racing shouldn't be put aside once and for all.

In many ways, he was right and the BLRC went from strength to strength, organising races - including the Brighton to Glasgow event, from which the Tour of Britain grew - and sending teams to compete in major Road Races overseas. Early successes by BLRC teams in the Peace Race, in Eastern Europe, eventually led to a British team taking part in the Tour de France in 1955, with Brian Robinson marking the occasion by becoming our first stage winner in the world's most prominent event.

Despite this success, riders and clubs had to choose between the BLRC and the NCU and RTTC: membership of the former automatically excluded you from joining the other two. Even the leading magazine of the time, Cycling, backed only one side - the NCU and RTTC - and ignored the BLRC.

The fifties saw the continued success of the BLRC. Having proved their point - that Road Racing was ready to return to the roads of the UK - one might have expected them to work out a way to combine forces with the NCU. Similarly, the NCU might have been expected to go with the flow and accept that road racing was an inevitable part of the future.

However, politics often overrules common sense and there is some evidence to suggest that Stallard, who was a powerful personality, did not want to merge with the NCU. This led to some in-fighting within the BLRC, which weakened their position.

At the same time, the world governing body, the UCI, was becoming increasingly impatient with the NCU and the generally confused state of racing in the UK and it began to pressure the two bodies to sort out their differences. It went as far as threatening the NCU that it was considering recognising the BLRC as British cycling's representative body. Even so, a split in British cycling which had begun in the middle of the darkest days of World War Two, eventually outlasted the war by over ten years and it was only at the 17th annual meeting of the BLRC, in 1959, that a merger with the NCU was finally approved.

And so, in 1959, the British Cycling Federation was formed. Perhaps predictably, this didn't end the in-fighting and rivalries which had wracked the sport. Stallard, in particular, was unhappy at the merger and the man who had done more than anyone to re-establish Road Racing found himself at odds with the new set-up. He went to his grave believing that the BLRC had sold out and would have been better off continuing alone.

The RTTC, meanwhile, kept its distance. With hindsight, it's hard to understand why the opportunity to merge all three bodies wasn't taken. But, although the RTTC and NCU had mutual agreements on club and rider affiliations, there was a world of difference between both the members and the administrators and between their sporting cultures. Even today, although the RTTC and British Cycling share many interests and jointly promote the national time trial championships, the two retain relative independence of each other.

And so, the British Cycling Federation was formed from a marriage of two unlikely partners. If that marriage was something of a shotgun affair and the subsequent years have not all been plain sailing, the foundations of the organisation as we know it today had been laid. The year 1959 was one of monumental significance for the sport of cycling in this country and whilst it's right that British Cycling celebrates fifty years of existence, it's worth bearing in mind the turbulent times and difficulties which led up to it, if only to remind ourselves of the potential for politics to intrude into sport.

Your Memories

Did you attend the first meeting or any of the BLRC or NCU meetings in the run up to the historic foundation meeting? Or do you know anyone who did? We'd love to hear about it? If you would like to share your memories of the period with us, please send them to editor@britishcycling.org.uk

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