Tired of reading about the history of the Tour de France, the Doc takes a look at its British counterpart
A year or two ago I was reading a very fine history of the Tour de France.
When I finished it, I put it away, on the special shelf I have for histories of the Tour de France. The shelf was full.
Meanwhile the shelf I’ve been saving for histories of other stuff to do with cycling was still 75 per cent empty.
This is a roundabout way of introducing the topic of my new book. It’s a history of other stuff.
I love a fresh take on Eugene Christophe and the small boy and the forge (if you don’t know the story, don’t worry, you will) or the tale of Eddy Merckx being punched by a spectator (ditto) as much as anyone else.
But sometimes I wonder about things like “How come no one pointed out what a stupid idea the penny-farthing was at the time”, or “What were the origins of the Tour of Britain?”
The answer to the former is they did, and often, but penny farthing riders were the Victorian equivalent of parkour runners, and the extreme danger was half the appeal.
It was a bracing view of life in an era when an orthopaedic surgeon’s tools were interchangeable with those of a lumberjack.
A tour amid war
And the Tour of Britain? Well, it started during an air raid. It was in Lewisham, August Bank Holiday 1944. (Yes, they had bank holidays during the war.)
Lewisham is a few miles nearer to Germany than central London, so it tended to get hit by rockets that ran out of puff a little early, which was most of them.
Amid the smoke of a recent arrival, the first stage race ever promoted in the UK, the Southern Grand Prix, set off round Kent.
Not long afterwards an RAF fighter brought down a rocket from directly overhead, throwing shrapnel over the course. It made Paris-Roubaix look like a soft-play area.
The next year the promoters ran a race from Brighton to Glasgow. Stage two was preceded by a formal luncheon for the organisers, which overran.
Watch now: Why pro riders love the Tour of Britain
Tired of standing in the rain, the competitors started the stage for themselves. When the officials finished lunch, their race had already gone, leaving them to catch the train to try to catch up with it.
You remember a season or two ago when we seemed to spend weeks arguing about whether Team Sky’s insistence on taking their own pillows to hotels, and sending their own cleaners in to disinfect rooms was a) marginal gains or b) everything that has gone wrong with the world since the end of the British Empire?
Well, in the early UK stage races a different ethos applied. No rooms or hotels were organised in advance.
If you were among the first finishers, you got first pick of the B&Bs. If you were late, you got last pick.
If you were really badly off the back you’d get nothing at all and have to quite literally sleep under a hedge. Of course, Team Sky would have brought their own hedge.
One stage, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Glasgow, was meant to be 100 miles. You can’t even do that in a straight line.
It was actually 150 miles, much of it over gravel roads in the Scottish borders. It took eight hours rather than the expected four-and-a-bit.
But did anyone complain? You bet they did. The whole French team would have gone home in a huff if one of them hadn’t won it.
All the same, that was the race that just a few editions later became the Milk Race, which was for decades the only British bike race most people had ever heard of. And I just love that its whole history started amid falling bombs.
The book, should you fancy it, is called Re:Cyclists – 200 Years on Two Wheels (Bloomsbury Sport).