British Cycling, the acclaimed governing body of the UK’s top Olympic sport, short-changed members of the British League of Racing Cyclists at the conclusion of the 50th Anniversary of the Federation at National Council last Saturday.
For all their fine words in praising the BLRC for bringing road racing to the UK in the 1940s, the wording of the Board’s proposals put before and accepted by National Council last Saturday upset the Leaguers by placing equal status also on their hated rivals the National Union of Cyclists, for “the vital role played in the development of the sport”.
For it was the NCU who held the sport back. The last thing the BLRC men expected was for BC to give equal billing to the people who were hell bent on destroying them. For half-a-century they were denied recognition. Now they’ve got it, sort of!
But instead of clarifying this for the historical record, to give this episode a decent burial, National Council succeeded in airbrushing out the historical and controversial facts behind their shot gun wedding, through the amalgamation of the BLRC and NCU.
In his statement afterwards, British Cycling’s highly regarded President Brian Cookson OBE had lots of praise for the BLRC and the bitter war they waged, but you had to read between the lines to figure out that enemy was the NCU!
The feeling among some BLRC men who decoded his statement, is that Cookson’s heart is in the right place insofar as road racing and the League is concerned. But as chairman of National Council he may have been restricted in what he was allowed to contribute to debate. Perhaps there are still NCU supporters kicking about?
By voting unanimously to accept the Board’s proposals, which failed to differentiate between the BLRC and their enemy NCU, National Council demonstrated that they don’t fully understand the importance of their own history, failed to understand it’s significance.
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Imagine Britain celebrating Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar without mentioning it was the French and Spanish navies he beat!
OK, stretching a point, maybe, but an illustration, nonetheless.
“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.” Robert Heinlein, science fiction grand master.
Tony Hewson ‘disappointed’
Tony Hewson, the 1955 Tour of Britain winner, this year entered into a long dialogue with British Cycling President Brian Cookson over how BC might properly acknowledge the BLRC.
Not being properly acknowledged is at the “root of our grievance” Hewson told him.
So when he saw the Board’s proposals giving equal status to both groups, he was at first annoyed.
Now, after reading the outcome of National Council, he says he’s now simply disappointed.
He had seized one last chance to try and influence National Council by email before last Saturday, in the hope that they might differentiate between the contributions made by the two organisations.
Hewson told them … “The NCU had campaigned unrelentingly to destroy the League by fair means or foul.”
That the NCU and the RTTC (now CTT) both tried to undermine the BLRC modernisers.
That the resulting meddling of the NCU cost the sport Daily Express sponsorship of the Tour of Britain in the 1950s.
Even when the UCI forced the NCU to adopt road racing in 1952, their heart was not in it.
“They competed abroad, but at home promoted next to nothing,” says Hewson.
“The BLRC calendar, by contrast, bulged with races for every category, including multi-stage events like Brighton-Glasgow and single day classics like the Lincoln GP, Tour of the Peak and Tour of the Chilterns.”
Hewson concluded his case by praising British Cycling, declaring that their achievements over the past decade is everything the BLRC could have wished for.
“Long ago the BLRC had a dream that our sport would one day metamorphose from cloth cap to chic in public perception and now that has come true.
“All we ask is for you to acknowledge that the foundation stone for this was laid in 1942. May you have a fruitful debate!”
But Hewson’s plea fell on deaf ears.
Following National Council, the following statement from president Brian Cookson was published on BC’s website. While praising the BLRC for founding the modern sport we enjoy today, it refers only obliquely to the BLRC’s problems, steering clear of saying the big problem was with the NCU!
British Cycling President Brian Cookson’s statement
“At the conclusion of our 50th anniversary celebrations, I think it is fitting to acknowledge our heritage. The history of British Cycling, through the National Cyclists’ Union, goes back to 1878 and the very beginnings of cycling as a sport and pastime, and we can’t forget that.
“In the early years heroes such as Leon Meredith achieved amazing things and the focus of that organisation became very much around track racing, leading on to the exploits of greats such as Reg Harris.
“Meanwhile, road racing was growing throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) was formed in 1942 to fight for the re-introduction of this branch of our sport in Great Britain. In a way that is perhaps hard for us to understand today, the founders of the BLRC had to overcome strong oppositionat the time, in a battle that was at times so bitter that feelings still burn strong even today.
That they succeeded in their fight shows in the balance of our sport today, where road racing is the most popular discipline and where British riders are today making the breakthrough at the very highest levels in more significant numbers than ever before.
“So the British Cycling of today is indeed very happy to acknowledge the roles played by all of those people who worked so hard for our sport and who achieved so much, over all those years, right back to 1878. And now, in celebrating our heritage and acknowledging the battles and achievements of the past, our task is to build on the strong foundations given us by our predecessors and look forward to the next 50 years and beyond. I hope and believe that we will be worthy of them.”
Hewson: ‘they just don’t get it’
“My own feeling is that it’s (The president’s statement) couched in the language of political correctness and you have to read between the lines to recognise that it does in a roundabout way endorse the role of the BLRC as being indispensable to the future of cycling in the UK.
“It supplements and improves on the first paragraph of the letter of March 15th (to BLRCA president Dave Orford) but falls short of the full-blooded endorsement we would all have wished for. I suppose we must be realistic: for these councillors, it’s ancient history which none of them lived through as we did.
“When it comes to passion and bitterness, they just don’t get it. I doubt whether the debate did more than scratch the surface, leaving the overwhelming impression of a discussion taking place chiefly between the ill-informed and the ignorant. Their “passion”, I guess, would be majored on a pint and chat in the pub after the event! ” As chairman, Cookson was on a bit of leash. I guess he was restricted to asking questions of clarification rather than guiding the debate from the chair. However, I still remained convinced his heart is in road racing and therefore with the League. ”
“However, when you deconstruct the NCU bit of the statement, it’s pretty lukewarm. No mention of their role in road racing, because as we know (and I told Cookson this repeatedly) theirs was a negative role. It’s significant that of their two cited “heroes” one was the dodgy dealer Harris, who (bless him!) repeatedly fell out with the NCU, and the other the shamateur Leon Meredith (Google him and you’ll see what I mean).
“Principally, the thanks directed at the NCU seem to be justified on the basis of “tradition” i.e. that despite two major splits they managed to survive from their formation in 1878 until 1959, when as we know, they were on their last legs.”