We all know a handful of things about British Olympic cycling. That Sir Chris Hoy is the most successful British Olympian. That Jason Kenny is the most famous man that no one has ever heard of, and that the whole thing started back in 1992 when Chris Boardman won the first gold medal for the British cycling team since the beginning of time.
Well, much happened a long time before this. In 1920, for example, Harry Ryan and Thomas Lance won the tandem sprint by a length in a gripping final against the South African pairing. There is a danger of dismissing everything pre-the last two Games, or even pre-Boardman, as failure followed by failure, when there was much to be proud of.
There were men like Fred Keeping. Keeping was the butler to the British Ambassador in Athens, who took advantage of his day off (well, half his day off) to ride the 12-hour track race (yes, track) at the 1896 Games.
Keeping didn’t actually win, he came second, but his defeat came at the hands of the Austrian Adolf Schmal, who simply nicked a lap early on while everyone else was warming up, and then spent the remaining 11¾ hours sitting on Keeping’s wheel.
They were the only riders of the six who started who had the enthusiasm to finish — Schmal because he was winning, Keeping because he was too polite to give up, or, indeed, tell Schmal to bloody well come through and do a turn. Keeping was, in essence, a victim of the most spectacular wheel-suck of all time.
Another butler to the British Ambassador in Athens was Keeping’s colleague Edward Battell. He won bronze in the road race, despite the objections of other British residents of the city that since he was a butler he was, by definition, not a gentleman, and hence not an amateur. The Greek organisers were politely baffled by this objection.
Freddie Grubb was another silver medallist, in the road time trial in Stockholm in 1912. It was a fine performance, but I mention it mainly because it was a 196-mile time trial, it started at 2am, and took around 11 hours for most of the competitors to complete.
In other words, it was a proper bike race.
One of the surprises of British Olympic cycling history is that Reg Harris never won the Olympics — he got two silvers in 1948, in the match sprint and the tandem sprint. Despite being reigning world champion, he was originally left off the team as a punishment for wanting to train in, of all the strange places for a track rider to train, Manchester.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of all the years before Boardman was the vast collection of team pursuit bronzes. When it came to bronze team pursuit medals, the British fans’ cup ranneth over. In the 11 Games between 1928 and 1976, Britain’s team pursuiters managed it eight times, without ever finishing any higher.
They even banged out six in a row between 1928 and 1958. To this day, there is a certain variety of cycling dinner over the winter where you’d be hard pressed to chuck a bread roll and not clonk a bronze medallist of a certain age.
The British team even won bronze again in 2000, before silver in 2004. The eventual win in 2008 wasn’t an overnight success, it was the end of the longest, most careful build-up in sport.
By the way, don’t actually throw rolls at bronze medallists. Most of them are a lot tougher than you.
(The absence of women from any of this is because the first Olympic events for women were only held in 1984, so until we get to Yvonne McGregor’s bronze in 2000, there’s embarrassingly little history at all, glorious or otherwise.)