We take a ride with Mildenhall Cycling Club, the former home of Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton. In association with PowerBar
- Photos by Andy Jones
From: Mildenhall, Suffolk
Meets: 10am each Sunday, club room, Wamil Way, Mildenhall.
Website: www.mildenhallcc.org.uk | Twitter: @MildenhallCC
Among the photos and jerseys hanging in Mildenhall Cycling Club’s homely club room, one stands out. If the rainbow bands around the collar don’t give it away, the neat autograph does. “Best wishes, Victoria Pendleton x.” The club are very proud of their former member.
Not only did Pendleton begin her career at the club where her dad is still a member, she is one of many top level cyclists to have cut their teeth at the club’s annual cycling rally where, among other things, grasstrack racing is fiercely fought.
“If you say Mildenhall they all know the grasstrack and the cycle rally,” club chairman Mark Burchett tells us as we crunch across the gravel, away from the dark wooden building. “It’s fantastic to watch and really does teach bike-handling skills. You can see why some top riders honed their skills here.”
Those top riders include the likes of Nicole Cooke, Laura Trott and the Downing brothers, but Pendleton is the only club member to have achieved greatness; most members are too busy volunteering at the event to take part.
“Many people think we’re a full-time cycling organisation; that’s a huge testament to the members who organise it,” continues Burchett. “There’s camping and a trade show and the event is more than the sum of its parts, but the backbone of the grass has always seen us through.”
Avoiding the town centre, we set off across the flat countryside straddling the border of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, along a recently opened cycle path which allows the town’s riders to avoid the busy roads serving the area.
Mark’s wife Mandy leads us under a rare canopy of trees to a brief respite from a freezing wet mist laid across the fenland terrain. She’s riding a racing trike inherited from her parents.
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“It’s about 25 years old, with Reynolds 531 tubing, but still set up for racing,” says Burchett as we join her on the front. “My mum and dad bought a tandem conversion and decided they liked it, so for their 30th wedding anniversary they bought a Longstaff tandem trike with 531.
“When dad had heart surgery mum and I had a spin on her.” More than just a spin, the mother and daughter team ended up winning races.
A family theme runs through the club and the Burchetts aren’t the only husband and wife out. Both lifelong cyclists, David and Judith Robb only joined the club when their children were old enough to come along; now both children sit high in Mildenhall’s age group standings.
Heading back to Mildenhall there are no trees, hedgerows or buildings to shelter us from a stiffening breeze, and a dark, foreboding sky merges on the distant horizon with the typical black fertile soil.
At the back of our group, Angela Watts commentates on the ride for Jon Petty, the stoker on their tandem. Petty began losing his sight some years ago and Watts, already a member of the club, was his rehabilitation officer and suggested he join.
“I gave up riding my own bike because I kept falling off,” Petty tells us. “When Angela suggested it at first I didn’t fancy the idea of not being in control, but I went along and loved it.”
It’s not just Petty; Watts has introduced more partially sighted riders to the club and it is not rare to find more than one tandem on the club run.
“The club backed me to get this going,” Watts explains. “We got some funding from the local council for a new tandem and we’ve recently had another two donated.
“We’ve come a long way since we started pedalling around a field. We’ve signed up to do a 75-mile event at the end of May.”
Perhaps Jon and Angela sum Mildenhall up. An inclusive club, it’s more about people and bikes than performance.
“We’ve never been strongly race focused,” chairman Burchett explains as we roll back into town. “We are very family orientated and have a good social side. We’re one of the few clubs who have a club room and it makes a huge difference; it’s easier for the club to survive and gives us some identity.”
Watch: Stepping up to ride 100 miles
Though Mildenhall’s first cycling club came along much later, a photo in the local museum suggests organised cycling has been present in the Suffolk town since the late 1800s. No more is known about this early club, but the Mildenhall and District Wheelers arrived in 1933.
Like so many clubs of the era, however, the Wheelers folded when World War Two began and the current club was not born until 1953, when a group of young men organised rides to go swimming in Newmarket. Bored riding only to Newmarket, the group varied their rides and the club was born.
Call-ups for national service nearly killed it before it could become established, early membership struggled to maintain double figures, but as the decade turned Mildenhall began to thrive.
The local chip shop, various pubs and the town hall all served as club meeting houses until, in 1977, the club built its own club room, which is still used now. Constructed largely by the members, it allows Mildenhall CC a real sense of community.
In the 60s club membership reached around 90 and though it has waxed and waned through the years, it remains around that level to this day.
- Victoria Pendleton began her cycling life at Mildenhall. Her father, who is still a member, introduced a young Victoria to the club, which set her on a path to multiple rainbow jerseys and Olympic gold medals.
- Jim and Vera Staines bagged national records on their tandem trike. Daughter Mandy Burchett now rides with her mum, and together they set the national 15-mile record.
- A contemporary of Beryl Burton, Jean Bentley’s club TT records still stand, and Mark Bristow, who won Paralympic gold in Beijing, holds the club hill-climb course record.
Mildenhall CC club run
1 Freckenham to Chippenham
This wonderfully quiet,
narrow lane has a fast and smooth surface and there are even some slight gradients to help you get up some speed.
This may be an A-road, but it is quiet, and heading west to east you have the prevailing wind at your back, allowing some high speeds.
3 Isleham Road
Long, flat and straight, this is a typical Fenland road. With no shelter from the elements, it can be a cyclist’s dream or their worst nightmare.
Scotsdales Garden Centre is welcoming to cyclists and has a variety of food to choose from; there is a decent selection of cakes, and plenty of savoury food including full breakfasts. The scones are particularly good.
Scotsdales Garden Centre, Market Street, Fordham, Cambridgeshire, CB7 5LQ.