Dave Nash rides with a Wiltshire club that’s reinvented itself for the modern era
Based: Swindon, Wiltshire
Meets: Club runs are on Saturday mornings, meeting at the Kingsdown Inn (SN2 7PE) at 9am. There is also a Sunday ride, leaving from Casa Paolo restaurant to the west of the town (SN5 5JX) at 9am.
When Paul Wood barks out an order, you tend to listen.
His sharp shout of “single up!” has us all flailing around like cadets on the parade ground, until we eventually fall into a very tight and obedient line.
It’s no great surprise, therefore, when he tells me in a conspirational tone: “I used to be a sergeant major in the Marines.”
Wood heads up the club’s ‘Nova group’ for new riders and so is a first taste of Swindon Wheelers for many of the club’s riders.
It’s an opportunity for those new to group riding to learn the basics.
Wood is definitely the right man for the job, though his bark is far worse than his bite and he oversees his charges with great care and attention.
“It’s all about nurturing and teaching discipline,” he says.
“Before they know it, they are working their way up to the longer, faster rides. It’s great to see their confidence grow.”
The Nova group has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of this north Wiltshire club.
As recently as 2014, Swindon Wheelers was a club in turmoil, with low membership and a reluctance to modernise.
“We staged a sort of coup d’état and essentially started from scratch,” explains club secretary, Howard King.
“We have focused on making the weekly rides the bedrock of the club, with the respective groups stopping midway at the same cafe.”
Saturday club runs usually explore the quieter roads of the Cotswolds to the north-east of the town, but today we are we are heading south to traverse the western fringes of the ancient Ridgeway, passing close to the famous White Horse of Uffington, before looping back via the Thames Valley.
The initiative to generate a friendly camaraderie within the club is now paying off.
Club members have embraced the new ethos and now it’s beginning to grow organically, with members encouraged to race or join one of the many trips away that they organise.
The Swindon Wheelers, however, is not just about social club rides, washed down with liberal slices of cake and mugs of tea.
Earlier in the morning when I rode south out of Swindon with the fast group, the riding was disciplined, cohesive and quick.
Led by the experienced head of Ady Short, who also mentors younger members with racing aspirations, the group is comprised of both long-term and new members.
Thirty-three-year-old Keith Rawlings, a keen mountaineer and the current club hill-climb champion, is the epitome of the new Wheeler.
“I only joined last June, but the club is very welcoming and far less cliquey than some,” he tells me, before dropping me for dead as the road ramps up over the Ridgeway.
Like everyone I talk to, he is hugely appreciative of the volunteers, and this year, under the watchful eye of Short, plans to make his first tentative steps into racing.
A buoyant club brings new problems and with membership now over 100, King has the enviable task of finding cafes that can accommodate so many.
When we arrive at the designated cake stop, one can understand why. The place is overrun with Wheelers, ranging from the Nova riders to the faster groups.
It’s a wonderful mix: women make up a quarter of the club’s membership and several couples ride with the club too.
There are other clubs in the Swindon region, but they are more racing-orientated.
The Wheelers has successfully established its own identity, one rooted in the long history of the club and promoting the many benefits of the sport.
As the club approaches its centenary, it’s in rude health.
Following its formation in 1923 to “promote road racing, touring and social club runs” Swindon Wheelers was soon attracting members.
The inaugural AGM in 1925 recorded 25 attendees and by 1926 the club had grown to 82 members.
Swindon Wheelers, sporting black jerseys resplendent with golden horizontal stripes, enjoyed regular club and ‘tea runs’ into the Cotswolds.
The subscription fee was four shillings.
Safety was an issue, even then. The club handbook from the 1920s stated that “all competitors must carry a bell on the handlebars of his machine”.
Pre-war, the club was proactive at organising races and there was a strong time trial and Audax tradition.
Club archives also reveal a vibrant social scene, including trips to Weston-super-Mare, a visit to the Cycle Show at Olympia to check out the latest bikes and a map-reading competition.
Nutrition was also a concern for many pre-war Wheelers: the five-course meal — which included boiled turbot and a leg of mutton — served up at the 1930 annual club dinner, proved such a success that members demanded it was repeated!
In more recent times, membership of the Wheelers began to stagnate and by 2014 it had fallen below 30.
In 2015, new initiatives to take the club forward were introduced, focusing on making the club runs welcoming and inclusive.
It is now buoyant once again, with an active membership of over 100 cyclists.
- Much of the archives reside in a local museum, undocumented and unloved, waiting for a volunteer to dig into the club’s past.
- From its outset, the club organised a busy race calendar, primarily time trials and Audaxes, including one from Swindon to London and back in 1933, with a winning time of 9hr 30mins.
- Post-war, Stan Woodford, a club champion for many years, had Olympic trials.
- In the 1950s Den White clocked up some impressive endurance records, including the national 24-hour record in 1958, clocking 486.75 miles.
- In the 1970s, Paul Jefferies recorded several club time trial records that stand to this day. At an event in 1974, when he set the record for 50 miles, he beat two of the greats, Beryl Burton and Alf Engers.
Club run: Ride highlights
1 Ashbury Hill
This climb begins in the small village of Ashbury, on the northern edge of the prehistoric Ridgeway. Benign at first, it quickly ramps up. The kilometre to the top is a hard, slow grind.
Home to some of the country’s top horse racing stables, the valleys around this picturesque village offer majestic views and the occasional glimpse of galloping thoroughbreds.
The navigable reaches of the River Thames start here and you might be lucky enough to spy an otter as you ride along the quiet, flat lanes around Chimney Meadows.
With a huge array of cakes and sponges, and plenty of seating both inside and out, the cycle-friendly Aston Pottery Country Cafe is a popular stopping point and offers safe storage for bikes in the garden.
Aston Pottery Country Cafe, Aston, Oxfordshire, OX18 2BT.