Catch up with the latest book review from Brendan Gallagher, reviewing the recently released Great British Cycling – the history of British bike racing 1868 – 2014.

Potentially a popular choice for Christmas, the recent title Great British Cycling looks over the history of bike racing in Great Britain, right up to the present, including a chapter on SweetSpot’s very own Mick Bennett.

Available now, the book covers from the first ever documented bicycle race in a Paris park, up to the present day and the success of the Great Britain team, the growth of the Tour of Britain and visits of the Tour de France to the UK.

Read on to find Brendan’s review of Ellis Bacon’s latest work, and don’t forget to check out the links to previous reviews at the foot of the article.

Great British Cycling – the history of British Bike Racing 1868-2014, by Ellis Bacon
Out Now, Published by Bantam Press, £20
Review by Brendan Gallagher
Available in all good book stores, and online from Amazon

The ‘history’ of British cycling has been fairly fertile ground for a number of authors but in the year that Yorkshire staged probably the best Depart in the history of the Tour de France Great British Cycling is a more than welcome edition bringing the story full circle so to speak.

Author Ellis Bacon does a good job in first painting the bigger picture before scoring heavily by going, whenever possible, direct to a primary source and re-interviewing them about their 15 minutes of fame.

Many of those confronted with a digital recorder were surprisingly candid and indiscreet – the passing years having loosened their tongues rather – and little nuggets litter the pages with Bacon neither ignoring or highlighting their existence. A little treasure hunt to keep you amused one rainy afternoon during the Christmas holidays. 

Their take on what actually went is always interesting and often in variance to the accepted version which has gone down into history as the final word.

A prime example of this would be Paul Watson’s fascinating insight into ANC Halfords, the first professional British trade team to secure an entry into the Tour de France. The general perception is that the team were a dismal failure that imploded spectacularly midway during the 1987 Tour with unpaid and mutinous riders swearing to get even with their larger than life owner and DS Tony Capper.

Some of that is undoubtedly true but Watson’s memories are kinder and more reflective – as he outlined both in this book and the London Sports Writing Festival at Lord’s recently when he spoke eloquently about those pioneer days.

ANC Halfords for much of the time were fighting impossible odds and teams full of riders doped up to the eyeballs. Despite that they reeled off a series of results in the Classics which even today Team Sky would be more than pleased with that saw them at one stage rise to sixth in the world rankings and earn their invite to the Tour. 

That huge effort left an underfunded and undermanned team exhausted by mid-season and yes it all went wrong on the Tour but Watson rightly emphasises what they achieved and also thanks rapper for doing his best and giving it a go on limited funds. Again the experience of Team Sky this year shows just how horrendously difficult it can be to maintain a successful Pro Tour team.

The quality of the riders and individuals involved with ANC Halfords was top notch – Shane Sutton, Joey McLaughlin, Malcolm Elliott, Graham Jones, Andrew Timmis were considerable operators.  But they were unlucky. Right riders, wrong time, wrong place.

The chapter with Chris Boardman (below) discussing the ‘Secret Squirrel club’ that kept (and hopefully keeps) GB ahead of the game in terms of equipment and technology is the best I have read on the subject with Boardman at his very best just breaking down what it was they did, who was involved and why.  Head of “stuff” as he laconically describes his role.

 

The decision to turn to numerous non cycling brains is seen for the master-stroke it was and Boardman’s dispassionate look of how you improve performance is also a ‘keeper’ – a simple explanation of what you need to achieve which you can refer back to when you start to overcomplicate things, something cyclists are more prone to than most.   

Boardman, as ever, is over modest but Bacon spares his blushes and rightly emphasises the massive contribution the man from the Wirral made to the GB success story. And the continuity he provided. Starting as a rider at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics he was the constant all the way through to 2012 and although he has stepped down as head of the ‘Secret Squirrel club’ he is still available in a consultancy capacity. If I was British Cycling I would take good care to not lose his mobile number. 

There is much else to enjoy, liberally scattered through the 300+ pages. John Herety (right) has been closely involved, at various times, in the rise and rise of British cycling and he remains a must respected figure domestically. His influence often gets overlooked in the wake of his resignation following the well chronicled events of Madrid 2005 but Great British Cycling redresses the balance a little in that respect for which many will be thankful.

Behind the scenes you need ‘can do’ men that makes things happen and Bacon pays due homage to Mick Bennett – the SweetSpot Race Director, pictured below, and so much more – who is well known in this parish and Alan Rushton and Tony Doyle who have both been movers and shakers in their own ways even if it meant rubbing people up the wrong way occasionally.   Between them that trio have done the bloody lot – PruTour, Track Cycling World Championships, Olympics, Worlds,  Kellogg’s Tour,  Tour de France Departs, shaken up the BCF and given modern British a racing structure and presence
 

In passing I particularly liked a comment from Bennett on his old mate Shane Sutton – the archetypical feisty hard living Aussie – and his quiet brother Gary who does the same job as Head coach to the Aussie track team but who could pass for a lay preacher at the local temperance society. “I’m not sure how they came out of the same womb” muses Bennett.

Elsewhere there is a surprisingly unsentimental interview with Tony Hoar, the lanterne rouge at the 1955 Tour de France, a result which didn’t necessarily help his career. Being celebrated for being last is a mixed blessing – what Hoar actually did in a weak GB team in which he rode as a domestic for others and which was eventually reduced to just him and Brian Robinson was finish 69th out of 120 starters. The lanterne rouge sobriquet rather mocked his talent.

There is also a much appreciated chapter on the three Grand Dames of British cycling. Beryl Burton is still arguably the most successful British rider male or female while Eileen Sheridan before her was nearly as successful. 

Eileen Gray was not such a talented cyclist as that stellar duo but as an administrator – the BCF President from 1976 to 1986 – she was second to none in the work she did to first get a women’s road race accepted onto the Olympic programme in 1984 and then, four years later, a women sprint event at the track cycling at Seoul. 

The big omission I suppose is the absence of a chapter/interview with Sir Dave Brailsford whose name and presence nonetheless dominates many of the latter chapters as GB and Sky’s successes are chronicled and analysed.  

Perhaps Brailsford prefers keeping out of the limelight and concentrating on Team Sky these days having done more than his fair share of media over the last decade but it would be interesting to get him to kick back one evening and give us his overview of everything that has contributed to Britain’s current standing in the sport. It’s been an extraordinary journey and is well celebrated in this book.

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