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Early alleycats
11.03.09 by Buffalo Bill

Inside of W.L. Rixon's BLRC racing licence from 1956. © T. Haf

The image at right is a reproduction of a note affixed to the back of a British League of Racing Cyclists licence. The BLRC was formed in 1942 to promote mass-start road-racing. Mass-start road-racing had been banned in the Great Britain since the 1890s. But how did the ban come about?

The safety bicycle, which had two wheels of equal size, first made its appearance in the 1890s. The safety was so-called because its predecessor, the penny farthing, was prone to pitching its rider off the front, frequently causing severe injuries. Previous to the appearance of the safety bicycle, bicycling had been principally an upper class pursuit. The advent of the safety bicycle, and mass-production, suddenly put cycling well within the reach of the lower class. (And also gave birth to the bicycle messenger, but that’s another story).

This was, whilst not exactly a social revolution, at least a development which allowed the urban working classes to access the countryside in large numbers. The early years of cycling in the UK saw the association of the newly formed Independent Labour Party, through the Clarion Cycling Club, with the new pastime. Thus was cycling in the UK firmly aligned with social progress.

Manchester Clarion Club medals

As organised cycling blossomed in the UK, so did suspicion of the motives of the organisers. Or perhaps that is what the National Cycling Union feared. And so the NCU banned its members from taking part in races.

There is a poignant echo here of the long-running, and still current, debate amongst cyclists about respect for the traffic laws. Despite the fact that obeying the traffic laws is absolutely no guarantee of safety, we are constantly being implored by our fellow cyclists to respect the law, for fear of bringing cycling into disrepute. Strange that we never hear similar arguments from the motoring lobby regarding speeding.

If you want to know more about the BLRC, you could do a lot worse than read this primer by Dave Moulton, a former BLRC member. And thanks to Jack Thurston for reminding me.

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  1. Interesting article Bill,especially coming from someone who lived through it.It seems not much ever really changes.

    — overdrive    11 March 2009, 08:45    #
  2. Don’t you know it’s impolite to mention a lady’s age?

    — Bill    11 March 2009, 08:57    #
  3. See also the role of the bicycle in the early stages of female emancipation (being freed from the chaperone, rational dress etc) Anyone have a laminator ‘cause that would make a good spoke card

    — Gertie    11 March 2009, 20:23    #
  4. It’s true that not much ever really changes.

    Only recently, overdrive was implored by fellow cyclists to stop ‘furiously peddling’ his poetry on internet forums.

    — BringMeMyFix    11 March 2009, 22:28    #
  5. I went to one of them illegal alleycats once. I didn’t say anything but if I did I would have said keep it realenger.

    — Ronald Dark    12 March 2009, 15:50    #
  6. A lot of the early cycling clubs grew out of, or were affiliated to, the British Communist Party… another reason why they frightened the upper classes.

    — m-xl    15 March 2009, 16:35    #
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