Cycling in the 1950s and 60s

Many of you will know member Trevor Priest from the club’s Saturday rides, but did you know about Trevor’s interesting and very competitive cycling past? Here’s a great account of Trevor’s story.

I started cycling 71 years’ ago when I was 13. It came about as a result of my father buying a business from someone who was one of the stars at Halesowen Athletic and Cycling Club. I got talking with him and arranged for a visit to the track – it took seconds for me to realise track cycling was what I wanted. This had to be put on hold as I needed to be 16 before I could do this, but I could join the club and take part in weekend rides. Just a small problem, as I didn’t have a bike. It took a few weeks and promises of work in the garden, cleaning and helping with anything, to convince dad to buy me my first bike. This was a second-hand Raleigh, with 3 speed Sturmey Archer hub, which relied heavenly on rust to keep it together. Nevertheless, I proudly polished, cleaned and oiled it until I could get out on the road.

The next few weeks were spent riding at every opportunity and getting fit enough to join the club, who accepted me despite my age for at that time there was no junior section and no one else so young or foolish.

I turned up at 9am on a miserable wet Sunday morning to be met by about 20 men and women all on shiny new bikes and told it would just be a short ride of about 55 miles due to weather. I was terrified! having done nothing like this distance previously. Saddle sore and weary I survived, but determined to be back next week and I was and for every week after for the next few years.

These Sunday rides were nothing like today’s club runs, as they were mostly 70 to 100 miles of casual riding with stops for tea and sandwiches at regular intervals and the only competitive bits being the sprints for 30 signs at which I eventually got better.

Sixteen arrived and the final day of school with sports day as the final event. I hated school, but having added running to my life was looking forward to the mile, the blue riband event. I crossed the line after having lapped the whole field showing two fingers to the headmaster and setting a record time of 4 minutes 24 seconds, which I believe lasted for 10 years. This was about the time Roger Bannister finally beat 4 minutes.

Sixteen was also my chance to ride the club’s track. Not an indoor wood-based velodrome but a ¼ mile banked tarmac circuit. I had saved everything I could get for a blue Claude Butler bike and bit by bit acquired tubular tyres spare wheels and anything I thought would make me faster.

I had started work as an apprentice at a steel tube manufacturer and this meant a 7am start, but before that time, I would go out for a 10-mile training run, then ride 3 miles to work. After a 5pm finish, back home for tea and then 4 miles to the track for a 1-to-2-hour track session.

For the next few years, I competed on tracks around the country both tarmac and grass tracks. I had some successes, but losing the national junior sprint title to Hugh Porter and picking up a bronze medal in the national sprint championships.

Our club was very successful in time trials, for we had the Higginson twins Stan and Bernard. The 25-mile record of 1 hour had, like the 4-minute mile for runners, not been beaten until Stan finally cracked it and a week later so did Bernard. Stan went on to be 25-mile National Champion for 3 years running, nearly always just a few seconds quicker than his brother. The team championships also came our way. Time trials were always ridden with fixed gears, most often on an 85 gear this would be a 52 chainring and 15 tooth sprocket, though there were also medium gear events where everyone was limited to a 72 gear around 46 chainring and 15 sprocket. Stan set the record for this at 59 min 20 seconds, which meant a cadence of 118.3 rpm average for the total distance. I don’t think many people would like to try that. Of course, we didn’t have carbon bikes weighing in at 6 kg, but Reynolds 531 steel frames coming in at about 10 kg and such things as tri-bars, skin suits, aero helmets, carbon wheels etc. had still to be invented. I rode a few 25’s, but never with much enthusiasm, just scraping along in about 1hr 4mins as these were for me just for training. I did do better at 10’s, as we did have 10-mile scratch races on track, so doing 10’s on the road was good. Generally, I would be between 22 and 24 minutes with a PB of 21mins 36 sec, clearly not in today’s league, but OK at the time in the 1950’s. Trips to the start of TT’s meant riding up to 30 miles with tub clad race wheels on hangers from front wheel axle and a quick change and off.

Training and nutrition were pretty well without any scientific knowledge and based mainly around the idea that lots of miles and whatever food you could get was the answer. Typical of this attitude was a ride I did with the twins and their four-man team. We did a chain gang style ride the 110 miles to Cheddar Gorge and after a quick change out to the town for a bag of fish and chips washed down with 4 pints of Guinness – not the modern idea!!

At 21 the RAF decided that they couldn’t do without me, so I signed on for 3 years rather than the 2 years conscription I was being called up for. Cycling wasn’t much of an option at this time, though other sports were. I taught judo and boxed in inter service matches at the same time playing in the RAF band on either drums or cornet. I had played in a skiffle group before, so it wasn’t a big problem to convert.

With marriage and children, it was some time before I got back to cycling though I never returned to competitive cycling and neither did most of my friends. It was expensive on our salaries and there was no sponsorship or assistance with travelling or equipment. Also, prizes were not in cash, but in trophies or goods of nominal value. Even the Higginson twins retired as National Champions at 23 years old and finished with cycling.

My next phases on bikes were purely with mountain bikes, trundling along tracks and byways, which is something I still enjoy as not having to put up with bad drivers is a real bonus. Eventually I returned to the road and after a few years joined Banbury Star. This was a great move as I was able to meet many new friends and take part in club rides, though at the café ride level. At age 82 hills started to slow me down and the embarrassment of being waited for so often convinced me to get an E-mountain bike. I did wonder if this would be acceptable, but no one objected and I have been made welcome on a regular basis.

It’s great to be on the road with so many friends and enjoying the countryside and being part of Banbury Star Cyclists’ Club.