In praise of… the club run

It may look like a bunch of peo­ple rid­ing bi­cy­cles, but the club run is ac­tu­ally a com­plex so­cial rit­ual

Cyclist - - First Person - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy TA­PES­TRY

The club run is the sta­ple of grass roots cycling in the UK, and is a great way to meet a cross sec­tion of ob­ses­sives, anoraks, lon­ers, so­ciopaths, psy­chopaths, ec­centrics, fet­tlers and know-it-alls.

It is, ef­fec­tively, a mi­cro­cosm of Bri­tish so­ci­ety.

You may think you’re go­ing for a harm­less Sun­day morn­ing bike ride. In fact, you’re en­ter­ing a mine­field of eti­quette, where cen­turies-old tra­di­tion clashes with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, where a sense of hi­er­ar­chy pre­vails and a glos­sary of quasi-se­cret ges­tures and cryp­tic ex­pres­sions is main­tained.

Although no longer as in­tim­i­dat­ing as in the pre­his­toric age of down tube shifters and leather toe straps – when the sole pur­pose of the club run was to ‘rip the legs off’ any new­comer who ex­pressed an in­ter­est in tak­ing part – they are still a rit­ual that can leave the un­wary sob­bing into their dou­ble espres­sos at the cafe stop.

From parked cars to stray dogs, pot­holes to gravel, traf­fic lights to tram lines, no de­tail of Bri­tish high­way to­pog­ra­phy is con­sid­ered too mi­nor to merit a warn­ing shout or flurry of arm ges­tures (although the most ter­ri­fy­ing thing you’re likely to hear is, ‘My Garmin’s frozen!’).

For many, the club run re­mains a rite of pas­sage. You never for­get your first one. It’s like send­ing your first email, or dis­cov­er­ing The Wire on TV for the first time.

Af­ter pre­vi­ously rid­ing on your own or per­haps just with a few friends, you sud­denly find your­self in a sea of wheels and be­ing ex­pected to an­tic­i­pate the idio­syn­cra­sies and un­pre­dictable be­hav­iour of a group of gar­ishly clad strangers you would nor­mally cross the street to avoid.

But now you are one of them. You are a part of this band of broth­ers and sis­ters who find joy in the act of rid­ing a bi­cy­cle and hap­pi­ness in the com­pan­ion­ship of like­minded souls. Although you may never as­pire to their heights, you’re fol­low­ing in the tyre tracks of Sir Bradley Wig­gins, Mark Cavendish, Steve Cum­mings and Alex Dowsett, to name just four from the fir­ma­ment of Bri­tish pro­fes­sion­als who started out with their lo­cal clubs.

Cur­rent Bri­tish road and TT cham­pion Cum­mings (Birken­head North End CC) re­cently turned out for his club’s mid­week 10-mile TT, while Dowsett (Glen­dene CC) still joins his club for its Sun­day morn­ing ride, if only to keep an eye on his dad among all the half-wheel­ers: ‘I know the pace my dad can sus­tain, so if some­one starts half-wheel­ing me I just stick to the pace that I think the club will be happy with. Even­tu­ally they end up on the front on their own and are left look­ing a bit silly.’

That’s one haz­ard of the club run – some will treat it as a train­ing ride while oth­ers will re­gard it as their own

per­sonal ech­e­lon in be­tween try­ing to bag Strava seg­ments. But the clue is in the words ‘club’ and ‘run’. It’s a non­com­pet­i­tive so­cial ride for ev­ery­one.

Yet with all those afore­men­tioned so­ciopaths and ec­centrics in the mix, the club run’s stated aims can be dif­fi­cult to achieve. That’s where the ride cap­tain comes in. His duty is to es­tab­lish the route, the pace, whether it’s ‘no-drop’ and if it will in­clude a cafe stop. The best ride cap­tains will take into ac­count the likely num­ber of rid­ers and range of abil­i­ties. They will also make con­tin­gency plans – in the form of in­cor­po­rat­ing short cuts in the route – to cope with any un­fore­seen dra­mas. This role re­quires not just good rid­ing and ge­og­ra­phy skills, but also United Na­tions-lev­els of diplo­macy.

I’ve had the plea­sure of rid­ing with many clubs all over Bri­tain dur­ing the past cou­ple of years, and the icy calm and un­flag­ging hu­mour of the ride cap­tain has never failed to im­press. They re­mind me of air­line pi­lots non­cha­lantly an­nounc­ing the sus­pen­sion of in-flight ser­vice be­cause of se­vere tur­bu­lence.

In the early days of the club run, ride cap­tains would carry a bu­gle, to warn rid­ers of haz­ards that sound wearily all too fa­mil­iar th­ese days.

‘The band­ing to­gether to ride in a group started for rea­sons of self­de­fence,’ says cycling his­to­rian Scot­ford Lawrence. ‘In the 1870s, the bi­cy­cles and rid­ers were re­sented by other road users, such as com­mer­cial carters, car­riage driv­ers and the few re­main­ing stage coaches, and it wasn’t un­known for driv­ers to at­tempt to push cy­clists off the road and as­sault them with a whip.’

Not­with­stand­ing th­ese dan­gers, a pop­u­lar club run in the 1890s saw rid­ers com­plete the 50-mile round trip from cen­tral Lon­don to the An­chor Inn in Ri­p­ley, where the vis­i­tors’ books in­cluded the il­lus­tri­ous names of rid­ers such as Rud­yard Ki­pling, HG Wells (who fea­tured the pub in his comic novel The Wheels Of Chance) and Ge­orge Bernard Shaw.

The club run at­tracted its largest num­bers dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tury, when the mass-pro­duced bi­cy­cle was cheap enough to al­low the masses to es­cape to the coun­try at week­ends. Suf­fragette-to-be and club run reg­u­lar (with Manch­ester Clar­ion CC) Sylvia Pankhurst re­called, ‘Week in, week out, the Clar­ion took hun­dreds of peo­ple of all ages away from the grime and ug­li­ness of the man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­tricts to the green love­li­ness of the coun­try, giv­ing them fresh air, ex­er­cise and good fel­low­ship at a min­i­mum of cost. Al­most every mem­ber of the club helped me at some time or other in mend­ing my punc­tures – I was fear­fully un­lucky in that re­spect – and in push­ing me up the last lit­tle bit of the steep­est hills.’

So for­get the half-wheel­ing, seg­ment-bag­ging and high-in­ten­sity in­ter­vals, and en­joy the ride it­self – that’s what the club run should be all about.

‘In the 1870s, the bi­cy­cles and rid­ers were re­sented by other road users, and it wasn’t un­known for driv­ers to at­tempt to push cy­clists off the road and as­sault them with a whip’

Ev­ery­one is equal on the club run, but that doesn’t mean that ev­ery­one is ac­tu­ally equal. Wig­gins, Cavendish, Doswett and Cum­mings all started out rid­ing with their lo­cal clubs

Club runs can fea­ture rid­ers with a wide range of abil­i­ties, so it’s the job of the ride cap­tain to en­sure ev­ery­one stays to­gether – and stops at the ap­pro­pri­ate time for cof­fee and cake

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