Riding through Kent with San Fairy Ann
San Fairy Ann CC is a club with a proud racing pedigree. Founded in 1922, the Kent-based club created a satellite team, Abellio-san Fairy Ann Racing Team five years ago. This was to stop, in the words of race team founder and race director, Dick Naylor, “haemorrhaging our best riders to race teams”.
Basking in the June sunshine at today’s cafe stop in Lenham, I chat with Geoff Wiles, former GB pro road race champion (1976) and current club president and coach. “Abellio is the knight in shining armour of the club, if you will,” says Wiles. “We wanted something fresh and exciting to build up a good team, but also to make sure there isn’t a delineation between the race team and the rest of the club.
“The strength of the club is the range of groups — there are opportunities for riders just starting out to those riding internationally and doing things they never thought they could dream of.”
Abellio RT (sponsor Abellio is a regional bus company) sits at the top of the club, in terms of performance, but is just one of 10 groups that set out today — there are 17 club run groups in total, spread across the weekend.
As we ride past frequent oast houses, a prominent feature of the Kentish countryside, I chat with 22-year-old Tom Rowing, an Abellio member who last week recorded a 19.28 10-mile TT. Rowing stresses how the racing team is just a small element of the club, which has an ethos of improvement, regardless of ability.
“There is a group for everyone,” he explains, “with fairly simple progression, as there are lots of little jumps between the groups. You can work up and keep gradually getting better.”
Hoping to emulate Rowing’s rise through the ranks is David Ware, who sees the number of groups and the range of abilities within the club as a major plus.
Ware is on his second ride with the club, having joined just the week before. “I was really attracted by the number of groups,” he says. “Last week I went with a Sunday group so today I have joined a Saturday group to find where I’m at. In a few weeks I may try the next group up.”
Amongst the riders in the intermediate group is Sheila Woollam, who believes the development the club offers can benefit others too. “My old club had no pathways left in terms of progression, but SFA allowed me to be the best I can be,” she says. “I may never wear an Abellio jersey, but that doesn’t mean I can’t aspire to it.”
Woollam, who joined three years ago, rode the Transcontinental 3,800km ultra race at the end of July.
After the main climb of the day, at Challock, Del Leslie, group coordinator for the intermediates, also points out the benefits of having multiple club run groups: “It doesn’t matter what speed you ride at, there will be a group for you. Be that a middle-paced group, or a real beginner, you soon know if you’re too fast for them after a couple of rides and people progress that way.”
Equality is also a key tenet of the club, as Susan Ferguson tells me over coffee before we set out for the finish. “One of the wonderful things is that the club accepts women at all levels,” she says. “Within the club ride there is no difference when riding with the men and you are 100 per cent accepted.”
For anyone searching for a Kent club with seemingly unlimited riding options, look no further than San Fairy Ann CC.
San Fairy Ann Cycling Club was founded in 1922. The club’s unusual name comes from the founder members, mostly servicemen returning from World War One, and previously members of the Westborough Congregational Church Cycling Club. The church congregation objected to the idea of cycling as a fitting Sunday activity, which prompted the church’s cycling members to form another club.
When they could not agree on a name, one of those present said, “San fairy ann,” a soldiers’ phrase from the war which anglicised the French phrase
‘ca ne fait rien’ — ‘it doesn’t matter’. The name stuck and both phrases can be found on the club’s badge. It’s also recorded in the minutes of that inaugural meeting, found on the club website.
Initial activities focused on club runs, followed by time trials in 1924. World War Two seriously curtailed the club’s activities, though
Saturday club runs continued. By the 1960s, club membership had reached 70 members and by 2008 there were seven different club runs each weekend.
The club’s growth brought a number of notable performances: club president, Geoff Wiles, won the 1976 pro road title; Phil Mason set a record of 1.47 on the Catford hill-climb in 1983, which still stands; Roy Manser, partnered by Anthony Wallis, set a national 10-mile tandem record of 18.17; and Roly Crayford has twice been world masters' sprint champion.
Today, membership is a very healthy 450, with as many as 17 different club-run groups setting out every weekend.