Friday 17 August 2007

Book Review: One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers, by Tim Hilton

A charming and eccentric book about a cycling communist...

“One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers” is a typically English book in its meandering, delightful and often elegiac style. Tim (Timoshenko!) Hilton grew up as the child of ardent British communists and this book is his memoir of cycling in the UK from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The account of the Thursday evenings spent forced to listen to dreadful Marxist pontificating is quite funny, in a grim way, as young Tim dreams of getting out on his bicycle, a symbol of freedom, and escaping the Stalinist environment at home. His first bicycle was an ASP–All Spare Parts–assembled by a rider from the local club. Much of the book is about “clubmen,” and Mr. Hilton lovingly rolls through an alphabetical list of cycling clubs, many of which have ebbed and flowed but most of which were quirky enough: the Buckshee Wheelers, who served in North Africa in World War Two and raced in the desert; the Velo Club Pierre; the Out-of-Work Wheelers; the Scrumpy Wheelers; and the mysterious Rosslyn Ladies, who may or may not have existed at all. Many clubs were formed by admirers of a weekly newspaper called the Clarion, founded in 1892, and dedicated to a kind of relaxed socialism and although the name Clarion appeared in many bicycle club names, they were unaffiliated.

England was, at least in cycling terms, astonishingly provincial in Mr. Hilton’s time. Road races were not allowed and serious British cyclists were relegated to time trialling, developing this into a sort of national speciality as they set records from point-to-point. Those who wanted to do mass start races broke off into a new group, the BLRC, the British League of Racing Cyclists, and were seen as rebels, banned from the more conservative National Cycling Union, which was really more interested in cycletouring anyway. Mr. Hilton describes the leading “Leaguers,” such as Percy Stallard and who engineered the first BLRC road race in June 1942, in enjoyable detail.

But in addition to now-obscure local heroes, Mr. Hilton also reserves space for the great riders of his generation: Fausto Coppi, in the twilight of his career; Jacques Anquetil, the apprentice-soon-to-be-master; Louison Bobet, of the Spartan diet and training regime; the beautiful Hugo Koblet of Switzerland–Tour de France winners all. It is about Coppi that he is particularly eloquent–il Campionissimo, who was already fading away, a man burned out, when Mr. Hilton saw him race at an omnium in the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris in the early 1950s:
Coppi was then thirty-four or thirty-five years of age, but appeared to be somehow ageless, or beyond age, his long thin body and melancholy features carved out by years and decades of suffering. The crowd paid him homage. Men and women acknowledged his tribulations and fate. Everyone knew that he was near to his end. There was no cheering....Even an adolescent such as myself realised that the occasion had a sacramental air–a ritual in honour of Coppi’s age, weariness and fragility.
Another fascinating character is the remarkable Beryl Burton, an amateur time triallist who was one of the best cyclists in Britain–man or woman–for more than 25 years. She was obsessive to the point that when her daughter outsprinted her in a local race she did not speak to her for a year afterwards. Her life was all about labour and training, and when she died at the age of 59 in 1996 it was from having a heart attack while riding her bicycle. Legendary in Britain, she never received much notice outside of the UK but then women were ignored by the cycling establishment generally. Women cyclists were excluded from the Olympics, for example, until 1984.

Ray Booty, time trial hero

I was very interested in reading the account of Ray Booty's record in the Bath Road 100, done in under 4 hours in late summer 1956. I had never heard of Ray Booty until I heard Alexander von Tutschek speak at Le Cirque de Cyclisme in June about being a collector in Britain. He spoke of how impressed he had been as a boy with Ray Booty's record (which stood for six years) and that one of the high points of his collecting life was to actually purchase Ray Booty's Raleigh Record used in the ride. Alexander von Tutschek was keen to get the bicycle not only for its historical meaning to him but because he himself is very tall and Ray Booty, at 6 feet 2 inches, was riding a 25 inch (63.5 cm) frame! The bicycle has been restored to what it would have been like in 1955, and there is an excellent description of it, fixed gear and all, here.

Tom Simpson, another Leaguer, also receives attention from Mr. Hilton and you realize why the cyclist still has such a strong grip on the British imagination even today. His dramatic death on Mt. Ventoux overshadows his great success as an international cyclist. He used drugs to drive himself through the races but reading this book you realize the degree of suffering, often for little reward, endured by these cyclists from another era and it is hard to be judgmental. To quote L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Part personal memoir, part reflection on contemporary cycling history, “One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers” is an idiosyncratic work by someone who clearly loves the sport of cycling. Recommended for all comrades!

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