Sunday 14 March 2010

A Book Review: Sting in the Tail

By Racing Bicycle Around the World (and in a bad mood...)

My recent interest in classic lightweight bicycles, particularly those built under Gerald O’Donovan at Raleigh’s Special Bicycle Development Unit (SBDU), has extended to accounts of cyclists involving these bicycles.  I have already related here the story of the Crane cousins, who took their SBDU bicycles from Bangladesh to innermost China in their search for the Centre of the Earth in 1986, a few years after my own SBDU bicycle was constructed.

I recently saw a reference to a book about another Raleigh-equipped cyclist, Peter Duker, who wrote about his adventures riding his racing bike, basically at full tilt, around the world in 1971-1972, in “Sting in the Tail: By Racing Bicycle Around the World” and got a copy for myself.  The title refers, of course, to the fact that no matter how carefully you plan your route, when you are tired and near the end of your ride, you feel the sting, which could be a brutal headwind or a harder-than-expected climb.

Mr. Duker must have been a bit of a lad.  The grandson of a very successful brewer, who had moved from Scotland south to Newcastle, he appeared to be set up for a future in the family business, but after going through a succession of schools and working in the brewing industry, he threw it aside at the age of 22 to become a traditional jazz musician.  His band still exists.  After doing this from 1955 to 1966, he went through a whole series of jobs, including journalism, and changed his surname from Deuchar to the more easily-pronounced and less-Scottish Duker.  In 1954 he competed in the 1954 Circuit of Britain (as an amateur racer he seems to have been a very good banjo player), and subsequently rediscovered competitive cycling in the 1960s.

Somewhere along this many-splendoured way, he hit upon the idea of taking a racing bike around the world, intending to set records for speed and distance along the way.  He lined up a number of sponsors, including Raleigh, and Gerald O’Donovan’s shop at Carlton, then serving as the racing bike subsidiary for mass-market Raleigh, would provide him with the bike for the job.  Unfortunately, his timetable was set back in 1970 during a training ride near the Goodwood race track, when he was struck by a hit-and-run motorist, and wound up unconscious for 10 days.  He suffered massive injuries but nonetheless recovered well enough to get back on the road and set out from London early in 1971.

In his humourous book, which is based on notes he scribbled during the trip, he tells of rapidly riding through the Netherlands (and stopping to help promote another sponsor Amstel Brewing), before heading into Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Turkey.  This all takes a mere fourteen pages and the real story begins when he reaches Iran, and then into a whole series of Third World adventures as he passes through Afghanistan (“the Unspeakable Land”), Pakistan and India, the latter two countries being at the brink of war.

Mr. Duker is clearly a good long-distance cyclist, as he clocks off the mileage at an impressive rate on his trip.  It is not easy as he suffers from various aches and pains, including boils, sore feet and sore hip, and a broken wrist bone.  He traverses bad road surfaces and has to deal with insufficient directions in those pre-GPS days, as well as having to fight traffic into and out of cities.  His progress is remarkable, nonetheless.  However, he is not a very good tourist, and has a great deal to say about the local customs, cleanliness, miserable accommodations and wretched food.  He doesn’t like Western hippies.  He has stones thrown at him in Turkey and at one point is actually attacked by a group of men who jump out of a car and pull branches off a tree to hit him with.  Luckily, riding a Raleigh, he can outsprint them...

His goal is to ride as fast as he can and anything that stands between him and this object, or, surprisingly, between him and his nightly alcohol, is an obstacle to be overcome.  He does not do this in a subtle way.  For example, when trying to cross the Pakistani border, he came across Customs men beating up a local for some unknown reason.  He writes on page 66:
I stood up and in a British Empirical attitude roared out that I didn’t care if they killed the poor twit but would they kindly stamp my card.  Naturally, since the Empire was systematically sold down the Labour river years ago, this didn’t have a great deal of effect, but it was the signal to give this poor wreck of a man another banging.
He is not adverse to punching out the odd border official, or giving a well-placed kick to a too-inquisitive local, but the story is not all grim as he does meet with kindness along the way and lots of enthusiasm from representatives of his sponsors, such as Lipton Tea, Raleigh or the International Wool Bureau.  And his literary style, although not terribly introspective, is novel: “I was told that the road from here to Poona was flat, but it went up and down like a bridegroom’s backside.”

He reached Madras after covering 7,600 miles from London in a record 77 days, and then went on to Sri Lanka (called Ceylon until 1972), where he was busy meeting the press, doing a bit of riding and then visiting Lipton’s tea gardens and factory.  He then rode in Malaysia before flying to Australia for the next leg of his trip.  A quick visit to New Zealand and then he flew to Los Angeles for the last major leg of the trip.

Peter Duker’s arrival in the United States coincided with the ten-speed bike boom, and he learned that “Raleigh Industries of America couldn’t see the point of using me for added publicity, as they had sold their year’s quota of bicycles by the end of January!”, and he was disappointed that there was not going to be much more support.  With £200 left from his original Raleigh budget, he got another £100 from his bank at home and borrowed $200 from a friend to bankroll his attempt to set a record riding across the United States.  He had damaged his bicycle in Sydney (“where they drive to kill”) by riding into the back of a car while training but in California he transferred his Campagnolo Nuovo Record parts onto a new Raleigh Professional frame and set off.

When setting a record, it is helpful to know what the previous one was, but after some effort it was determined that there was an amateur record set in 20 days 8 hours in 1949 but no pro record at all.  Laughing at American bike culture and accompanied by a support team of one man in a car to take photos, he left from Santa Monica to ensure a coast-to-coast record.  He accomplished this, although he had to spend 2 ½ hours riding around Central Park in New York to bring up the mileage, by riding 3,200 miles in 18 days, 2 hours and 30 minutes, thus eclipsing the previous record by more than 2 days and setting a recognized professional record for the first time. In 1990, Michael Secrest crossed the United States in 7 days 23 hours to hold the current record.

Throughout the book, Peter Duker has issues related to publicity surrounding his trip and it seems that the PR end of things went poorly.  When he reached Britain, he had a press conference in Glasgow and commented on the half-hearted reception he received:
It disgusts me still to see that to ride a bicycle is not “accepted” as “nice” by our “peers.”  To have smashed American and world records on the bike cut very little ice with our soccer-slated tabloids, and anyway I didn’t ride a horse or sail a yacht or even own a Corgi, so once again the toughest and most exacting sport in the world was relegated to minuscule mentions...
He did receive television coverage as he rode southwards, and attended fine receptions in Nottingham and Coventry before returning to his starting point in London, 199 days after he began.

This book has been out of print for nearly four decades, and too often it reads as if hastily put together from notes and a wracked memory (except for the section on New Zealand, where he actually lost his notes).  Although there is  an Appendix on the technical specifications of the two bikes he used, along with his hilariously short packing list, there is no timetable in the book, too few photographs and, worst of all, no map.  But, looking at the pictures of “Big Pete,” standing over 6 feet tall and proudly wearing his wool jersey with a Union Jack on each shoulder, astride his Raleigh, there is no doubt in my mind it was a great adventure and often a very funny one.

After “Sting in the Tail,” Peter Duker went on to write the first English-language biography of Fausto Coppi and books about the 1978 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.  In 1982, he co-founded a new age-categorized racing cycling organization, the League International (TLI), which seems somewhat inspired by the rebel British League of Racing Cyclists, not surprising considering Mr. Duker’s views on cycling bureaucracy.  On the webpage of TLI, it notes that around 1986, “Mr. Duker met his sad death.” Other sources suggest that he may have been a suicide: he was struck by a train and his bicycle found nearby .  He would have been 54.

In his introduction to the book, David Saunders, Cycling Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, wrote:
For an extrovert, Mr. Duker had only moderate success in publicity terms at home.  This was a great pity for, in his own way, and through his own efforts, he can stand alongside a number of other intrepid voyagers.  In modern times his achievements are surely equal to those of...the late Sir Francis Chichester.
Sting in the Tail: By Racing Bicycle Around the World
by Peter Duker
Hardcover, 174 pp.
Pelham Books, London, 1973
Available used from $25 (check, or
ISBN: 072070658


Anonymous said...

Great book , great musician and I had the pleasure of his company on a number of occasions. I also have one of his Speedwell Titalite frames ...

Harry Forder said...

Yes, a fascinating book and a tremendous achievement for which he was never properly recognised. In these days of better bike equipment and clothing, in particular our superior padded cycling shorts, he'd find it a lot more comfortable throughout his ride. I too had the pleasure of his company, although only once - at the Pagham Pram Race on Boxing Day in 1970 I think it was. I was the 'baby' and I recall Big Pete complaining to me about my weight, because he was the pusher over the three miles course. Rest in Peace Peter.

Harry Forder.