Looking to the Continent

Words: Simon O'Hagan | Date:

Percy Stallard and the birth of British road racing

The name Percy Stallard reeks of good old-fashioned Britishness. He sounds like he might have been a Spitfire pilot, or a star of music-hall, or maybe an explorer. Stallard was indeed a hero. He was a hero of cycling, but of a very surprising sort.

Stallard was a rebel, a pioneer, a moderniser, and a liberator. More than half a century on from his heyday, all of us who love cycling are in his debt. He did things we probably didn’t realise even needed doing, and in the process he freed the sport from the dead hand of conservatism that had ruled it for so long. He brought style, vision, and enlightenment to cycling where once there had only been dogma, insularity, and dowdy black alpaca jackets.

Above all, Stallard showed British cycling the way things were done on the Continent – and that we could do things that way too. In that sense he wasn’t nearly as British as his name implied. If Stallard had been around today he would undoubtedly have been a Rapha man.

The early summer of 1942 was Stallard’s finest hour. It occurred not on a Second World War battlefield – as a cycle mechanic he was required to remain in England in what was termed a reserved occupation – but on a 59-mile stretch of road between the Welsh town of Llangollen and Wolverhampton. Here, on June 7, a cycle race took place that in official eyes amounted to nothing less than sacrilege – an act of defiance that would tear cycling apart. But it was also an act of rescue – and Stallard was its inspiration and leading protagonist. The British League of Racing Cyclists was born.

“You could identify a Leaguer by his roadman’s position on the bike, his continental equipment, his preference for derailleur gears, a Campag if possible, a flashy Italian road jersey and dark glasses.”

It is hard to believe now that until Stallard came along, massed-start races on public roads were banned in Britain. If you were a racing cyclist you either raced on a track, or in time-trials. British cycling’s governing body, the National Cycling Union, had rules about it – and that was that.

Come the 1930s, however, and British cycling was discovering how cyclists competed on the Continent. Stallard came back from taking part in overseas road events having seen for himself what the British version of the sport was sadly lacking. The Tour de France was the ultimate in racing on public roads, and the glamour, excitement and sheer scale of it had Stallard and others demanding why they couldn’t have cycling like that in Britain.

Repeated requests to the NCU for massed-start rides on public roads came to nothing, the NCU arguing that if cyclists started competing in such a way then the Government might ban the sport entirely. But it also felt threatened by the fledgling League, and it didn’t like Stallard. It wasn’t going to budge. So Stallard and those who had rallied to his cause went it alone. “I wasn’t a rebel,” Stallard would say years later. “I was fulfilling a need.”

Maybe – but the Llangollen-Wolverhampton race opened up a catastrophic fault line in British cycling. The NCU tried to ban those who had ridden in it. Cycling clubs were split down the middle – between those who wanted to abide by the NCU and those who wanted to join the great British League adventure. Time-triallists would infiltrate road races and spit at the men of the League.

Growing up in thrall to the Tour de France, Robinson was very much on the side of the League, “and I never liked time trials anyway”. Leaguers had a style that appealed to Robinson. “You’d be out there with your musette on your back, your spare tyre over your shoulder, and your coloured jersey. You rode like the Continentals did.”

In a wonderful new cycling memoir, One More Kilometre and We’re In The Showers, Tim Hilton explains why the Leaguer of the 1950s stood out: “You could identify a Leaguer by his roadman’s position on the bike, his continental equipment, his preference for derailleur gears, a Campag if possible, a flashy Italian road jersey and dark glasses. Unlike more traditional cyclists, a Leaguer was likely to be a (modern) jazz fan, would frequent coffee bars, might go out with a girl from the local art school, was a snappy dresser on and off the bike, and had no respect for the culture of touring and youth hostelling. Something else made a difference between the Leaguers and traditional cyclists. They were so good!”

On retirement from competition Stallard managed UK teams in races abroad, and ran a cycle shop in Wolverhampton that was a focal point for Midlands cycling. He died in 2001, aged 92.

Percy Stallard’s legacy is everywhere that a UK road race takes place. So next time you line up at the start, spare a thought for him. “Up the League!”

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