Saturday, April 02, 2022

WEEKENDER: The Winds of Change, by Wiggia

My first love was bike riding, it was a sport I enjoyed for many reasons yet fell into it by accident.

As with most kids I wanted a bike and my paper round gave me the means to buy a Raleigh Lenton with Sturmey Archer gears. I was very pleased and started to get out and about on it, and then one day I wanted new drop handlebars and was told there was a very good bike shop in Seven Sisters Road, Tottenham called Hetchins, so I went there.

Little did I know this was to be a start of a short but fairly successful bike riding part of my young life.
Hetchins were if not the best the equal of any frame makers in the country, beautiful hand-crafted frames with ornamental lugs that were a work of art. I had to have one and I saved and purchased a frame and bit by bit the bits that made it into a decent road racing bike.

By chance the shop manager was an old bike rider who also ran a local, small, club and encouraged youngsters to take up the sport, but his world was not road racing but track riding and after visiting the old, now defunct Paddington track in west London and hearing that magic to me of the hum of high pressure tubular tires on concrete, yes you can hear them or the sound that emanates from them, I was hooked and immediately started to save again for a track bike; for those that don’t know, they are single speed fixed gear machines with no brakes other than the fixed gear.

I took on a Saturday job to supplement my paper round and my track bike purchase. After a season learning the ropes as a fourteen year old I started racing as a junior, up to eighteen years old; in those days that was the only category there was,  and only two national titles, the track sprint and the road race. today few would believe so little was available to aim at, though all the other events were included in meeting schedules.

To start with I mostly raced at Paddington at their weekly track league meetings but also on a grass track at Enfield who also had regular meetings run by the same shop manager. 

The following year I started to get serious and joined the Polytechnic CC, the premier track club in the country. The club had a who’s who of riders who had won national and international titles going back to the start almost of bike racing; it also had the facilities of the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, probably the poshest address for a club room there was or will be. In reality apart from running several top bike meets during the year and having all these top riders as members there was little they did for you: these were the days of self progress, no coaches to speak of apart from the national team, no sports psychologists, no training schedules, and therefore your own training programs were trial and error based on what you read about or spoke about with other riders.

I went on to race all over the country, riding with my spare race wheels to many meetings miles away and riding home afterwards as many of us did, and rode abroad a few times. There was no money and no sponsorship, you paid for everything, even at international level many had to pay their travel expenses to represent their country; it was a very different world from today.

I write the above as an intro to something that happened last weekend that was or could be a sea change in bike racing. When I rode there were a few black riders racing on the track, but I was not aware of any racing on the road. When I stopped racing, I gave a rather special racing vest to a black rider we had as a club member who had become a friend.

The success of Major Taylor goes back to a period when professional track riders were indeed professionals: they rode for prize money and were paid appearance fees as well as being sponsored by companies. Match racing was promoted in much the same way as boxing was and still is. True professionals on the track died out during the Seventies apart from in Japan, where one form of racing, keirin, behind a moped is supported by the Japanese equivalent of the Tote. In fact the last truly great professional track sprinter was our own Reg Harris, he and a few contemporaries were indeed the last of the few. Very little remains of Harris' racing but this is a short Pathe News clip of him winning the world title in 1950 and then he became Sportsman of the Year; a few years later the era came to an end.

Today the sport is split between track riders who are mainly, as with athletes, supported by governments and/or lottery schemes or university grants and the like, as a way for a country to earn gravitas for Olympic and World medals. It is in many ways no different from when there was an amateur/professional divide in sport and communist bloc countries got round the professional accusations by employing athletes in public jobs that involved doing nothing other than train for the sport they were involved with. Other countries did the same in various guises of ‘other’ employment or income supplement, e.g. in France a few top riders worked for the Ministry of Sport! The ending of the amateur status should have been a good thing but as seen in many sports it has created a communist bloc look-alike that somehow is regarded as being ‘different’.

But one black track rider stands out in sporting history on his own merits. The BBC have made a small article about him that does not do him justice or tell the story. His biography in the book Major Taylor by Andrew Ritchie gives the whole rags to riches and back again tale, and the genuine battle with racism he had in the USA.

Bicycle track racing between 1890 and 1910 was a pinnacle the sport has never achieved again apart from road racing  and Major Taylor was a very big part of it. I am not going to relay his tale here but just want to show that a black world champion is not a new thing in cycle racing though they have been very few and far between; he was also only the second black man to win a world title in any sport.

Road racing until recently has never had black champions, in fact hardly any black riders in the top flight, but in 2015 there was a breakthrough when Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean, became the first black African rider to earn the polka dot best climber’s jersey which he held for a period during that year's Tour de France; he also won the climber's jersey in the prelude race to the TDF, the Critérium du Dauphiné.

The fact he comes from Eritrea is interesting. Much is made of cycling being an expensive sport and that prevents poor blacks in African countries and elsewhere from even thinking about taking up the sport. Recent efforts by a South African team to promote black riders in the European races were made by MTM – Qhubeka; the team has had a mixed start in pro cycling and its original aim to have an all black squad had to be watered down as there simply were not enough high quality black riders to fill all the places. Chris Froome has been running a foundation in Kenya, his birthplace, to promote local riders but so far without any results.

Fast forward to this year and the big breakthrough has occurred; last week the first of a series of one day races held in Belgian and northern France known as the Spring Classics and including three of the world's most prestigious road races was kicked off with the minor classic, the Gent-Wevelgem.

What is significant about this is not just that he is black but that he comes from a cycling-mad country. Eritrea may seem an unlikely source of professional road racers but not so: the country has many problems outside of cycling, but has a rich cycling history though few would have known, and the mixed terrain and areas of high altitude make it a mini Columbia.

The link below gives the full story and history of cycling in Eritrea:

Road cycling by its historic nature has been the preserve of European riders since the first races were held. That started to change post-war, though a few ‘incursions’ did happen previously, when riders from more remote European nations or ones not noted for producing top riders plus an antipodean influx started to make their presence felt. That was followed by American riders and almost the whole world managed to appear at one stage or another, yet still no black riders and the few who made it over here did not make a mark in the sport.

Is it about to change? Some sports for a variety of reasons have not succumbed to the large numbers of black athletes who have literally taken over many sports as a way to escape poverty, and up to now cycling has been one of them. Of course the attraction of the money in say football is a reason to take that route, and reality says that is the obvious way, as making money in cycling is extremely hard and for the few not the many, as in football.

The similarity between Eritrea and Columbia may well be the difference. Both are cycling-mad countries and Columbian riders have shown the way. Will Eritrea follow suit? It seems that it could. Will other African nations follow up? Not so sure about that; a few maybe, but nothing obvious at this time.

The Winds of Change are indeed sweeping through sport, or the women's versions of sport, something I thought I would never see: the totally gutless politically correct British Cycling are allowing a man to compete in women’s events. The argument over trans rights in sport should never have got off the ground; the fear as I said before is that while so far the trans people who are racing as women have not been very good - hence the switch - inevitably you will get better men who decide winning is easier in the women’s versions and make the switch and this one is a small step up in quality. I have no idea what is going to happen but women competitors are going to have to make a stand by refusing to compete with people like this.

As before the switch is only one way: men to women; that says it all about the mind set of these charlatans. Suddenly sport is being infiltrated by trans competitors; where have they all come from? In time there will be events that women, real women, will simply not be able to compete in any more on a level playing field. It is a farce being foisted on women's sport by gutless governing bodies using selective science to make changes they will surely regret. Who the hell apart from voyeurs wants to watch pretend women competing like this?

What is going on in the western world with this being seen as progress and politicians pushing the agenda, frightened in case they upset a minority by speaking and acting on the truth, that they are not women:

And Sharron Davies' almost lone crusade on the matter:

So this week we have good news in the sport, and very bad news. It is time for competitors in all sports to speak out or boycott these events, or for those same sporting bodies to set up a separate class for trans athletes - why that is considered a problem is strange as every other type of competitor by sex, by weight and endless para classifications already exist, so add trans categories.

As I finish this piece news arrives that the UCI, cycling's international governing body, have overruled British Cycling and stopped ‘Emily’ competing, but here is this from the BBC website -

- does not exactly give the impression this is all over. BC'smealy mouthed response and the fact that the UCI's own rule book on all this is open to interpretation almost certainly means the trans activists and human rights hand-wringers are gearing up for intervention; plus further delving into the UCI statement does give the impression this is just a temporary injunction, which frankly is not good enough by any standard

The UCI along with all the other sporting bodies, and for once Lord Coe has put his head above the parapet and said the right thing, have to make a unified stand and sort this freak show expanding, for that is what it will become if nothing is done, for good. Get on with it and stop all this self-loathing.

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