Vandaag is het twintig jaar geleden dat de Britse wielrenner Percy Stallard is overleden. Hij is vooral van belang omdat hij is opgekomen voor het herinvoeren van “ritten in lijn” (“massed starts” zoals men dat noemt in Engeland) tegenover het alomtegenwoordige tijdrijden. Op die manier heeft hij bijgedragen tot de huidige successen van het Britse wielrennen in de Tour de France en in diverse klassiekers, maar het was anderzijds ook geen gemakkelijk man… (Op de foto drukt Percy Stallard de hand van Miss Londen bij de start van de marathonrace Brighton-Glasgow in 1945. De andere wielrenner is Ernie Clements.)

Born in Wolverhampton, at his father’s bicycle shop, Percy Thornley Stallard became a member of the Wolverhampton Wheelers Cycling club and rode his first race when he was 17. The competition was a 10-mile individual time trial. By the end of the season he progressed to riding 50-mile (80 km) events and the following year to a 12-hour endurance race.

He rode only time-trials until 1932, when his papers suggest he may have ridden in local grass-track meetings or perhaps on a hard velodrome. He could also have tried cyclo-cross because that year he also took part in a race between cyclists and runners, traditionally held on cross-country courses. Track races became more common from 1933.

Lone racing against the clock was a British speciality and in 1932 Frank Southall came sixth in the Olympic Games cycling road race in Los Angeles when it was run that way. But then came an announcement that henceforth the Olympics would be run as a massed-start event, a form of racing which the British cycling authorities had banned since the 19th century and at which British riders therefore had no experience.

The magazine Cycling wrote: “The strongest possible protest ought to be made by the English delegates both to the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) and the Olympic committees against the recent decision by the UCI that the Olympic road-race for 1936 is to be a massed-start affair. The Olympic Games were the last stronghold of the genuine international trial of road-riding, free from tactics or bunching.” (vetjes van mij)

Confronted by a decision it could not get reversed, the British governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union (NCU), allowed the Charlotteville Cycling Club in Guildford, Surrey, to organise a series of races on the Brooklands car circuit. The largest, on 17 June 1933, was billed as the 100-Kilometre Massed-Start World Cycling Championship Trial and the NCU said it would choose its next team for the world championship based on the outcome. The organiser was Vic Jenner and the business manager Bill Mills, two international riders. Mills went on to start the weekly magazine The Bicycle as a rival to Cycling. A crowd put at 10,000 watched a “race like kick-and-rush football, tactics limited to random and eccentric attacking by the best, hanging on for the rest.”[Woodland, Les (2005) This Island Race, Mousehold Press]

Percy Stallard recalled: “The test hill that you had to go up five times was that steep that on the first lap I pulled my foot out of my toe clips and I ran up. I was in the lead then and several other riders passed me. Well, I couldn’t get back on my bike at that steep angle, so I ran past these other riders and won the prime at the top, running!” (“Up the League, Winning magazine”)

So Stallard was chosen for the 1933 UCI Road World Championships team and finished 11th, the best of the British entry. The British favourite had been Frank Southall, but although his speed got him into the group of 38 leading riders, his inability to change pace on the shallow rises of the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, gave him difficulties. The writer and race organiser, Chas Messenger, wrote: “You could see the difference between our time-triallists and the Continentals; we tended to steamroller over it while the Continentals honked up [rode standing on the pedals] and so on every lap, once over the top, our lads had to make up the leeway.”

Percy Stallard said: “The trip to France was a real education to me, and during my short stay I learnt more about bike racing than I had done during my six years as a time-triallist. I went equipped with a 20-inch ‘contraption’ that may well have been the latest design 20 years earlier, but certainly not later. My handlebars were really the things that fascinated most. They were a lovely pair of 19½-inch Highgates, and when referring to the antediluvian equipment of the English team, the French Press likened my bars to a pair of ‘cow’s horns.'”

Next year, in the 1934 UCI Road World Championships at Leipzig, Stallard was selected to ride with Charles Holland and Fred Ghilks. Their accompanying official from the National Cyclists’ Union was from Herne Hill velodrome in south London and knew little of road-racing. The circuit was nearly six miles round, to be covered 12 times. The marshalling was by Brownshirts. The race averaged 26 mph with one lap at nearly 30. Holland rode 60 of the 70 miles with three broken spokes and came fourth. Stallard and Ghilks finished over two minutes later, Stallard seventh and Ghilks 26th. The race was won by Kees Pellenaars of the Netherlands.

Stallard had never ridden a massed event on the open road in Britain. The English cycle-racing authorities had, since the end of the 19th century, banned racing on the roads, fearing the police would ban all cycling as a result. The National Cyclists’ Union, the governing body, demanded races be held only on tracks and, later, on circuits such as airfields that were closed to traffic. Although time trials (races between individuals competing against the clock) had started as a revolt against the NCU’s ban – the races were held at dawn on courses kept secret from the public with riders dressed from head to toe in black to complete the secrecy – there were no races on open roads between riders starting together.

In June 1936, though, the Isle of Man allowed a race over one lap of the motorcycling Snaefell mountain course. The island is a separate jurisdiction from the United Kingdom and did not fall under British police control. The island also saw the race as a potential tourist attraction. In time the race, expanded to three laps and known as the Manx International, became the main event within a week of cycling festivities that followed the motorcycling week.

The 1936 race was spectacular for the crashes that it produced, because for the first time riders were required to negotiate everyday winding streets rather than the smooth bends of a motor-racing course. Stallard finished 17th and was inspired by what he had ridden. There were more races on car circuits and airfields – Stallard won the last race at Brooklands, in 1939 – but to Stallard they were just a shadow of the real thing.

When war came later that year, the roads emptied because of petrol rationing. Stallard insisted that if there were few or no other road-users, massed racing on the road was unlikely to bring objections. He wrote in December 1941 to A. P. Chamberlin of the NCU: “It is amazing to think that this is the only country in Europe where this form of sport is not permitted… There seems to be the mistaken idea that it would be necessary to close the roads. This, of course, is entirely wrong… There would be no better time than now to introduce this form of racing to the roads, what with the decreased amount of motor traffic and the important part that the cycle is playing in wartime transport.”

Chamberlin was not impressed. Stallard protested that the airfields and car circuits which were the only place that the NCU would allow massed racing had been taken by the army and RAF. On Easter Monday 1942 he called a meeting at the foot of Long Mynd, a hill in Shropshire that was popular with cyclists, and announced his plan for a 59-mile race from Llangollen to Wolverhampton on 7 June. “I just explained to the police what I was doing and told them that things like that were normal on the Continent, and they said they were happy and that they’d try to help.”

He obtained sponsorship from the Wolverhampton Express and Star newspaper, offered any profits to the newspaper’s Forces Comfort Fund, and recruited 40 riders to take part. His plan brought strong opposition from the cycling establishment, particularly from the veteran administrator and writer George Herbert Stancer. His fear, and that of the NCU, was that asking the police for permission to hold a race ended the freedom of cyclists to hold races, or at any rate lone races against the clock, without interference.

Stancer’s words influenced the NCU and it banned Stallard before the race had started. Stallard went ahead with the event and it finished, without incident, in front of a crowd at West Park. Cycling reported: “More than a thousand people watched the finish of the massed-start race organised by Percy Stalland, from Llangollen to Wolverhampton, on Sunday afternoon. The Chief Constable of Wolverhampton, an inspector, a sergeant and 15 uniformed policemen kept the crowd back. Police cars and police motorcyclists patrolled portions of the course. A police motorcyclist led the racing men through the streets to the finish. E. A. Price, of Wolverhampton, won the sprint from his clubmate, C. J. Anslow”.

Fifteen riders finished and all those involved in the race were suspended by the NCU. Stallard was banned indefinitely for refusing to account for himself to the NCU’s management. The suspension, often referred to as “for life” was in fact sine die, meaning without defined end but allowing Stallard to appeal, although the consequence proved the same because Stallard did not appeal and the ban was never lifted.

With nowhere to go but insistent that massed racing was the future, Stallard was instrumental in creating a breakaway organisation, the British League of Racing Cyclists. It was formed in November that year, bringing together regional groups already forming in the Midlands and the North. Stallard won the 1944 BLRC championship, and served as events organiser for a time, before being expelled for criticising the standard of events. He was also a moving force behind organisation of the fledgling Tour of Britain.

In 1959, the NCU and the BLRC agreed to merge, by which time both had become mentally and financially exhausted by their civil war. Stallard saw the merger as treason by “just three people [who] were allowed the freedom to destroy the BLRC” and until his death saw the new British Cycling Federation (BCF) as a reincarnation of the NCU.

Stallard rode his last race when he was 56, in Doncaster. Racing as he grew older became difficult because the British Cycling Federation’s rules classed all riders as veterans when they passed 40. Stallard argued that veterans’ races should be organised in age-groups and he clashed again with cycling authorities by forming an organisation to make that possible.

He drew up the rules from a hospital bed in 1985, when he was having a hip replaced, and the League of Veteran Racing Cyclists (LVRC) began in 1986. This time, the rest of cycling left him to it. Stallard once again fell out with the organisation he had founded, saying in his private papers that the LVRC was not “up to expectation”.

In 1988, the BCF offered Stallard its gold medal for services to the sport, but Stallard refused the medal: “Whatever the award is intended for, whether it is my activities of 48 years ago, or my present struggle on behalf of age-related racing, the significance of the award is nil as it does not open the locked doors of the BCF to me or to anyone else with progressive ideas. (…) The life suspension inflicted upon me by the NCU is still very much in evidence, whatever the BCF may say. If this is not so, why did they never ask me to manage a British team abroad? After all, I am the only person to have led a British team to individual and team success in the Warsaw-Berlin-Prague Peace Race, then again as the only official accompanying and directing four riders against a team of 117 Mexicans (Tour of Mexico 1952).”

Stallard’s success was that he alerted the UCI to a problem in British cycling which led the UCI to threaten Britain with exclusion from world cycling unless it sorted out the conflict between the NCU and the BLRC. Seeing the BLRC as closer to the UCI’s interests, it suggested it would recognise the BLRC and not the NCU as the representative body. It was because of that that the NCU relented and agreed to license the massed races it had hitherto opposed. (Wikipedia)

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