BOOK REVIEW: "Great British Cycling" by Ellis Bacon Recommended

by Nick Gregory

GB Flag
Price £16.00
Size 300 pages
Colour N/A
Informative and entertaining, Great British Cycling not only neatly sums up where we are now, but also how we got there - and perhaps most importantly - who we have to thank for it. All in all, an absolute must-own for cycling aficionados and new fans of the sport alike.

"Great British Cycling: The History of British Bike Racing 1868-2014" by Ellis Bacon

Although the professional season is now underway, there's a reason that most of races taking place at the moment are doing so on a closed motorway in the middle of the desert. If you're reading this in the UK then there's a good chance that rain - or rather snow - is stopping play at the moment when it comes to your weekend rides. 

So instead of giving yourself hypothermia this weekend why not enjoy an afternoon in front of the fire in the company of Ellis Bacon's exquisite Great British Cycling: The History of British Bike Racing 1868-2014. From first-hand experience, I can certainly vouch for getting lost in the pages of this fascinating account of how Britain evolved to become one of the superpowers of the cycling world over getting lost on the frosty lanes of Kent in the driving rain... 

Bacon has been writing about bike racing for over a decade. Having begun his career as deputy editor of Procycling in 2003, he has since written for a number of other cycling publications and websites, including Cycle Sport, Cyclist, and Cycling Weekly, as well as for The Times and the Observer. Along with Lionel Birnie, he is also the co-editor of the hugely popular Cycling Anthology series of books. This is his third solo project, following World's Ultimate Cycle Races and Mapping Le Tour. 

The timing of the book's release really couldn't be better - cycling in Britain is still very much on the crest of a wave that formed (as the book explains) many years ago, but certainly swelled in 2012 with the nation's first victory in the Tour de France and the cycling-related euphoria of the London Olympics. 

There have been no signs in the past twelve months to suggest that this boom in popularity is slowing yet either - in fact, quite the opposite. 2014 saw both the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia visit the UK, as well as the inaugural edition of the women's Tour of Britain. All three races enjoyed huge crowds and overwhelming acclaim, and the next chapter of the British cycling story is already beginning to write itself as we're set to witness the imminent creation of new teams and races, in Team WIGGINS and the Tour de Yorkshire respectively. 


Starting at the very beginning, Bacon charts the rise of British cycling success from James Moore's victory in the first ever bicycle race in Paris in 1868 right through to the Tour de France triumphs of Wiggins and Froome and the Olympic glory of recent years. On the way however, our erudite guide points out that progress hasn't always been smooth or easy. 

Yes the book serves as a handy guide to all of the nation's major successes in the sport - both on the road and track - but it's also as much about the development of cycling's infrastructure and the behind-the-scenes players who made it happen. For that reasons its appeal is universal: Whether you're a relative novice that's been inspired by contemporary heroes such as Cavendish and Armitstead, or a life-long club enthusiast intrigued to learn more about the various divisions and machinations that dominated domestic cycling for so much of the twentieth century, Great British Cycling offers plenty to sink your teeth into. 

It allows those new to the sport, who know only of the big-budget, high-tec, ultra-professional approach of Team Sky to unearth an eye-opening history that saw the figurative forefathers of today's stars struggle with full-time work and second-hand equipment in their own quest for glory. Hindered they may have been, but determined they undoubtedly were, and as Bacon makes the point: "in every generation British cyclists - both men and women - have found a way to ride their hearts out, and we have cheered them." 

Although it could be said that the book's focus is split between the sport's 'performance' and 'administration' (and the various figures who sit clearly in one camp or the other), there are inevitably figures who straddle the divide - talented riders who went on to change the face of the sport from behind the desk in retirement - and these individuals are also given the recognition they rightfully deserve. The likes of Eileen Gray, BCF President from 1976 to 1986, who - in retirement from racing - was instrumental in getting women's road and track cycling accepted into the Olympics. 


The book has a wonderfully 'British' feel to it too - regularly doffing its cap to the often overlooked figures in British cycling history. The likes of the pioneering Tony Hoar - who in the Tour de France of 1955 finished as Britain's first ever Lanterne Rouge - get the acclaim they deserve. 

One could perhaps even go as far as to say it's somewhat revisionist in its approach to the British cycling story. Whilst he doesn't outright shun the established, top-down approach, Bacon certainly goes beyond simply rehashing biographies of the main players, and instead favours looking at the importance of the lesser lights and unsung heroes. 

Another good example of this is the story of Britain's first World Champion, Tom Simpson - which is one I am particularly familiar with having successfully convinced an initially reluctant university tutor to let me write my final year dissertation on the subject. Whilst Bacon rightfully pays homage to one of the nation's greatest stars, most of the chapter concerning 'Mr Tom' is seen through the eyes of his 1967 Tour de France teammate, Colin Lewis. His story, along with those of contemporaries such as Vin Denson and Arthur Metcalfe have often been cast into Simpson's shadow, and it is refreshing to see that balance redressed here. 

To both his and the book's credit, you really get the sense that Bacon was fastidious when making what must have been very difficult decisions as to what areas, figures and periods to concentrate on in detail - and there certainly seems to be scope for a 'volume two'. 

Author, Ellis Bacon (centre) being interviewed by Cyclosport Editor, Adam Tranter (right) as Tour of Britain Race Director, Mick Bennett (left) watches on 

With any 'history of' there's a real danger of getting bogged down in the regurgitation of facts. Nevertheless, on every occasion Bacon successfully strikes the balance between giving the overall narrative of events and retaining a personal feel by interweaving intimate, entertaining and illuminating first-hand interviews. The chapter on Chris Boardman and the British track cycling team's 'Secret Squirrel Club' is a fascinating and insightful example of this.   

With perhaps the exception of those whose names feature within these pages, almost every reader is certain to glean some new gem of information or pearl of wisdom from this treasure chest of anecdotes and facts. 

For me, as a fan of both Chelsea FC and Mark Cavendish, a couple of particularly memorable, chuckle-inducing "well I never" moments were the result of discovering that British cycling's first national championships were held at Stamford Bridge, and that during the Manx Missile's 2011 World Championship success in Denmark, a secret plan had been hatched to get his trade team DS and Copenhagen-native, Brian Holm in the British team car to dictate team tactics. 

More than anything, the book successfully illustrates the stark contrast between the glitz and glamour of Sir Wiggo kissing podium girls on the Champs-Élysées, and the more familiar sight of hundreds of plucky have-a-go amateurs paying their £3 to ride up and down a duel-carriageway in the rain at 7am, to paint a true picture of British cycling in all its contemporary guises. Informative and entertaining, Great British Cycling not only neatly sums up where we are now, but also how we got there - and perhaps most importantly - who we have to thank for it. All in all, an absolute must-own for cycling aficionados and new fans of the sport alike.

Great British Cycling is available to purchase on Amazon.

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