I was at the launch of David Harmon and Jeremy Hasting’s tandem team last week. They’re planning to go and break a few of the British place-to-place records – Liverpool to Edinburgh. Pembroke to Great Yarmouth (that’s the ‘side-to-side’ record, for those who find the more traditional end-to-end a bit too vertical).
I like this. This is old-style British bike riding. Place-to-place record setting was what high-spirited young chaps turned to in the 1890s when bicycle racing on the road was banned because it literally scared the horses. Record breaking dodged the ban, because it involved only one rider at a time. (Time trialling over fixed distances developed from this, and went on to be the mainstay of British racing for most of the 20th Century.)
The place-to-place idea is older than that though. Very early in the days of the bicycle – moments, in fact, after it had occurred to someone in the 1860s to put pedals on a ‘dandy-horse’ – the same variety of young chap devoted considerable efforts to racing mail coaches about the place. This had a professional edge. The aim was to demonstrate that the bicycle was a viable means of transport, and as fast as the state-of-the-art road-going coach. Think of it as solar-powered car racing for the 19th Century. Whoever could convince the public he made the fastest bicycle was likely to get rich. Fellows with big legs and the ability to pace an effort evenly were much in demand. I truly missed my calling by 135 years.
But what the tandem plan really brings home is the change in the roads since mass car ownership in the 1950s. The queen of place-to-place records used to be London to Brighton and back – a bit over 100 miles. From Hyde Park Corner, down and up the A23, back to Hyde Park Corner. That’s not a mission you’d volunteer for lightly these days. The current record was set in 1977, and I can see why attempts are not common.
As if to underline this, at the launch I came across a photo of two cyclists on the Great North Road in, judging by their bikes, about 1900. The Great North Road, of course, became the A1 trunk route. In 1900, it looked like a farm track. If my driveway looked like that, I’d get it sorted out. I appreciate the difficulties of riding on that kind of thing, but the peace and quiet must have been nice.
On the other hand, there are also plenty of contemporary accounts of cyclists being the victims of aggression from coachmen. It’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed.