One of the now seemingly permanent features of the national and international cycling calendar is the Tour of Britain. It is an event that can trace its roots back to a race that was planned to start from Catford – the first ever British stage race.
Cycling stage racing has been common on the continent with races such as Le Tour de France and Giro D’Italia having their origins in the early 20th century. In Britain road racing had been effectively banned since the end of the 19th century. Time trials (where riders start on their own and race against the clock) were eventually tacitly allowed often in remote locations with ‘code-named’ courses to avoid any police interest.’ (1) Mass start races were only ever allowed on tracks, such as the short-lived one on Catford’s Sportsbank Street or Herne Hill, or later on airfields or motor racing circuits – some of the earliest racing at Brands Hatch was cycling, as well as more notably at the Brooklands Circuit (2).
The first road race with a mass start had been organised in 1942 by Percy Stallard, (picture source) it was a single stage race from Llangollen to Wolverhampton. He and the other organisers and riders were all banned by the National Cyclists’ Union (NCU) as a result. Stallard set up the rival British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) to promote racing rather than time trialing.
With Midlands roots, it was perhaps surprising that a war-torn London was to be the location for the (not so) Grand Départ of the first English Cycling stage race. Perhaps using it as a fundraiser for the Red Cross helped and perhaps it was seen as a morale booster for those suffering at home.
The race was due to start in Catford outside the then Town Hall (above) on Saurday 5 August 1944, – the beginning of what was then the August Bank Holiday Weekend. The planned route of the first stage is not clear but the second and third stages were the same – starting at The Fantail (now Chapter 1) at Locksbottom and looping 60 miles out to Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and Pembury before returning to Locksbottom – see below (3). Just 40 riders were to start the race which received some media interest – the BBC planned to cover the first stage (4)
Presumably when the organisers had agree the route with the authorities, London seemed a relatively safe location – there had been a lull in attacks following the end of the Blitz. But from June 1944 London was again targeted by the Germans. The first V1 rockets hit Lewisham on 16 June, including attacks on Lewisham Park and the areas around George Lane and Davenport Road. Around a 100 more were to hit Lewisham in the 7 weeks before the planned start, so it was probably understandable that the Ministry of War Transport wanted the start moved (5).
The race was moved to Farnborough, where, in the end, all three stages started outside the Fantail Restuarant, almost opposite the Ye Olde Whyte Lyon pub, pictured from around three decades before (6).
As for the race, the first stage was won by the organiser of the initial Llangollen-Wolverhampton race, Percy Stallard. The second stage saw Les Plume from Manchester triumph, despite the seemingly safe location in the Kent countryside, during the race the RAF shot down another London bound doodlebug very close to the peloton. With shrapnel coming down around the cyclists, the eventual winner wondered whether they should be in an air raid shelter rather than racing.
The final stage saw a lone breakaway, won by Ron Baker with a sprint for the rest of the podium places of the stage won by Stallard, over ten minutes behind the winner. Les Plume took the overall victory by just a second from Len Hook who had placed well on each of the stages. Baker took the King of the Hills competition.
The following year there was the Victory Cycling Marathon from Brighton to Glasgow and a similar national stage race has been almost ever present (there was a five year hiatus from 2000).
1 William Fotheringham (2005) Roule Britannia: A History of Britons in the Tour de France p8
2 ibid p8
3 Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 21 July 1944
4 The People, 30 July 1944
5 The People, 6 August 1944
6 Postcard via eBay February 2016