When Paul Darby opened up an ancient and battered suitcase discovered in the garage of a distant relative he had no idea that delving into his family’s history would result in the re-establishment of one of the oldest cycling clubs in the country. Especially as he didn’t even own a bike.
Balham Cycling Club, first established in 1878 survived two world wars and outlived four reigning monarchs only to peter out in the late 1970s. After a 38 year hiatus, however, one cold Sunday morning in January of this year, 16 hardy South London cyclists set out from Sainsbury’s car park in Balham for a ride around Richmond Park. The club was reborn.
It was an old photograph of Paul’s great uncle Harry that sparked the initial interest. Looking splendid in plus fours and a watch chain dangling from his jacket lapel, he is posed next to his racing bike. A closer look at the jersey he’s wearing reveals a badge stitched onto it with the initials, BCC. Paul was intrigued. What was this club? When did it run and who was in it? What was the cycling scene like in South London? Actually what period was this?
His investigations uncovered an extraordinary story spanning a century that cast light on the vibrant cycling scene in South London in the Victorian age and beyond. Balham Cycling club was in fact founded in the Balham Hotel by its licensee, one GR Huntley and was, interestingly, open to both men and women. Now known as the Regent Pub, the hotel remained the club’s headquarters until 1926 but the newly revived club is now using it again as its meeting place.
The club has a distinguished record and can count as its former members the famous frame builder, Claud Butler, a world record holder called Albert Wills who was the first man to ride 60 miles in the hour behind a motor pacer, and a member of the 1920 British Olympic team by the name of Basil Bragg.
Paul’s research into the club’s history has uncovered some fascinating documents which he has loaded onto the club’s website. I loved reading the cycling record of a Victorian penny farthing rider who documented every ride he did, rather like the modern Strava users of today. Cycling up to 46 miles a day, he clocked up 1600 miles in a year, using an odometer to measure his distances.
While the modern cyclist searches the internet for training advice, the Victorians were keen on dishing out tips too. The 1878 Indispensible Bicyclists Handbook offers some useful guidance on diet for the club cyclist. While stout and claret are discouraged, mild ale is listed as suitable along with beef, lamb mutton and eggs. Strangely carrots, artichokes and cucumber are not!
The Balham were also pioneers for new types of events such as organising a club run with a twist – off road. In modern parlance it was cyclo-cross although back in 1925 they called it the Balham Rough Stuff Open. By the 1930s it was not only the traditional season opener but also one of the most prestigious races on the national calendar, attracting some of the biggest names in cycling. The race survived for 35 years as a 25 mile course over some of the most unforgiving North Downs terrain.
Perhaps my favourite record is the memoir by former Balham CC secretary Ken Smith which covers the World War Two years and gives an insight into the lives of a group of young men from the South London cycling community at the time. He tells of late nights drinking and eating at The Alexandra opposite Clapham Common tube, followed by epic trips down to West Sussex and back. He later joined the RAF where he was posted to Calcutta and set up The Phoenix Pedallers which boasted a membership of over 500.
Today Balham Cycling Club has about 50 members but is certain to expand. Paul sees it as being a predominantly community based club with 12 rides and 12 socials a year. He has even bought himself a new road bike and is gradually building up his endurance so that he can ride out with his fellow members soon. A new club kit is planned with the old crest as a centrepiece while the overall design will be voted on by its members who have enthusiastically come up with some ideas of their own.
To find out more about Balham Cycling Club take a look at their website.