by Gordon Rowlands
I made my first contact with Abertillery Wheelers when I accompanied my sister Doris and her husband Lionel Holland to meet the club at the Village Farm, Llangattock for afternoon tea. One shilling and sixpence bought all the bread, butter and home made jam you wanted, as many cups of tea as you could drink, but only two small cakes. The tea got progressively weaker as more and more water was added to the huge pot. The seat nearest to the kitchen door was to be avoided if you were not prepared to keep leaving the table to fetch more supplies.
I rode back to Gilwern with Alan Painter and Cliff Jones, some distance in front of the other eight club members, we walked up "Black Rock", and got home at about 8.00pm, which was comparatively early for the return of the club runs in those days.
Prior to this meeting with the club I had done runs to Raglan Castle, Monmouth and Hereford with members of the Guild hall youth club, Castle Street, Abertillery. The run to Llangattock served to convince me that we would be able to hold the pace of the club runs, so with four of my friends we joined, and gave the club a small boost in membership.
Club runs were what we joined for, but they were the introduction to a great sport. Open time trials were held nearly always on a Sunday, many having the maximum entry of 100. Open tens were not allowed for men and all competitors had to wear black. Course details could not be published, and prior publicity not allowed.
Road races under N.C.U. were only allowed on closed circuits, such as St. Athens airfield. Track racing was very popular, attracting large crowds of spectators. There were a lot of grass track meetings held at fetes, flower shows, carnival and sports days. These introduced people to track racing and in my opinion their loss was detrimental to the sport. There was no cyclo-cross racing, but instead there was rough rider time trials held in the colder winter months.
The South Wales district of the R.T.T.C. had over 60 affiliated clubs, there were 10 in Cardiff alone and 15 in Monmouthshire. The N.C.U. was the controlling body for massed start and track racing and peaked at nearly 100,000 members in 1950, 2,000 being in South Wales and clubs like ours included N.C.U. membership fees in annual club fees, so that all club members were affiliated N.C.U. members.
The Albert Hall, London was filled to capacity for the annual R.T.T.C. Champions presentation. the Welsh C.A. (the then S.W/C.A.) had to move from the Coney Beach Restaurant, Porthcawl to the larger Cory Hall, for their annual presentation.
Lunch and teas on Sunday runs were booked by the Captain, by postcard. It was usually 8.00 - 9.30pm when the Sunday runs returned home. We rode to the start of events on the bikes that we raced on, while those lucky enough to own them, carried their sprint wheels on either side of the front wheel, secured by brackets to the front wheel spindle. It was a common sight to see competitors changing on the side of the road near the start of an open time trial and leaving their clothes, saddlebag and mudguards wrapped in their capes under a hedge. Sometimes there was a car or van at the start, but that would be the only vehicle see on the course. Most events started at 6.00am during summer months. Our first club event was usually a ten, held on the first Sunday in March.
Ron Parsons had the first double chainset in Monmouthshire and also had quick release hubs. The gear block stayed bolted to the frame when the back wheel was removed. Most people had steel handlebars, rims and chainset etc. and most club members rode fixed wheel all the time. Gears were being developed and the French Simplex seemed to be the most reliable and trouble free rear changer, however the top class equipment was well engineered and some steel part were only slightly heavier than their alloy counterparts that eventually replaced them.
Clothing was improvised, when I joined my winter wear was an ex-RAF jacket, narrow trousers tucked into thick knee length socks, with cloth cap and scarf to complete the ensemble. In summer, short sleeve shirts, Khaki shorts, grey ankle socks with a grey neck sweater for the cooler days. In the following years, proper gabardine cycling jackets, plus four trousers and corduroy shorts were on the market. Wet weather wear was oilskin capes, leggings and souwester hats. We had battery lamps but dynamos were needed to get a good enough light to ride fast at night, as most roads were unlit.
Our club was small compared to some. Newport Gwent had 120 members , and could get 60 riders out on club runs. We had some runs that left at 10.00pm on Saturday, with breakfast booked at places like Rhayader, Llandovery and Cheddar. There were also two day runs, when we carried blanket bags, and slept in haystacks at night. These runs started on Saturday afternoons, as most people worked on Saturday mornings. We were once described as "Hicks from the Sticks" by one of the larger club-members, but our club is still here long after the other club has disappeared without trace.
Cycling touring was popular. We had many happy weekends away, and two week tours during our annual holidays. Racing cyclists stayed overnight near the start of Open events. The roads were safe to ride on by day or night. One winter during a period when fuel was scarce and there wasn't any allowed for private motoring, it was possible to ride for as far as ten miles at a stretch in the hours of darkness, without seeing a car. The lanes were like the modern cycleways. All trains would carry cycles in their luggage vans. We rode to Newport and caught the train through the Severn tunnel, to ride on the other side of the channel. There was a ferry from Beachley to Aust, where the bridge was later built, and pleasure boats went from Newport to Weston and Ilfracombe. All these we utilised for special runs. The Club also organised bus trips and other social occasions.
Only about 50% of the Club were, or had been, competitive. A large number of cyclists got all they wanted out of Club life without racing. There were more women cyclists in those days and the Amethyst C.C. in Cardiff was a Ladies only club.
With competition more intense, B.C.F. membership less than a quarter of the old N.C.U., less fun events, danger on congested roads, people entering the sport just for racing, and a tendency for controlling bodies to put international competition before all else, cycling does not seem as carefree as in the days when people were not so affluent.