While British cycling may not always have had the same consistent success at the highest level that we are enjoying at present, there were some amazing achievements before Team Sky or Chris Boardman. Robert Dineen's Kings of the Road tells some of those stories, both on and off the bike.
In the book Dineen largely restricts himself to telling the stories of those that he can still interview, and tries to 'write a character-based and unashamedly idiosyncratic history of the sport until the turn of the new century'. I agree with Dineen's assertion that even with a published biography, some of the interviewees have still not received the recognition they deserved – most notably perhaps Beryl Burton. When researching I was surprised to find out just how many such biographies were available, with specialist publisher Mousehold Press contributing several.
At the same time as telling the stories of past performances, Dineen also reveals how he became a full-blown Etape-riding MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra). That interest in becoming a 'proper' cyclist developed while writing his earlier book on Reg Harris, who actually gets little coverage here because of that. The two strands come together at the inaugural Reg Harris sportive: this was to be Dineen's first organised cycle event – an event 'inspired by the increased interest in Reg that my book about his life sparked, although that seems a bit odd given how few people bought it!'
Most of the stories concern the sporting achievements of riders such as Ian Steel, Vin Denson, Mandy Jones, Alf Engers, and many more – and any one of them deserves further coverage here. However, I will limit myself to 'one of the finest acts of sportsmanship British cycling has seen'. Although they were good enough for at least the silver medal, the British squad at the World Team Pursuit in 1973 only won the final after the West German quartet had been brought down following a collision with an official, and therefore did not finish. Incredibly, the British team decided that 'to give up the gold was the only ethical option', thus holding the World Championship title for just a few minutes.
To have the full appreciation of British cycling you have to include some stories away from the racing, and I am pleased to say this book covers them well. In fact, I found that discovering these lesser known stories was just as interesting as the sporting stories.
One concerns Tony Doyle's election as President of the BCF (British Cycling Federation) in 1996: the BCF barely survived this period, and the contrast with the buoyant organisation that we see today could not be greater. In brief, Doyle was elected president by the members, but the board of the BCF rejected him (which was in breach of the constitution), and finally each party ended up suing the other at great cost. It was hardly believable at the time, and it matches anything that FIFA could come up with. Eventually an accountant called Peter King stepped in to run the organisation, and in my view he is as responsible for the current success of British cycling as anyone else.
I also enjoyed reading the background to those brown signs that you still see around signposting the National Byways, an extensive network of good cycling routes that was created by Michael Breckon. It was an ambitious project that was originally sponsored by Hovis, with about 10 per cent of the routes shared with Sustrans – but the difference, according to Breckon, is that 'Sustrans gave you an opportunity to ride, while we give you a reason to'.
Don't confuse this book with another of the same name from the 1980s, which talked about some of the greatest professional riders of the day: not much British interest to cover at that time, although plenty for Ireland.
Today we risk taking the success of British riders on the world stage for granted, and for some it is even hard to remember a time when road cycling was not such a popular leisure activity – but as many of those interviewed in this book will remind us, their success was often achieved despite the British system, not because of it. The records of those previous generations are being broken and their achievements over-shadowed, so I am very pleased that some of the older contributors have been given the chance to tell all before their stories die with them.
An entertaining and informative book that shows just how far we have come as a nation in the sport of cycling
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Kings of the Road - A journey into the heart of British Cycling by Robert Dineen
Size tested: Hardback and eBook
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
Robert Dinneen interviews some of the most important personalities from successive generations of the sport and dramatises the compelling events in which they were involved. He meets world champions, Olympic heroes, and domestic icons, as well as several of the most fascinating and influential figures from behind the scenes.
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Title: Kings of the Road
Author: Robert Dineen
Publisher: Aurum Press
About the tester
Age: 55 Height: Weight:
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding