Clarion: Great British cycling at the grass roots

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Cyclists from Bolton Clarion, 1897

Manchester & District CTC sent me an email the other day, with a link to their website for information about activities and details of the clubs in their area. CTC members are welcome on their club runs. I’ve never been on one but I might have seen them. Or were they the Lancashire Road Club, or Bolton Clarion?

CTC say they’re the UK’s national cyclists’ organisation, but sport-based British Cycling claims to be the national governing body for cycling. Cycling England is an independent body attached to the Department for Transport “working to get more people cycling, more safely, more often,” (although it seems this body is about to be culled). With a steady stream of cycling campaigns and initiatives from all three, the chaps pictured above would have a hard time making sense of modern cycling politics. We might be better served if there was a single supreme organisation for the UK, especially as the new Coalition Government pushes for ‘local solutions’ on the basis of divide and conquer.

Meanwhile, at cycling’s grass roots where I live, Manchester & District CTC, Lancashire Road Club and Bolton Clarion organise actual bike rides every week. Probably other groups too, which I’ve never heard of. Manchester CTC’s web link has Peak Audax in its URL, putting Audax amongst the groups at ground level so to speak. Cycling club runs are a tradition that goes back over 100 years.

Bolton Clarion was formed in 1896 as an offshoot of Bolton Socialist Club. Clarion itself was a socialist newspaper started a few years earlier in Manchester, which included a cycling column. The newspaper faded in popularity but by the 1930s Bolton Clarion CC was the biggest in the country. The National Clarion CC started up in Birmingham in 1895 to inspire working class people to enjoy the new freedom of cycling. It still exists, with some 650 members and 25 local groups in England, Scotland, and Wales, but none in Northern Ireland.

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Bolton Clarion women, 1939

All this, of course, is leisure cycling – the sort which continues regardless of Cycling Towns, infrastructure, and the politics of cycling that goes on between government and the national bodies. Politics is alive and well at local level too. National Clarion Cycling Club 1895, formed in 2006, isn’t the same as the other National Clarion but remains committed to Socialist principles. Bolton Wood Street Clarion, formed in 2004, is also Socialist and separate from the other Bolton Clarion, and organises walks and other trips as well as cycle rides.

The photos on this page are from the ‘Bygone Times’ page of Bolton Clarion’s website. Gorgeous images, I think. It’s not just the meetings of these grassroots clubs that keeps alive the ‘old traditions’ of British cycling, but their websites too. I see they have a European Champion: Fred Smith who won Gold in the Men’s 70+ Pursuit at Manchester Velodrome in July.

I hope these Clarion clubs keep going and also that they continue to maintain their websites, otherwise these fragments of history will be lost. Bolton Clarion has an annual trophy in memory of two of its members killed in World War II: the Ward Gosling Trophy awarded for exceptional services to the Club. Herbert Ward and Tom Gosling were member cyclists and neighbours in Bolton. Herbert was rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber and was killed on his first mission in 1943. Tom was killed on HMS Repulse when it was sunk by the Japanese near Singapore in 1941.

Are club runs and solo leisure rides included as cycling journeys travelled in the national statistics I wonder? No-one has ever asked me (or anyone I know) how far or how often we ride our bikes. I accept that the mass utility cycling idea is probably important and something we should strive towards for a better society and all that, but more important still is the bicycle as an instrument of pleasure, and for social connections between individuals.

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