Cycling Cafes And Club Ride Culture..

This post was prompted by a comment on my Facebook Page by friend and owner of the Facebook Page There And Back Again from the USA, Steve.

He commented on the lack of cafes like ours on his rides and how he had to stand in car parks at country stores at best.  It prompted me to go into a bit of the history of cafes in cycling as far as I know it and my experiences.  Club rides and cafes have always been a part of cycling culture here in the UK.

Nowadays our cub rides are centred on a cafe as the mid point of a ride.  For instance if the club ride was to Winslow its understood that what it really means is that we are going to Jennie Wrens cafe in Winslow..

I remember the club rides when I was a young cyclist in my late teens and early twenties, still living in Rickmansworth and riding with Watford Roads CC.  In the summer, Sundays were usually taken up with racing in some form or another.  If it was road racing then the day was accounted for.  But if it was time trialling there was still an option to go on the the club ride as in those days the law of the land said that in time trials the last starter had to be off by 7am I think, how official it was I am not sure.  I just know there had to be an air of secrecy about it and I always had to get up early.

I do know that road racing on open roads was illegal unless you had police permission and still is but I think its more accepted these days and while not any easier to get its more recognised now.  Time trialling, as its not a massed start event was exempt from police permission.  It therefore became a big part of racing in the UK in those days and a big road racing culture did not develop the same as  in the rest of Europe.  Any British riders wishing to improve their cycling career had to move to Belgium or France, such as Tommy Simpson and Brian Robinson.  Hence its taken until recent years for UK riders to really begin to make their presence felt abroad.  So time trialling was kind of allowed as it wasn’t a mass start event and provided that it was done with by the time most people were waking on Sunday it was OK.

Anyway, generally speaking if you were doing a 25 mile time trial you still had enough time to then go on the club ride for the rest of the day as well or a bit of recovery time and the afternoon ride.  Oh for the vigour of youth now!!  There were two options. There was the  day ride that went somewhere for lunch at a cafe or pub and then on to a tea stop at a cafe (Pubs were only open for a couple of hours at lunchtime on Sunday in those days!!)  However in the winter the day ride was usually the ride of choice.  Supposedly at a leisurely pace but often us ‘youngsters’ would sometimes be reprimanded  for our over enthusiasm with a terse “The speed of the club ride is that of the slowest rider” from the ride leader.  It still didn’t stop us sprinting for nearly every village or town sign as you entered them, treating them like the finish line of a race.

I do remember on one occasion someone sprinting head down, not looking where he was going and straight into the back of a parked car.  That caused a bit of a delay in the ride!!!  Here is another anecdote about a ride start after a liquid lunch break.  One of our members was a regular track cyclist and often used to come on club rides on a fixed wheel bike.  I remember he was particularly addicted to drinking a pint or so of guinness and cider, called a ‘Black Velvet’ I think?  On this particular ride we had stopped at a pub at the top of a hill.  At the restart of our ride he went sprinting off on the descent of the hill, legs whirring like crazy, we followed at a more leisurely pace as we had freewheels and brakes and by the bottom we still hadn’t caught him.  On reaching the bottom we expected to see him waiting for us but he wasn’t.  So some of us waited while others went back up to see if we had missed him somehow.  We had, he had completely missed a bend and went straight off into the undergrowth at speed and was just emerging back onto the road through a hedge when discovered.  I do recall that even before this he had several front teeth missing and legs covered in scars, so not an unfamiliar occurrence I remember thinking.  I did once ride on the back of tandem he was piloting at a track meeting at the outdoor Welwyn Stadium with a concrete track.  It was in a sprint race when he was let down by his regular partner. I was there to ride in a pursuit event.  Thats a story for another time though, but suffice to say I only did it the once!

Here is a picture taken back then on Watford Town Hall steps when we were all much younger, waiting for the start of the afternoon ride… I am third from the right and my friend Cyril who I still ride with, as he lives locally as well now, is on the extreme right, in the foreground.


The afternoon ride that left Watford Town Hall steps at around 2pm also went to the same tea time cafe to meet up with the day ride.  We then all rode back to Watford together, arriving early evening.  We were not necessarily finished with refreshments at this stage.  If it was after 7pm when the pubs reopened sometimes we would go to a pub, usually the Red Lion at Hunton Bridge as I recall, just outside Watford.  There we would have something like a Scotch Egg and a pint of Red Barrel beer to finish the day off before wending or weaving our separate ways home, mostly without mishap.

Actually nowadays there are not a lot cafes around suitable for cyclists to drop in unexpectedly although a courtesy call to forewarn the owners wouldn’t go amiss I suppose.  I know that in our case at Team MK generally speaking we just turn up and they seem to cope just fine.  Sometimes there is already another club ‘in residence’ or even another group from our club.  Although the various group rides are not generally planned to use the same cafe, plans sometimes change if a  different leader takes over at the last minute  for instance.  I think we have around seven or eight cafes in regular use.  Sometimes someone comes up with a different one but generally speaking its one of the regular ones.

It only needs to be fairly basic fare at these cafes so far as cyclists are concerned and usually consists of various home made cakes, flapjacks or toasted tea cakes.  Big fry ups aren’t generally an option because of the time factor.  I think the cafes are more than happy to try to accommodate cyclists whatever size group they are as its a boost to their income.  I do feel sorry for some of the other people in the cafe sometimes when they are probably expecting a nice quiet morning coffee and read of the newspaper, only to be interrupted by a noisy bunch of cyclists bursting in and causing seating mayhem.

So there it is, a summary of cycling life and culture as it was then, all inspired by a comment on my Facebook page.. Thanks Steve you made me dig up some old memories.. I am sure there are few more hidden back in my memory banks somewhere that I can dig out sometime in the future, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…..