Wolverhampton wonderer: How I found my bicycling mojo

by Raymond Parker on January 1, 2010

in Autobiography, Cycling, History, Racing, Touring, Video

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Busy Queen Street, Wolverhampton, 2007

Maybe it’s a bit of auld lang syne that sets me to wondering, as we end one decade and begin another. I’ve been recalling the circumstances that led to my preoccupation with bicycle travel, mentioned briefly in these pages in another story—how freedom and adventure became forever connected in my mind to the bicycle.

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Wednesfield Wheeler: Author, ca. 1964

I grew up in the English Midlands, near Wolverhampton, home of the famed Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C., in the adjacent village of Wednesfield to be exact.

The West Midlands, or Staffordshire as it was then (properly) called, was ground zero of the industrial revolution, so it is no surprise that the area became known as “The Black Country.” When seasonal fogs rolled in, handkerchiefs became sticky depositories of sooty snot. Sheets left on the line turned grey.

It was likely a great relief to the National Health when “Smokeless Zones” were introduced and households turned from coal to coke for heating needs.

Thankfully, a few miles of pedaling delivered one into the hills and dales of rural England. The South Shropshire Hills were a wondrous tonic for mind and body.

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Fishing the cut, Wednesfield

As I grew up in the 50s, canals and the barges that plied them—often towed by plodding Shire horses—still transported coal and industrial goods. Today, they are tourist attractions.

The associated towpaths, slick with compacted coal dust, or “slack,” are now promoted as bicycle trails. We never thought of using them for commuting. Only crazed cyclocross racers braved their slippery surface … often ending up in “the cut.”

Of the industries that lined these canals, many were bicycle factories. At its peak, Wolverhampton was the third largest manufacturer of bikes in the country, with marques like Star, Sunbeam, Peerless, Wulfruna and Viking producing every category of human-powered vehicle.

Over 200 cycle factories operated from the mid-1800s, until the Wearwell Company closed it’s doors in 1972. As the first factory to open in the city, they were also the longest survivors.

Of the smaller builders that endured as the bicycle market collapsed, P.T. Stallard Cycles gave birth to fine custom frames, and—if we are to believe accounts more likely apocryphal than factual—to Percy Thornley Stallard himself. According to local lore, he was born above his father’s 30 Broad Street shop in 1909.

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Percy Stallard

Percy joined the Wolverhampton Wheelers Cycling Club and made a name for himself both locally and in European races during the thirties. He is famous, or infamous, for organizing the first British road race from Llangollen to Wolverhampton, on June 7th, 1942.

This was, you see, an audacious not to mention illegal thing to do. It drew fervent opposition from the national governing body, the National Cyclists Union.

The ossified, Victorian NCU rules appeared ludicrous to young cyclists who had experienced the vibrant road racing culture of the Continent and rebel riders formed their own Midland League of Racing Cyclists, which eventually merged with other upstart regional clubs to form the British League of Racing Cyclists, with Percy Stallard heading the anarchist hordes!

Years of acrimony simmered between traditionalists and the stylish “Leaguers” until the NCU and BLRC found common ground and merged, in 1959.

This didn’t sit well with Percy, who withdrew from the sport in disgust. But he had left an indelible mark on British racing. I remember the Milk Race peloton whirring by the end of my street. What excitement! Such events and the development of English competitors remains the enduring legacy of Percy Stallard. Under his prodding, cycling had emerged from the dark days of furtive racing in black clothing under cover of night into the light of a new day.

I was a lucky beneficiary of the Stallard cycling endowment. Whether peering over the counter at the family shop, or following Percy’s son Mick as he (gently) paced us schoolboy acolytes down to the Friday night track races at Aldersley velodrome, I fastened on the same idée fixe with as much tenacity as I did Mick’s rear wheel, where I also experienced my first taste of suffering in the saddle.

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Mick Stallard

In the chilly spring of 1963, nineteen year-old Mick had just become Wolverhampton’s golden boy of cycle racing, having won gold at the British National Cyclocross Championships (a title he would hold for 3 years running) and competing in the Worlds, across the English Channel in Calais.

At eleven years-old, the wonders of my newt collection in an old porcelain sink at the end of the garden, train spotting, and the latest Beatles’ recordings, vied with my new obsession. Both Cycling and the Beatles Fan Club Newsletter were equally anticipated deliveries of the Royal Mail.

The convergence of the last two interests however didn’t jibe for some fellow bikeniks who regarded my Beatle hairdo with the same kind of horror the NCU reserved for naked arms.

“Hrumph!” one young racer sitting behind me in the velodrome bleachers exclaimed. “You can’t call yourself a cyclist with hair like that!”

Things haven’t changed much have they? The racing world still has its strict codes of deportment. Meanwhile, genetics have tamed my once abundant moptop.

I’ve discussed with other cyclists who came of age in the UK of the 1950s how lucky we were to experience the post-war petrol shortage and corresponding dearth of automobile traffic. The long-and-winding country roads were a quiet paradise for cyclists. As a promotional film of the day illustrated, British Railways—now-privatized—was eager to cooperate (with CTC) by transporting cyclists and their bikes out into England’s green and pleasant land.

 British Railways Cyclist’s Special, 1955

“And how does the cyclist read the portents of the modern traffic problem? The motor peril is no imagining of a prejudiced mind. I am ready to read the outpourings of wrath which will be brought down upon me by these remarks of reasonable protest. I know the writers who periodically rise superior to facts and figures and rage furiously when someone greatly daring protests that the roads are not for railway speeds nor for the exclusive use of a class, but for the convenience and pleasure of all road users.” Cycling, July 4 1912, p7

Epilogue

A couple of years ago, I mentioned the Stallards to a new friend in Canada, fellow randonneur and ex-pat Brit, Harold Bridge.

“Ah, I once had a Stallard bike, a Zakopane,” he told me.

“I was dragged into the Midlands scene by marrying Walsall’s Joan Green of Cycling, in November 1962. In March ‘63 we attended the Cyclocross Worlds in Calais and got an enthusiastic welcome from [winner, Renato] Longo and his manager. Young Mick gave his best; a great performance.”

That effort earned Stallard a 17th place finish, against the best European mud wrestlers of the day, with another local, Keith Mernickle, close behind in 21st.

“I think I might have a photo I took of Mick heading for the finish,” Harold said. “I’ll root through my shoe box of slides.”

And so, forty years later, I’d have a photo of my childhood hero racing in the year that made him a household name in Wolverhampton.

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Mick Stallard, Calais, 1963
Related links:

Bicycle Manufacturing in WolverhamptonList of Wolverhampton builders Industry & the CanalBiography of Percy Thornley StallardMick Stallard Results: British Cyclocross Championships 1959-2009Results: World Cyclocross Championships, 1963Wolverhampton Wheelers CCPercy Stallard obituaryThe Tour of BritainCycling WeeklyCTC: The UK’s National Cyclist’s OrganizationWolverhampton Wanderers F.C.

Related VeloWeb Stories:

Woden’s Wheelers Cougar, Cougar, Burning BrightPutting down Canadian roots | Wondrous Wolverhampton bicycle history recalls the Golden Age of Cycling

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