Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Marathon Racing in the UK - a history.

Marathon Racing in the UK

The UK has something of a chequered history when it comes to the racing of pedal cycles. In fact, that's a pretty unfair description, for every black square on the chequer board, there's a more upbeat, optimistic white one, whereas I'm afraid to say that in this small island state, we are pretty backward in our attitudes and always have been.

History of racing in general

When the continental bike racing scene was approaching the first of its high water marks in the 1940s and 1950s, a bitter war was being fought out between the police & legal system, and two equally dogmatic, equally confused governing bodies for cycling within the UK. The National Cycling Union were against the idea of mass-start racing on the roads, on the grounds that it would disrupt traffic and give cyclists a bad name, resulting in a ban on cycling in general. As a result they organised early morning, solo competitions against the watch in which cyclists attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible, which is where the modern British obsession with time trialling may have come from (although inconspicuousness is obviously not high on the agenda these days, day-glow skinsuits a-go go!). Their nemesis was the British League of Racing Cyclists, a group more dedicated to the debonair, continental approach to racing with mass starts, and supporting crowds. The BLRC were cast much more as the dandies of the sport, although this may be unfair, what is certainly true is that they had a more "relaxed" attitude to the legality of their racing.

History of racing off road
Racing offroad also has a curious past in the UK. The earliest race that took place predominantly offroad that i am aware of (and this may be more my ignorance of history) was the Three Peaks Cyclocross, now in its 50th year. In 1985, the pre-existing competition "Man vs Horse"was expanded to include mountain bikers, and four year's later one of the prodigal sons of British MTB racing, Tim Gould, took the first win for two wheels over a hilly 22mile course. Mountain bike racing more generally came to the fore in the late-1980s and early 90s, with courses only being constrained by landowner's permissions.

Tim Gould - first winner of Man v Bike v Horse

In the late 1990s, it was discovered that in fact, the legal framework around public rights of way, particularly bridleways, was problematic for bikes. Since 1968, cyclists have had the right to use bridleways alongside pedestrians and horse riders, but despite it being possible to run a horse race or a running race on a bridleway, or indeed a running race on a footpath, racing of bikes is explicitly banned under the rights of access laws. The country is criss-crossed by bridleways, and since they cannot be closed or reclassified, it is therefore not possible to set a course for a race in the UK that crosses a bridleway (unless the trick of using a "non-competitive zone" within the race is used - declaring a section of the race course as neutralised). This is no great problem for XCO races which are run on courses that are 4-12km in length, and likewise it's also possible to hold lapped "enduro"style races on similar courses with no legal problems.

Problems DO arise however for longer-distance point-to-point or single-loop XCM races, of the sort that are ubiquitous in Europe and the US. These require an enormous amount of care to set up within the confines of the law in the UK, and a great deal more time and effort than most race organisers have to lavish on them - consequently they have all but died out. The only notable exceptions which survive are the Kielder 100 and the Selkirk MTB Marathon, the former because of the care of the organisers, and the latter because of the introduction of right to roam in Scotland, and the resultant abolition of bridleways altogether north of the border. For many years, British Cycling have had to apply to the UCI for special dispensation to have a national marathon championships that consisted of between 4 and 8 laps of an XC-style course, such has been the lack of enthusiasm for trying to grow something bigger.

K100 Race Start 2012 - can you spot me?

With the growth of interest in marathon racing in the UK and in Europe, it is clear that there must be a change of heart in government to rectify the rather peculiar and egregious situation in which we find ourselves as XCM racers in the UK. Personally, i'm a great believer in treating people like adults. From cycle-commuting in London, to riding my bike in remote forests in Scotland, i have always found that a division of trail users leads to a sense of entitlement amongst some that can be truly divisive. If instead we give people responsibility and ask them to behave sensibly, the vast majority will,and those who do not will not be sensible anyway. So to me, the obvious way forward would be to remove the seemingly arbitrary restrictions on where we can walk and ride, and bring right to roam south of the border too. Maybe this will lead to a dystopian and conflict-riddled future, but somehow i doubt it!

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