Knitters on Two Wheels

Creased and kept among the owner’s knitting patterns, this magazine pull out from a 1950s edition of Good Taste magazine, provides the pattern for a zip up cycling jacket which can then be embroidered with cycling related motifs. Some of the motifs were charted in the magazine on a later page and others could be obtained by ‘sending off’ to the Magazine.

This was my starting point for today’s post which looks at the history of cycling in the UK to provide some background for future posts which look in more detail at particular aspects of both the competitive sport and pastime.

The 1950s sees cycling as a pastime adopted as an aspirational consumer and leisure pursuit, moving beyond both it’s earlier associations as an expensive bourgeois hobby and that of the working class ‘hard man’ image of competitive cycling in the pre-war period.

The gendered nature of this feature is clear in the direct address to the ‘you’ as the knitter as opposed to ‘him’, although it is notable that there is no question that women may ride bikes and may do so in the company of other women. This is a long way from the initial objections to women riding astride bicycles achieving mobility under their own steam.

The embroidery charts provided reflect the role of cycling clubs in the development of cycling as a post war working class activity. The badges represent the Cyclists’ Touring Club, The National Cyclists Union, The Rovers, The Racing Stags, (all shown above) plus the Weekend Wheelers – as shown on the ‘Girl’s” sweater above, and a couple of generic designs showing Bicycles Today and yesterday and a welcome road sign for Teas for weary cyclists, and one for a racing cyclist as shown on the man’s sweater above.

The Magazine provides some information on the Cyclists Touring Club and The National Cyclists Union as follows:


It is the largest cycling club in the world and its principal interest is touring. The C.T.C. gives you every help on where to go and where to stay through their special Touring Bureau, plus Third Party insurance and legal aid and free membership of your local branches of the Club. Yearly subscriptions range from 8s to 15s according to age.

Then followed information on how to find out more by contacting the CTC by mail.

The CTC continues now under the name of Cycling UK, following a re-branding in 2016 and has a membership of over 67,000.

Founded in 1878 in Harrogate, Yorkshire, they accepted their first female member 2 years later, lobbied for bicycles to be allowed in Royal Parks and on public roads and set up reciprocal relations with 12 Continental organisations within their first 10 years.

The CTC advocated on behalf of members, including female members such as Lady Harberton, who in 1899 was refused service at Hautboy Hotel, Ockham, Surrey whilst wearing ‘rational’ cycling dress. The CTC took up the case and challenged the hotel’s actions, but lost the case.

The third party insurance scheme referred to in the magazine piece from the 1950s was first introduced in the the 1920s and the Defence fund in the 1930s.

The organisation continues to support access to cycling for all, including through legal support and campaigning, more information is available from its website:


The Union was founded in 1878 to foster the pastime of cycling – touring, racing or just riding around. Now it boasts 60,000 members. The subscriptions range from 4s to 8s 6d. a year. The benefits include racing on track and road, free Third Party Insurance, legal advice on all cycling matters, local get-togethers cycling enthusiasts, information and help on touring both her and abroad.

Again information on how to contact the Union followed.

According to this pathe news item, the NCU was well know to a 1952 audience, indeed,  ‘If you know your ABC you’ll know what NCU stands for’.

The NCU no longer exists as an independent organisation, but the successor organisation created by the merger with the British League of Racing Cyclists is the direct forerunner to what is now British Cycling, the UK National Governing Body for the sport of cycling. However, this trajectory was far from smooth and focussed around 2 main tensions; amateurism vs professionalism, and off road and track competition vs mass start road racing. These sources of conflict had deep routes in the development of cycling in the UK

In the 1890s, when bicycles had only been allowed on public roads for 10 years, the NCU banned any racing on roads for fear of a backlash that would affect all cyclists and threaten cycling altogether. Time trials where cyclists rode against the clock were allowed, with cyclists effectively disguising themselves and their activity, but any races in which cyclists competed against each other were limited to closed roads, parks, or airfields for example.

This reflected initial cycling boom in the late Victorian period which was driven by a desire to get out into the countryside to enjoy nature from the saddle. What would now be referred to as the public health benefits of cycling; exercise in fresh air avoiding urban pollution were key attractions to the middle and upper classes. Interestingly this increasing desire to explore and tour through the countryside had an impact on the landscape of Britain as Oosterhuis¹ argues, contributing to:

rural modernization because it stimulated infrastructural improvements along popular routes and the spread of facilities such as inns, cafés, information points and repair shops.

although this was not regarded entirely positively:

Bicycling also provoked conflicts with pedestrians and coachmen, who were annoyed by the new vehicle, and with rural folk who viewed tourists as arrogant intruders

The development of competitive cycling was overseen by the Union which strictly limited its prestigious internationally recognised off road competitions, to amateurs riders only, it was also responsible for selecting teams for world championships and regulating track and circuit . This became increasingly problematic in the interwar years as international riders attracted sponsors and continental stage races such as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia did not fit the Unions strict definition of amateur competition.

The decision to retain the ban on mass start road racing on open roads was re-iterated in a rules revision in the 1930s, and became the focus of the split within the organisation.  In 1942 Percy Thornley Stallard, a racing cyclist was banned by the Union for organising a ‘mass start’ race on an open road when wartime restrictions meant little traffic. He and others frustrated by the Union’s position formed the breakaway British League of Racing Cyclists. The rivalry between the 2 organisations remained bitter until 1959 when they merged to form the British Cycling Federation. However, this merger appears to have failed to resolve this rivalry, the bitterness of which can be seen in this piece from Cycling Weekly in 2010.

However, British Cycling reflecting on its history believes there was a ‘kernel of good sense‘ in the NCUs original ban on mass start road races, despite it seeming ‘bizarre‘. They explain the context thus:

With cycling rapidly taking off in the second half of the 19th century, racing was soon becoming a popular pastime.

However, the bicycle was, on the whole, seen as a machine of working classes and a strong resistance to racing rapidly emerged from the wealthy ruling classes. There are some who believe that we came close to a total ban on cycling in this country as the upper classes railed against the mobility it gave the “common” man and the resultant incursions into their beloved countryside. It was against this background, which seems so unreal today, that the NCU banned cycle racing on the highways and insisted that all racing must take place on velodromes and later on closed circuits.

Not surprisingly, this ban was not accepted in some quarters and the scene was set for a split in racing cycling which has never completely healed.

From its initial ‘popularisation’, in the late 1800s cycling had been seen as threatening; not only as a portent of modernisation but as a challenge to the social status quo. The Clarion Club  was formed in 1895 with the explicit aim of promoting the use of the bicycle as a means of liberation for working class men and women, thus materialising the very threat British Cycling alluded to above. The Clarion Club drew on the words of Socialist Utopian writer and leading figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris, “Fellowship is life – lack of Fellowship is Death”, as its motto. In the interwar years, Cox² argues that the club structure that developed around cycling,  enabled the establishment of a collective identity and sense of belonging and that this remained a source of perceived threat.

By the interwar years and beyond, initial threat perceived from the bicycle as a shocking technology may have dissipated but it seems that it then became problematic perhaps because of its very mundanity. Whilst cycling had become a popular pastime and hobby it was the motorcar, itself becoming more affordable that had taken over the role of symbol of modernity. As a result planning policy now favoured the car as the new progressive mode of transport accessible to more influential members of society, and it was privileged over the interests of lower class cyclists such that cycling was once again under threat but for different reasons. As Oosterhuis¹ suggests

As users of the ‘poor man’s vehicle’, these groups had no voice in traffic policies and urban planning.

This time talk of banning bicycles from roads was not to protect pedestrians and carriages but to make way for the motor car. Interestingly, Oosterhuis suggests that this privileging of one group over another during this period not only impacted on the development of cycling itself during this period, but also on the narratives we continue to construct about it:

The period after the First World War, when the two-wheeler became an unspectacular daily means of transport for the masses, has been left underexposed. The dominant interpretative framework is a ‘rise and fall’ story about the upper echelons’ successful introduction of the bicycle as an icon of modernity and its demise as an outmoded vehicle for the lower classes.

This perspective is questionable. It betrays an elitist bias: as if bicycling is mainly historically interesting as long as it is a more or less exclusive and fashionable pursuit, and not significant when it is established as widespread routine.

Interestingly, the class overtones appear to remain pertinent in the post war period with professional competitive racing cycling championed by the BLRC attracting working class riders, compared to the amateur ethos of the NCU, which promoted cycling as a ‘gentleman’s pastime’².

Indeed it was Thornley’s BLRC, that sent the first British Team to complete the Tour de France in 1955, a team that included Brian Robinson who in 1958 would become the first Briton to win a stage.

62-Robinson-Getty independent
Brian Robinson on the Col du Galibier in the Alps in 1955 ( Source: Getty Via The Independent Newspaper )

These pioneering professional cyclists participating in stage races across the continent may be seen as the first generation to have benefitted from the relative democratisation of cycling from the 1930s onwards. Cox², (citing Pinkerton) suggests:

The true rise of the mass bicycle in the UK has been convincingly argued as dating from around 1930 with the introduction of Popular Gents models costing £3:19:9d or equivalent to 2-3 weeks wages for a skilled worker

Cox goes on to argue that the portrayal of interwar competitive cycling served to reinforce class stereotypes, and this continued and embedded further in the postwar period.The physical effort of competitive cycling reinforces the image of working class masculinity’ in the interwar years, crystallising into an image of the working class hard man’ racer epitomised by the likes of Robinson, and Stan Brittain who rode in those early Tours. While professional racers,their backgrounds were largely in manual trades, plumbing and building together with general office work‘.

Also spanning the inter and post war period was the reliance on gender stereotypes in the portrayal of women cyclists with coverage of Evelyn Hamilton’s long distance record rides emphasising traditionally feminine characteristics such as grace and elegance with ‘lingering shots of legs and ankles being much in evidence’.  

Click here for Pathe newsreel of Evelyn via You Tube – I’d love to hear your reactions to this one!
A short Pathe clip on You Tube of Evelyn Hamilton, note the woolcycling shirt with the sponsors name sewn on (more on these in a later post)

This continued into the 1960s with coverage of Beryl Burton‘s considerable achievements, winning the Women’s World Road Race Champion twice, track word championships 5 times and winning medals across three decades. Her women’s 12 hour  time trial record time bettered the men’s record time for 2 years.  However, her achievements were often reported within a context of coverage of women racers which subjugated their racing achievements to their domestic competence. This 5 minute documentary gives you an insight into her achievements and their presentation.

Interestingly Burton remained an amateur throughout her career and the differences in opportunities in the sport for men and women in terms of professionalism is perhaps the clearest and most enduring signal of how the sport is gendered. Indeed as the Tour has come around, yet again the questions has been asked, ‘Why is there no women’s equivalent?’ I’ll leave you with this article as this debate would be whole other blog post…

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief overview. So many of the debates from he 1890s onwards about cycling seem so very familiar to me, how about you?

All the best,


Sources and Additional Resources
  1. Harry Oosterhuis (2016) Cycling, modernity and national culture, Social History, 41:3, 233-248, DOI: 10.1080/03071022.2016.1180897

  2. Peter Cox, Class and Competition: The Gentrification of Sport Cycling

  3. On the occasion of the Yorkshire Grand Depart of the Tour de France, Kirklees Local Television interviewed Brian Robinson reflecting on his experience of the Tour and his life as a professional cyclist: Available from You Tube

  4. Another Documentary from 1986 by Yorkshire Television as part of the Calendar Summer Sport series, there’s even a mention of knitting in this one!

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