The Yorkshire towns of Otley and Ilkley are hotbeds within a hotbed; strong cycling communities within a tradition of strong cycling.
I am sat with two men of this parish, Giles Pidcock and Jon Riley, telling me how great Yorkshire is. And we all know how grating that can be, yes? About as annoying as Londoners bemoaning the lack of a drinkable cup of coffee in Otley. (“Was it ordinary coffee you wanted, love?” she said, spooning two shovels of instant gack into a cup. I didn’t dare ask what the alternative might be.)
Otley Road Club dates back to the 19th century, folding and re-launching under another guise until the present-day incarnation, Otley Cycle Club, emerged in the 1920s.
But the big story here is Ilkley CC. Starting from scratch just six years ago (the town’s original club disbanded in the 1950s), membership has rocketed to over 1,000 – this in a town with a population of around 20,000. Any given residential street in Ilkley is going to have several cyclists living there. The resurrected club’s very first ride, hatched like most of the best plots by a handful of men and women over a few beers one evening, attracted 100 riders. Ilkley was a town crying out for a club.
And the impressive statistics don’t end there. Thirty-two per cent of Ilkley’s members are younger than 18, with girls marginally outnumbering boys – which in itself is a remarkable figure in a historically (certainly in recent decades) male-dominated sport. Ilkley CC has won awards for its work in the community. The club has developed its own Youth Development Pathway, to progress the skills of children from their very first unsure wobbles on two wheels through to elite-level competition. “By the time they are ten, they can ride anything with confidence,” says Riley, and I can well believe it.
What the committee of Ilkley has tapped into is, in many ways, a return to traditional cycling club values, brought up to date. Many long-established clubs of the kind that taught me the ropes as a green 13-year-old seemed to be struggling when I returned to the sport in my late twenties.
Sponsored teams were forming by the dozen – fine for the aspiring racer, but where do the youth fit in? Too many clubs had evolved into male-dominated “keep up or piss off” cliques, unwelcoming to say the least. The upshot was, understandably, dwindling membership or extinction for those unwilling to change, while the likes of Otley and Ilkley have thrived.
“I think what Otley do very well,” Riley says, “and what we try to do as well, is to have a club that isn’t the traditional ‘whippets in lycra’. Everybody gets taught how to ride in a group – that social experience without having to race.”
“Like it was 40 years ago,” Pidcock adds. “People want to be pro bike riders and have all the gear, but without having the ability and the palmarès. They might think Otley and Ilkley are a bit staid. That’s fair enough, but you need to learn the ropes first. The clubs are really important. And they are seeing a resurgence, I think.”
From what I saw of the youngsters in action at the White Rose Youth League in Bradford, the clubs of Yorkshire and their progeny are in rude health. The circuit at the Richard Dunn Sports Centre is the perfect environment for up-and-coming riders to take the skills taught in club sessions into a racing situation. Even the very youngest know how to follow a wheel, not that they are averse to attacking given the chance. These kids are being taught correctly.
The finale of the under-14s race reminded me of the Tour finish in Calvi just three days earlier, where Daryl Impey dived into the final corner to set up Simon Gerrans for the win. In Bradford, it was a small boy outsmarting a much bigger lad with a clever move down the inside of the right-hander. I checked the results with the commissaire. Thomas Pidcock. That surname sounds familiar…
So Giles: pushy parent, guilty as charged? “My eldest son is very competitive. There is some talent there, certainly in terms of bike handling. You want your own kid to do well, don’t you? But the problem we have got is holding them back. They want to do it all, now. What we want to make is bike riders, not racers. They have to drive it. I can drive the car, but they have to do the rest.”
Extract from issue 42 of Rouleur