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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Tough guys

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jan. 21, 2005
  • Updated Feb. 21, 2011 at 2:28 PM EST

By John Wilcockson

Alf Buttler and John Wilcockson in Wales

Photo: Katherine Buttler

When true road races were first held in Britain during World War II, Alf Buttler was one of the thousands of amateur cyclists who “did a bit of everything.” Like most riders, he came into the sport through a touring club, enjoying the weekend club runs and weeklong tours with his buddies to the hillier parts of the British Isles. Racing was a natural progression, first the “anonymous” road time trials, then track racing (usually on unbanked grass tracks), followed by the occasional hill climb, circuit race and, eventually, a full-blown stage race.

Alf talked about the early days of modern cycling when we met at his cottage in Wales a few weeks ago. There were few cars on the roads in those days, so bike racers normally rode their bikes to events, carrying their racing wheels on wheel carriers attached to the front hub and staying the night at youth hostels (I did the same in the 1960s). Alf remembered riding the 100 miles from his Long Eaton home to London with his club mates for a track meet, winning the 5-mile race the next day, then riding home through the night.

He’s proud that he has documented the first 50 years of his life in a book he is writing (100,000 words and counting!), remembering in clear detail many of the races he competed in or witnessed as a team manager, mechanic and motorcycle official. One race that stands out is the 1953 Tour of Eire 4-Day, a race that featured local Irish racer Shay Elliott and Englishman Brian Robinson, who would both go on to compete at the Tour de France and win stages.

Alf catches the spirit of the times in his description of the third day, a mountain stage from Cork to Limerick. While buying food for the stage at a delicatessen, he “overheard Brian Robinson and his team say they were going to go from the starting gun. We made a plan to go with them. Sure enough, we ‘went’ from the start….”

In the break, which quickly gained 10 minutes, were Elliott, Robinson (and three teammates), and Alf (with two teammates). When Alf’s team manager (on a 125cc motorcycle!) eventually caught up with the break, “we were expecting food and drink … but much to our surprise he was hopping mad with us for leaving our teammate Bren Thorpe in the bunch.” (Bren just happened to be the race leader!) “But we knew that Bren wouldn’t be going well as he had refused breakfast — he was a devout Roman Catholic, and that day was a fast day.” Imagine.

Alf and his teammates finished the stage with the lead group in Limerick, where Elliott took over the race leadership. Within a couple of years, Elliott and Robinson were competing as professionals in Europe and making a name for themselves. At the same time, Alf continued to enjoy his life as an amateur racer while working for his father in the family bike shop. He was soon called upon to put his experience to work as a team manager for British national teams racing overseas.

One of his first assignments was the 1956 Tour of Ireland, where he witnessed first hand the problems that arose from the conflict that then existed in British cycling between the governing National Cycling Union and the rebel British League of Racing Cyclists. With all of the tough stages completed, the race leader was Englishman Brian Haskell, who had come up through the ranks of “true” road racing thanks to the BLRC.

Then, with only two days of the race to go, “the NCU rang the Irish Cycling Union to say that Haskell didn’t have an NCU overseas racing license and would have to be disqualified. After dinner, there was a meeting about the matter. Brian had a BLRC license, and as far as he and the ICU was concerned, this was valid. But much to my disgust Brian was disqualified. Second-place Karl McCarthy and several highly placed riders withdrew in protest….”

The NCU-BLRC “warfare” continued from 1942 to 1959 — when the organizations reluctantly merged to form the British Cycling Federation (today called British Cycling). The achievements of the BLRC were considerable. It not only legitimized racing on the open road in the eyes of the British police and public, but it also helped create the first major road races (including the massively popular Tour of Britain), schooled Britain’s most successful generation of pro cyclists (including riders like Robinson and Tom Simpson), and enabled British teams to compete in major international stage races that for years were ignored by the UCI (and their affiliated federations like the NCU).

The two-week Tour of Mexico was one of the “rebel” races, while the Peace Race was another. In 1952, one of the BLRC teams helped Scotsman Ian Steel win the Peace Race, an event that Alf worked on as a mechanic for the British team in 1955. After that first experience of the east European race between Berlin, Prague and Warsaw, he “vowed not to go on it again” because it was so hard on the mechanics.

He remembers, “We had to have two hammers to knock the dents out of the rims as the roads in parts were made from seabed boulders.” Alf said the roads in Poland were particularly bad, often awash in coal dust that coated both the riders and their bikes in a black film. A bit like doing Paris-Roubaix every day for two weeks, with the mechanics having to laboriously clean and rebuild the bikes every day. He did go back, of course.

I was fortunate to team up with Alf in the late 1960s. In domestic British events, notably at the then popular Scottish Milk Race, where he was in charge of the motorcycle marshals, Alf took me wherever I wanted in a race. On our visit earlier this month, we talked about one of the highlights of our work together: the pro road race at the 1970 world championships, which were held on the Mallory Park motor-racing circuit near the English city of Leicester. We were doing the official time splits for the event, chalking the splits on a blackboard that was fixed to my back, and then showing it to the peloton before motoring up to the break.

“Remember Eddy Merckx whistling to us so he could see the times?” Alf recalled. Of course I did. What I hadn’t remembered was that the official who should have done the job was taken ill before the start, and I stepped in — after almost swearing on the Bible that (being a photojournalist in other races) I wouldn’t take any photos. The commissaire kept on checking up on us, but he didn’t notice that I was taking detailed notes — I probably enjoyed the best view of any world championship a journalist has ever had!

Merckx was so interested in the time splits (this was decades before personal radio communications) because he had a young teammate in the break (Jean-Pierre Monseré), and so the Belgian great who had just won his second Tour de France was controlling the chase rather than leading it. Monseré, only 21, took that world title. He had won the Tour of Lombardy classic the previous year, and he started the next season by winning the Ruta del Sol. A few weeks later, on March 15, 1971, world champion Monseré was killed in a kermesse race at Retié, near his Belgian home, after a collision with a Mercedes-Benz.

Monseré’s death was a reminder that danger is always present in road racing. That’s why the work of race officials, marshals and the police is essential to the success of the sport. Alf Buttler was one of those people who contributed to the success of road cycling in its early days in Britain, and I had the feeling that he would still like to be doing it — if he weren’t in a wheelchair.

Before saying our farewells, Alf told me that despite his age and the hip replacement in his amputated leg, he had finally persuaded the doctors to give him a prosthesis. “They can’t keep us old cyclists down,” he whispered. Next time I see him, I’m sure he’ll be walking again.


John Wilcockson, who has covered the Tour de France and other races for more than three decades, is the editorial director of VeloNews. His books include John Wilcockson’s World of Cycling; Marco Pantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion; and 23 Days in July: Inside Lance Armstrong’s Record-Breaking Tour de France Victory.

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