The full version of this article appears in issue 5 of The Ride Journal - visit their website to order a copy or to find your nearest stockist. Illustration by Robin Boyden
After a restless night, I hear my alarm go off. Still dark outside, but I was already awake anyway. Lying still, I strain to listen to the weather, for the tapping of rain against the window or the signs of a stiff breeze disturbing the leaves of the trees. It’s early season and it’s race day.
Hitching a lift with a team-mate, we survey the skies over the motorway as we leave the city and head out into the countryside. Rain might mean a last-minute change of kit, or could determine how the race is won. We chat nervously trying to predict how the racing will unfold, recalling the difficulty of certain climbs and the vagaries of the particular circuit. Our destination is race headquarters at a country village hall. It could be Loxwood, Alfold, Bletchingley or Wisborough – all names conjuring images of a quaint Britishness distant to our everyday metropolitan lives.
On arrival, the ritual begins: signing on, the pinning of numbers, several toilet visits. We change in the drafty hall on plastic chairs common to municipal buildings, notices for Women’s Institute meetings and toddler playgroups are dotted about the walls. In the corner is the familiar counter serving tea. Laid out is a spread of homemade cakes and sandwiches of cheap bread and simple fillings. The race officials warm and feed themselves in anticipation of the hours standing on cold road corners, or of monitoring the race from the front seat of the commissaire’s car. The racers will revive themselves a few hours from now, cradling cups of hot tea in shivering hands, faces spattered in road grime.
Such scenes would be common across the country as amateur road racing goes about its business, unknown to our colleagues at work, alien to the majority of the population, unobserved by even the local villagers. Such secrecy is key to the survival of grassroots road racing: a higher profile would mean administrational complications, entanglements with local-council bureaucracies, and would attract the attention of meddling Nimbys. Only last year Peter Keen, director of performance of UK Sport, warned that top-level road racing was under threat due to mounting police costs being passed onto race organisers, and the more zealous enforcement of health-and-safety regulations.
Keith Butler’s solution is to keep things simple. Ex-pro Keith formed the Surrey League in the early 80s to promote grassroots-level racing and provide opportunities for beginners, juniors and lower-category riders. Keith’s philosophy is to minimise unnecessary paperwork, avoid complications, and maintain good relations with the police and relevant authorities. The result is a full calendar of racing, and an annual programme over 100 races in proof of the League’s success.
However, even though cycling is currently enjoying an almost unprecedented boom, the numbers of those willing to give back to the sport isn’t increasing in tandem. The three regular Surrey League stage races were all cancelled last year due to an absence of marshalling volunteers, and Keith admits that the lack of new blood in helping put on races is one of the biggest challenges he faces.
Possibly the mentality of cycling’s latest adopters is partly to blame. Those familiar with sportives or triathlons expect goodie bags and electronic timing chips, and the various frills associated with commercial enterprises. Amateur road racing relies on the generosity of volunteers, and the love of cycling from its participants. It’s this dedication that keeps road racing alive.