John Simpson: My Cycling Story

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In November of 1950 my parents cycled 434 miles from Surrey to Stirlingshire in just 4 days, on a tandem, complete with camping equipment. Their trip back was hampered by flooding and so they took the train between Newcastle and London but cycled the rest of the journey. The very next year they also cycled to Devon and back, with my 14 year old brother on his Rudge racing bike.
Of course I would have been told about these epic trips in my childhood but to my eternal shame I never expressed any interest. It was only much later in life I realised I had my Dad’s cycling DNA.

As a young boy I was handed down my brother’s racing bike. I was briefly shown how to fix a puncture and how to adjust the Sturmey Archer 3 speed gears and off I went. I became quite the expert at putting on patches as buying inner tubes wasn’t really an option.

I was born in the early fifties and in those days you went everywhere by bike and I absolutely loved it. A few things stick in my mind. Once when I was about 7 or 8 I returned home from a ride and was promptly sick in the rear porch. It appears that I was suffering from concussion. It was many years later that my memory returned, I’d ridden into a lamp post, hit my head and somehow made it home. On another occasion when I was a teenager I was cycling along a country lane and a scruffy bloke called over for a lift. He sat on my saddle and I stood on the pedals. It was only when I had dropped him off some 2 miles later that I realised he was carrying a heavy roll of lead he’d stolen from an abandoned house. I don’t know how my back wheel didn’t completely collapse.

Another time I decided to race the local bus into town and spring a surprise my aunt and uncle who I knew were onboard. I cycled down the inside of a queue of traffic only to t-bone into the side of a car crossing in a gap. The front forks were bent right back. I had to pay out of my pocket money for the forks to be heated up and put back into shape, I didn’t care about that, it was the sheer embarrassment of my uncle and aunt witnessing my accident.

When I started work at 16 I cycled to and from the railway station but I soon realised it was much easier to use the bus. From time to time I thought about taking up cycling seriously but the notion of using the toe straps put me off completely . I didn’t go anywhere near a bike for another 28 years.

I joined Brentwood Round Table later in life and for a few years I was their President. After organising and taking part in some physically challenging events like the 4 Peaks Challenge, and towing a barge for 10 miles along a canal, I came up with a fund raising idea for a relay cycle journey around the coast of Britain involving other round table clubs. The idea was junked because it would have been logistically very difficult to organise. Instead, we planned a more modest journey from Brentwood to its twin town in France: Montbazon. So in the Summer of 2003 at 6.00 am, 12 intrepid non cyclists set off. I was incredibly unfit and overweight so I opted to be a driver of one of the support vehicles. I was encouraged to cycle one of the stages which were about 7 miles each. I was surprised how easily I could keep up with the others even though my heart was jumping out of my chest. It was at that moment I found my my passion for cycling again.

The next year we decided to cycle to Lands End, again for charity. I bought my first proper racing bike for £500 from Decathlon complete with clipless pedals. The salesman warned me that I would fall off 4 times in my first year. He was completely wrong – I managed to do it 8 times.

We continued to organise annual cycle trips, mainly to France for the next 13 years. I’ve cycled across so much of northern France it is difficult to remember where we went. All we have are photographs and countless wonderful memories of camaraderie.

Cycling became a big part of my life. I soon became a victim of N + 1 even going to the lengths of selling all my unwanted possessions on eBay (many from the loft) and buying another carbon bike from the proceeds. Needless to say that my wife was not impressed. A dictum of one bike in and one bike out was established.

By about 2006 it was clear that I was a better cyclist than my round table mates and I needed to take it more seriously. I’d shed a lot of weight and knew I was ready to join a club but it took a lot of nerve to make that leap of faith. In September 2009 I turned up outside the Billericay Police Station and introduced myself to the small handful of cyclists waiting. Luckily for me there were some other newbies who I could share my nervous energy with. Someone experienced came over and asked my average speed, which by then was 16.5. It was suggested that I should join the touring group 16-18. I declined and thought it better to stick with the novices group. I’m glad I did because I was in my comfort zone. I had the pleasure of being led by Roy Fisher.

I soon made friends and a few of us decided to introduce a new group to be known as the Social Group. This was popular as it provided a stepping stone between the novices and the much faster touring group.
Fast forward a few years and I was getting up at 6.00am and cycling around Hanningfield Reservoir with Michael Leake twice a week. It was because of that my average speed increased to 18+. I remember riding along the reservoir straight going up the gradient at 34mph whilst Michael would consistently pass me at 36. It’s true that you improve by training with someone who is better than you.

After a while I realised that my age was catching up on me and no amount of training could make me go any faster.

During lockdown I still went out riding, sticking to the rules about group sizes which switched several times between 2 and 6. It gave me plenty of time for some armchair cycling and I mapped a large library of routes out of Billericay which currently stands at 79 different rides. I’ve made these available to the Sunday ride groups.

When I joined Essex Roads I promised our Chairman Mick Scott, sadly no longer with us, that one day I would join the club committee. Eventually I joined in 2022 as an Elected Officer. I was keen to see the introduction of more female riders into the club and carried out a survey on Facebook trying to understand why the ratio of women in cycling clubs is nationally only 18%.

The feedback I received concerned me. Many women feel that cycle clubs are not only male dominated but actually quite hostile environments. There are other things too such as child care responsibilities which affect how much free time women have at the weekend.
I received some good ideas from clubs that had set up women friendly groups and so I set up to do the same in Essex Roads. Sandra Padilla kindly came forward to become the ride leader for our women-only group which now stands at 12 members.

Next year I will be focusing on advertising and encouraging more women members to join.

Do I have any regrets about my cycling journey? I could say that I wished I’d started earlier in life but that would have been to the detriment of other things I have been involved in. I suppose it would have been lovely to have shared my cycling exploits with my parents, and there’s a degree of regret that I didn’t ask them about theirs.

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