Monday, April 9, 2012

"Ride and Be DAMNED" by Chas Messenger

When I recently read mention of a book entitled "Ride and Be Damned" by someone with the last name of Messenger, I thought, "This could be the ultimate book on cycling." Such a provocative title gave promise of a no-holds-barred rant against all those who condemn cyclists, whether for infringing upon their roads or for thinking that biking is anything other than a trivial recreational activity.

When I discovered it had been written in 1998, I figured it had to be some underground cult classic to have evaded my radar all these years. Some quick research revealed it was the fifth and final book by an Englishman with the first name of Chas who lived from 1914 to 2008. His previous books also had most evocative in-your-face titles ("Conquer the World," "Cycling Crazy," "Cycling's Circus" and "Where There's a Wheel") all written in quick succession between l968 and l972.

Twenty-six years later, at the age of 84, he offered up "DAMNED", what had to be the final word from someone holding back nothing, spewing out harsh truths so subversive that it had been largely suppressed. As a philosopher once said, "If I told the truth for five minutes I would lose all my friends. If I told the truth for ten minutes I would be exiled from the land. If I told the truth for 15 minutes I would be put to death." A book's worth of unvarnished truth was lucky to find a publisher. revealed that there was only one library in all of the United States that had a copy, the University of Illinois. Though it would have only been a 150 mile bike down to Champagne, I put my Northwestern alum privileges to use, going the easy route, simply requesting it from this sister Big Ten school, as I have resorted to on occasion. Normally the book arrives in less than a week. This one took over two weeks, adding to its mystique.

It was boldly autographed in black magic marker on a page with nothing but the title. For the first time I learned the book's title wasn't simply "Ride and Be Damned," but rather "Ride and Be DAMNED." Yes, this guy meant it. It was an over-sized book of just 151 pages full of dazzling photographs, some filling a page. The foreword by a sportswriter who knew Messenger promised the book was written in Messenger's "familiar racy style" and was a chronicle of the great struggles of introducing actual road racing to Great Britain.

For over fifty years up until 1942 the powers-that-be largely restricted road racing in Great Britain to time trials, riders going off one at a time, a minute or more apart, barely making their presence felt on whatever road they were riding on. There were no mass start races as had been going on in Europe since before the turn of the century. These time trials were barely races and were virtual underground events with the riders compelled to dress inconspicuously so it didn't appear as if they were engaged in a race. Start sheets were headed "Private and Confidential." Even competing in these semi-sanctioned races one was made to feel like an outlaw. It was quite a contrast to what was going on across the Channel, where events such as the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix and countless other races were wildly popular and a great sensation, the leading sporting events of the time.

Finally in 1942 Percy Stallard, someone who had raced on the continent and knew the excitement and magnificence of true road racing, organized a "rebel" mass start race on June 7, l942. And with it was born the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) to promote such racing. This book is essentially a history of the BLRC. Up until its formation British racing had been administered by the Road Time Trials Council (RTCC). The two organizations became bitter rivals. The RTCC maintained that "bunched racing is an utterly selfish and irresponsible use of roads" and did everything it could to suppress it. The BLRC felt Great Britain was greatly deprived not to have such racing and fought with ardour for it.

Messenger was an active participant with the BLRC during these years. Though the book is a diatribe of a sort, it is more the cranky recollections of someone who had been in the thick of it. His book documents the history of the BLRC in year by year chapters from 1942 until 1959, when finally in 1960 government legislation was introduced making it fully legal for racing to take place on the road. It was a triumphant day for Messenger and his cohorts. "There must have been many ghosts from the past who looked down on the scene and wept," he wrote.

As evidenced by the many magnificent photos in the book, the racing quickly captured the interest of the public. Crowds in the thousands lined the race courses just as they did over in Europe. But still it was a long battle between the rival race organizations. Time trial advocates would interfere with road races riding in amongst the riders and dropping tacks and nails on the road and turning course markers the wrong way. Police officers were a hindrance as well. One rider leading a race was stopped by a "man of blue" and issued a ticket for failing to stop at a "Halt" sign while his competitors flew on by him. There were no road closures, so riders had to observe stop signs and were penalized ten minutes if they didn't.

In the early days of road racing the BLRC had very strict rules to insure they did not upset the authorities. Riders were obliged to race single file through towns and could not attack duringsuch stretches to insure they did not threaten the safety of spectators, one of the chief reasons the RTTC was opposed to such racing. In the first stage races there was no money to put up racers at hotels. They had to scramble on their own to find a bed or a couch after each stage, sometimes ending up in a hay loft.

By 195l the BLRC felt it had arrived when it promoted three major stage races, including the first ever Tour of Britain, attracting racers from the continent. Still, it wasn't until nine years later that legislation was passed making it fully legal. It was a long and hard-fought battle.

The early pioneers competing in these races endured much. They did feel as if they were DAMNED. Tom Simpson was just getting his start during this era. Even though he won 16 races as a junior and was clearly destined for greatness, he was suspended six months for failing to stop at a "Halt" sign in a race. He was frustrated enough to nearly give up the sport. But he stuck with it, racing in the 1956 Olympics as a l9-year old, and went on to be Britain's greatest cyclist, the first to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and to win the World Championship road race and two of the sports monuments--Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy--before his death on Mont Ventoux in 1967 in the Tour de France.

That short paragraph glorifies him more than Messenger did. Exalting the racers was not the objective of his book. There are no vivid portraits of riders nor accounts of their heroics, as often highlight cycling histories. The focus of this book was solely on the rival racing organizations. Messenger mentions from time to time that if one wants to know more about a certain race to go to one of his other books.

Though the book wasn't the manifesto I had imagined it might be, I am glad there is such a titled book out there. It was nice to be introduced to Messenger and his work. I am eager to see what his other books have to offer, and if they have as many typographical errors.

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