The King was back in the building. No, not Elvis Presley, but arguably even better for this crowd – Alf Engers, the British time-trialling legend.
It may be nearly 40 years since Engers’s landmark ride in a 25-mile time-trial, but he is still remembered with great fondness. You could barely move for all the well-wishers and old contemporaries packed into London’s Phoenix Cinema for the premiere of a new film celebrating his colourful life and times, “Alf Engers aka The King”.
He may not be quite as fast as before, but the man himself hasn’t lose his style: Engers, now 74, was immaculately turned out in suit, blue tie and brown brogues. While his speed on a bike made him a champion, it was his personality – and persona – that made him truly memorable then and now. As the film’s introduction puts it, Alf was “a rebel, a mutineer, an awkward bastard.”
Perhaps Engers should have been a hurdler rather than a cyclist. His life was a constant a fight to overcome obstacles, be it getting dug out of his bomb-ruined King’s Cross house in wartime or the teenage cycling accident that saw his kneecap removed. Throw in his night shift bakery work and overbearing time-trialling officialdom, and it’s a wonder Engers achieved a fraction of what he did in the sport.
The film is brought to life by restored 8mm film of Engers racing, lovingly processed by filmmaker Ray Pascoe. These black-and-white reels are combined with modern-day reflection from septuagenarian Engers, looking through his photo album or induling in his beloved hobby of fishing.
Pascoe has sought out a who’s who of British time-trialling talent to serve as talking heads too, from Engers’s childhood heroes, the Higgerson brothers, to the likes of Mick Ballard, Eddie Adkins and Sean Yates.
Yates was just one of many young racers inspired by Engers. With his earring, sideburns, flat back, prominent nose and drilled components, he was class on a bike and striking enough. But he brought pirate pizzazz and swagger. Engers belonged in a rock band, not terrorising rivals on dual carriageways in that prim-and-proper discipline of British time-trialling.
A scourge of the RTTC, British time-trialling’s governing body, Engers regularly broke the rules. The film covers some of these brushes with bureaucracy: for instance, remarkably, he barely raced from the age of 22 to 27, punished by the authorities for attempting to be an independent (a grey area between the amateur and professional ranks) and unable to get a license.
What shines through is the impression of a perfectionist who would drill everything within an inch of breaking (as was the fashion then), taped over his shoes and even shaved his arms in pursuit of every aerodynamic advantage. “A second is a lot,” Engers remarks at one point.
He didn’t conform to the stereotype of what a tester should be either, keeping himself to himself before races, sparing chitchat until after he had done the business on the bike. Then the sparkling personality came out, along with the sunglasses and sheepskin coat.
The film centres on Engers’s burning career ambition: not just breaking the magic 50-minute barrier for the 25 mile time-trial, but “putting the record where [other] blokes can’t get at it.”
It seemed like he wouldn’t achieve it: heartbreakingly, he was pulled over by police and banned for a year by the RTTC (remarkably harsh) for ‘riding out’ of his lane, avoiding wood strewn across the carriageway, when on a sure-fire 48-minute ride in 1976 on the A2.
But he couldn’t be stopped. Two years later, aged 38, Engers smashed the record with a 49-24. From the milestone ride itself to his sleek, wind-cheating bike with short wheelbase, that achievement is rightly given pride of place.
His longevity was remarkable, especially after all the bans and setbacks. As Mick Ballard observes to the camera, what champion in any sport could lower the competition record again, 19 years after first doing it? No wonder they called him “the King”.
For me, the most fascinating part was delving beyond the persona to find a man stressed by the demands. “Cycling ceased to be fun if you’ve gotta win. If you’ve gotta win, you don’t sleep at night,” he says at one point.
Engers was pragmatic, and making a living in the bakery came first. “I had to work to survive – and everything else took a back seat. Sure, cycling was an ego trip sometimes, a giant-sized pain most of the time.”
One small gripe: I would have liked a little more of Engers on camera, giving his views. At times, the many peers and contemporaries offering opinions nearly overwhelmed the main man’s story.
Nevertheless, this is a fine film that not only celebrates one of British cycling’s most colourful champions, but delves deep into his background and goes beyond the façade.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think how much the country and time-trialling has changed: traffic was bearably light, the sport was a purer test (no disc wheels or tribars then) and Engers, working nights in his bakery, could be the king of the sport. Most of all, it reminds you how far a little personality goes. British cycling could dearly do with another character like Alf Engers.
So, you can add rapid bike racer and one-off to mutineer, rebel and awkward bastard. As his rival Phil Griffiths remarks at the end of the film, long live Alf Engers.
—Alf Engers: “Time-trialling is all in the mind.” Read a post-premiere Q & A interview with “the King” here.
Alf Engers aka The King will be showing at The Barbican at 8.20pm on February 10 as part of the London Rides: Bicycles on Film festival. Click here for more details or call the box office on 0207 638 8891