A school playing field in England over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Dotted around its perimeter are stalls and marquees, burger stands and ice cream vans, gazebos and camping chairs. Saturday’s torrential downpour is a distant memory and the sun occasionally pokes through the clouds to make the underfoot dry and keep Sunday’s crowd warm enough.
A true English eccentric mans a stall of obsolete bicycle related junk (or collector’s items, depending on your viewpoint.) Plastic cratefuls of decades’ old components – including some rare as hens’ teeth Zeus bits and pieces – nestle against row upon row of assorted nuts, bolts, brackets and clip on cable guides; an oxidising Aladdin’s cave of every item you never knew you needed, and most likely don’t. Yet our bearded proprietor is doing a steady trade among those who like a good rummage.
In the main marquee is an entrancing photographic display by the Tricycle Association, a sub-genre of cycling eccentricity out on its own.
Imagery from, at a guess, the Isle of Man week in the ’70s, depicts a snaking line of trikes weaving through narrow streets between rows of whitewashed terraces. And, to dispel the notion that this peculiar and crowd pleasing branch of cycle sport is consigned to the history books, shots of this year’s World Championships in Belgium adorn the display boards; the trikes’ pilots leaning at alarming angles to keep all three wheels grounded on a tight left hander. It is bike handling – or trike handling, to be precise – of the highest order.
Back out in the open air, Islabikes is doing brisk trade all weekend long – Ms Rowntree’s range of wonderful miniature racing bikes and tiny pushalongs attracting a throng of kids and parents. The Islabike is the mount of choice for discerning toddlers and teenagers alike.
Woe betide any unsuspecting newcomer who sets up where a bunch of Essex boys and girls have been pitching the last 20 odd years…
Gazebos dotted round the perimeter protect rollers from the elements, their owners spinning away in preparation for upcoming racing. There is a proprietorial air about the encampments. Clubs stake out their turf on Friday evening. Woe betide any unsuspecting newcomer who sets up where a bunch of Essex boys and girls have been pitching the last 20 odd years…
And the centrepiece of this scene? A 400 metre oval, staked out with tiny wooden pegs around its perimeter, that will see three days of action over this extended holiday weekend. This is grass track racing.
Before the explosion of track racing as a paying spectacle in the late 19th century, grass ovals were the order of the day. It requires a flat field (the challenging but beautifully scenic Ambleside in the Lake District seemingly the exception to the rule), wooden pegs, and a bunch of willing riders on fixed wheel machines. Grass track is perfectly simple and a joy to watch. It is also peculiarly British – with the exception of the Caribbean islands, where the sport still holds its own.
The eastern swathe of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk hosts many grass meets throughout the summer
It is decidedly working class, practised by long established clubs from all over the country but with certain strongholds: former mining towns have a long association with this type of racing.
The eastern swathe of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk hosts many grass meets throughout the summer; the clubs of Maldon, Chelmer, Ipswich and Spalding swelling the ranks of the hosts in Mildenhall, with nearby Hertfordshire sending racers from Welwyn and Ashwell. From further afield, East Bradford, Chesterfield and Beacon Wheelers (from the far flung Penrith) field sizable contingents.
There is a pleasing lack of expensive kit: club colours are de rigueur. Bikes are predominantly ageing track irons shod with file tread cyclo-cross tubs to bite into the grass on the 33 metre radius bends. The utilitarian and purely practical aspect of the machinery is in stark contrast to modern track bikes, with their astronomically expensive carbon frames and disc wheels. Grass track is truly a sport of the people.
And a sport of families. To see three generations of one cycling clan at Mildenhall is far from unusual – parents and children racing, grandparents cheering from the sidelines. Dean Downing, longstanding domestic professional for Rapha Condor Sharp, mans a stall alongside his father, Ken, while his daughter Lily scampers around with her freshly painted pirate’s face.
Downing Senior and brother Johnny were both grass track riders of note, so unsurprisingly, both Dean and his younger brother Russell started in the same discipline. Dean still holds the record as the youngest winner of the national 8km title – he was 17 – and very proud of it he is too. Should Lily decide to follow in her father’s footsteps, it will undoubtedly be a grass track meeting where she takes those first pedal strokes.
There is, and this was a pleasant surprise to me, a few quid to be made at grass track racing, especially on the Highland Games circuit. “I spent a couple of weeks in Scotland a few years back, did seven meetings and came away with £1,500 in my pocket,” says Dean. “First prize for an 8km is £200, so if you’re in good form, the money is pretty decent.”
The family connections are widespread in this world. Commentator Dave Kennedy keeps the crowd entertained with three days of flawless talking at Mildenhall, dry wit interspersed with useful information, but with amusing one liners to the fore. He is father to three grass track racing brothers, including multiple champion Richard, and organises grass track at the Heckington Show, where cycling competes competes with livestock and tug of war for the crowd’s attention.
More siblings, in the shape of brothers Ben and Rowan Elliott, regularly carve up National Championship titles between them. This time it is younger brother Rowan who leaves Mildenhall with the 800m crown. Wives and children are in attendance, the toddlers blasting around the field on their tiny Islabikes whenever the chance arises. It is a special atmosphere.
As I settle down to talk to organiser Max Pendleton – at the end of a day’s racing in which he has acted as human pacer for ten keirin events, following a mere 16 the previous day – it feels like I have witnessed the perfect cycling event. It has not been the parochial anachronism that I feared might have been wilting away in deepest Suffolk for the last two and a half decades. It is old school. It is peculiar. But it is also thriving and encompasses all that it good about the British club scene. There is a true sense of community that is clear in everyone I have talked to over the weekend.
Pendleton is a fit, lean, tanned 67-year-old who could easily pass for a decade younger, on the bike or off. Yes, he is related to Victoria: he’s her dad. She’s a former Mildenhall CC member and source of great pride to all at the club, and you can imagine where the double Olympic champion started racing. “It teaches you such skills,” says Max. “Vicky’s bike handling is second to none and she learnt it on grass.”
Mildenhall is very much a cycling event, aimed at the cycling fraternity. Its predecessor, the Dairytime Gala, was pitched more at the local community, with mixed results. “We decided to go looking for cyclists, rather than looking for Joe Public,” explains Pendleton. “We switched it to this and it just grew from there. It had a rough period five or six years ago, but it seems to be picking up now. We had 80 kids yesterday, 75 today. And there are four big kids’ leagues in this area, so it is building nicely.”
Grass track is very much the focus of the weekend but the programme of Audax rides, children’s duathlon, cyclo-cross and roller racing, plus the usual face painting and bouncy castle attractions for youngsters, provides something for everyone. There is plenty of serious action spread over the weekend – including a National Championship – but it’s interspersed with a healthy dose of fun and games. Pendleton and his team have nailed it.
“Grass track was very big in the 1920s to ’50s,” he says, “especially at miners’ welfare meetings and company sports days: Electrolux, STC, Vauxhall, all the big companies round here used to have a sports meeting with mostly athletics, but interspersed with grass track.”
Three of us went to Ambleside and Heckington back in the ’70s and came away with £500 between us
Travel to the Lake District for the Ambleside Show and wrestlers clad in white long sleeve vests and matching long johns, covered by spectacular embroidered velvet knickers, grapple away in the centre of the track while the racing goes on around them – a surreal scene. Pendleton confirms Dean Downing’s assertion that if you are handy on grass, the prize money is and was worth travelling for.
“Three of us went to Ambleside and Heckington back in the ’70s and came away with £500 between us. That was decent money, considering I was probably earning about £2,000 a year then. Mind you, we did win two thirds of the events between us…” When it comes to winning it’s been like father, like daughter, although you get the impression Max has eased back somewhat from the days when he was coaxing the best out of the young Victoria.
Standing on the final bend for the heats of the handicap sprint, I fully appreciate the skill involved in staying upright while hammering at full tilt on moist grass; the scratch rider having the unenviable task of passing all and sundry on the unworn outfield, both wheels bucking and skipping on every bump in the surface. The only way to get round in one piece, Ben Elliott assures me, is to keep the pressure on those pedals at all times. Ease off the gas for a split second and you are down…
If handicap sprinting sounds too demanding there is always the hoop race. In this variant of musical chairs, Pendleton mischievously roams the track scattering plastic rings, riders stalling and lurking until the blow of a whistle signals a mad scramble to position a back wheel inside the nearest circle. Cheating, if not actively encouraged, is certainly not frowned on. Pendleton is called upon to deliberate on disputes and promptly turns to the assembled throng to holler his decision in best pantomime tradition. The loser skulks away with a sheepish grin. The winner gets to sing a song over the PA system, whether they want to or not.
The Bristow Devil, named after – and sponsored by – former Paralympian Mark Bristow, is an elimination race with a difference. The next to last rider over the line scores a point, to negate the (according to the inventor) unfair tactic of blasting away off the front for the duration of the race. Those bike handling skills Pendleton emphasises are tested to the limit under Bristow’s devilish rules, so ten riders cross the line in very close order travelling at a snail’s pace and treading the fine line between point scoring and being pulled out by MC Dave Kennedy. The dreaded call from the judges is delivered on first name terms and received with good grace by the riders.
This mix of the serious and the decidedly not-so is a winning combination that deserves to succeed, and which seemingly is doing so. In the age of corporate sponsorship and ever increasing budgets for cycling events, there is still room for the club organised, grassroots event of which Mildenhall is a shining example.
“The following has gone down since its heyday,” Pendleton concludes, “but it has got a lot more relaxed: involve the crowd in the judging and it gets them warmed up and becomes the fun thing you have got here, which as far as I am concerned is beautiful. I love this.”
From the Rouleur annual, 2012