In this 21st century golden age, cycle racing on Britain’s roads was far removed from the sport it was 60 years ago. Split into factions, you were then either a ‘tester’ (time-triallist) or ‘leaguer’ (road-racer).
Once in a while a rider would come along whose talents transcended these tribal divisions. But only one ever made it official and in the 1960s helped break down the barriers forever. His name was Arthur Metcalfe, champion of the two solitudes of 20th century British cycling.
Arthur holds a record unparalleled in the annals of British cycling. He won the 1966 national amateur road race and went on to win time-trialling’s Best All-Rounder (BAR) title.
At the time, his double made a very clear statement to the various cliques involved in the bitter in-fighting: that cycling in the UK should be just that – British cycling.
Born in Leeds, Arthur spent most of his cycling years in Yorkshire, the homeland of some truly hard riders. At a recent gathering of veteran survivors of this legendary tribe, there was a consensus as to the main reason behind their success: the local chaingangs were crucial.
They created a school of hard knocks which continues to produce race winners, champions and Olympic medallists today. Arthur Metcalfe has long been considered to be the hardest of them all.
“He never wore gloves, hat or over-shoes, whatever the weather and time of year,” remembers Sid Barras, another graduate of the chaingang and no softie himself, with 18 years as a pro. “He made it extra hard for everyone whenever he came out. But he was just following his own maxim: that training should be at least as hard as any race.”
For Metcalfe recognised that he was not a natural champion: “I had to work hard to find form,” he once said. “The chaingang was the ideal place to find it. It meant an awful lot when you eventually came into that form, through pure, hard graft.”
So the legend was created, unsurprising when another aspect of Arthur’s background is considered. The Metcalfe family name is highly respected in Yorkshire. Parish records in Wensleydale and Swaledale, through which the Tour de France travels this month, are full of Metcalfes who have battled the elements and scratched a living from the rocky ground of these wild, beautiful places for centuries.
The Metcalfes are warriors: the Dales archers, many of whom bore the name, were the artillery of medieval warfare on the legendary battlefields of Crécy and Agincourt. But Arthur Metcalfe chose a bicycle rather than a longbow to make his point, teaming up with fellow Leeds roadmen Jack Macklam and Richard Simpson, sponsored by local lightweight manufacturer Bob Jackson, in 1961.
Arthur made his mark on the sport in his own inimitable fashion. He had a way of remaining invisible in the peloton until he made his move, sneaking off the front almost without anyone noticing, using minimal effort to make his escape. It was an extraordinary knack which earned him the nickname “snake” from his rivals. Training partner Dave Hamilton nevertheless considers the name unfair: “Arthur rarely had much team support, I remember him as canny rather than slithery.”
It soon became clear that tough stage races suited the Metcalfe style and Arthur quickly made his mark on the Tour of Britain. He won the race in 1964 and was sixth and King of the Mountains the following year. That season, he made another top race his own: the Isle of Man International, three laps (113 miles) of the international racing circuit.
His final preparations for this amateur classic were quintessential Metcalfe. The day before, he set out from his home in Leeds to ride the 60 miles across the Pennines to catch the evening ferry. He rode with his racing wheels attached to his front forks and a saddlebag packed with his gear. On arrival at the ferry, he was told that it had been cancelled.
After dozing through the night, standing up in a telephone box on the pier, Arthur caught the morning ferry. He changed into his racing kit on board, cycled down the gangway and up to the start line. He then set off in a large field made up of the best of British riders and a number of European national squads. Metcalfe won the race.
Thus the ‘hard man’ legend was born: of a tough, relentless and determined fighter, in the manner of his forebears who had helped build Yorkshire into the region that it remains to this day.
While Arthur was to ride in two Tours de France, he hadn’t yet finished with domestic cycling. In 1966, he went on to achieve the unique double for which he is most remembered. In the national amateur road race, Metcalfe took the jersey in a sprint finish. There was more to come.
The British time-trial season was following its usual route to a September climax of the season-long BAR competition. Arthur decided to have a go.
He won the first time-trial he entered, cruising round the 50-mile course in under two hours. The following week he tackled the 100. It blew a gale and most of the contenders climbed off while Arthur rode steadily round at 24mph to win again.
“It was then that the idea of going for the Best All-Rounder cropped up. I think roadmen shouldn’t ride too many time-trials as they tend to put you in a constant speed rut. But the change from riding road races every week did me the world of good.”
In the following weeks, Metcalfe improved his 50 and 100 times, putting him into contention for the title. All that was left was the monumental effort of the 12-hour. Arthur got on with the job in the West Suffolk event, held on the last day of the competition.
He started that day in a most unusual predicament for a bike racer, not knowing exactly how far he had to ride to win until his main rival for the title had completed a 50-mile race on the other side of England. Riding into the unknown, Arthur started steadily, spinning low gears to keep warm on a bitterly cold morning.
At lunchtime he finally got the news: that his target to become BAR was 263 miles. It was well within his grasp and he eventually ran out his time at 270.5 miles, only a mile short of the national record. Describing him as “mean, moody and magnificent”, the cycling press wrote of his historic double: “It is the advent of a real all-rounder who has finally bridged the gap between the sport’s two solitudes with his exceptional capability, speed… and dignity.”
The Arthur Metcalfe story did not end there. He went on to ride in the British team at the Tour de France the following year. It was a particularly difficult apprenticeship as the organisers lost his suitcase. Arthur had to ride in Barry Hoban’s spare shoes and shorts for the first week.
The race became a devastating, haunting experience for Arthur after the death of Tom Simpson in the furnace of Mont Ventoux, though he continued to finish in Paris with Hoban and Colin Lewis.
Despite this, Arthur started the 1968 Tour de France. Though he didn’t make it to Paris, he made his mark on the stage to Bayonne with a characteristic lone breakaway, for which he was awarded the ‘most aggressive rider of the day’ prize.
He continued to race as a British-based professional until he experienced a major setback, breaking his pelvis in 1971. He eventually retired three years later.
Metcalfe’s career was best summarised by that generation’s doyen of British cycling journalism, Alan Gayfer: “By his dignity, directness, exceptional ability and speed … and his way of approaching cycling as a whole instead of thinking of it as divided, Arthur united the two hitherto-incompatible sides of our sport. He should never be forgotten.”
Arthur died of cancer in 2002. His funeral service, packed with old friends and rivals, took place only yards from where the Leeds chaingang, breeding-ground of hard men, still meets most weeknights.
This feature appears with the agreement of the Yorkshire Post, which published Metcalfes’s story in its July 5 edition.