Chapter 2 Roller Racing and Record Breaking
In Chapter 1 of the story of my restored Freddie Grubb I wrote about its life in the Godric Cycling Club, a small but successful cycling club based around the Suffolk towns of Bungay and Beccles, an area known as the Waveney Valley.
These are small towns in a rural area so the population catchment isn’t large and apart from the occasional footballer who has a trial with a professional team the area hasn’t turned out a line of sporting heroes to put it on the map. Therefore relative to its size the cycling club has been a bit of a standard bearer, turning out a regular crop of local champions and occasionally a national level competitor.
But in one field of cycling the Godric CC made an impression far beyond the reaches of the Waveney Valley, picking up not one but two world records. And my Freddie Grubb was part of at least one of those records, if not both.
That is entirely in keeping with the name that it carries, because Frederick Henry Grubb (b 1887) was one of the prolific record breakers of his era. www.nkilgariff.com lists 14 of his British records from 60 miles to 24 hours, mostly broken before he won two silver medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and then turned professional. He did not take to professional racing so he turned to bike building to exploit his fame.
Which brings us back to the record breaking story of this Freddie Grubb.
In chapter 1 I wrote about grass track racing in East Anglia which helped sustain use of fixed wheel bikes for many years. The other branch of the sport that carried on in splendid isolation in a few clubs around the country was roller racing.
Today most bike racers and even some enthusiastic hard tourists will have a turbo trainer at home. One of the most unloved instruments of cycling torture imaginable, I was delighted the day I decided I would never do that again.
Much less common are the sets of racing rollers where two or four bikes were put onto special rollers connected to a measuring clock.
Inevitably it falls to cycling author Carlton Reid, author of “Roads were not built for cars” (reviewed in December 2014) to provide a comprehensive history of indoor trainers since the 1880s on his web site. He says roller-racing really took off in the 1930s and its popularity as entertainment continued until the 1950s. The great draw for riders is that the lack of wind resistance means you can fit a huge gear to your bike and routinely do speeds well over 50 miles per hour, with a world record of over 130 miles per hour. Short sprints are very fast and very furious. Hard to imagine now but the most famous venue for roller racing in the 50s was the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps the most prestigious concert hall in London.
Carton’s history matches my understanding because the founding generation of the Godric CC were all familiar with the roller races they had seen in the fifties, but quite quickly it had almost died out, not least because the equipment was very scarce. However (and I have no idea why) the Godric were a club that kept a roller tradition. In 1968 the club broke the world 12 hour roller relay record and in the early 70s a Bungay Modern School team from the club set a national schools record at 12 hours too.
I am not sure, and I really must ask Lindsay Wigby, whether the star of this story was used in the 1968 attempt, but Lindsay was in the team so it seems quite possible that my Freddie Grubb was a world record breaker in 1968.
The roller tradition suited these fixed wheel bikes well. Just like the grass track racing the bikes were only a tweak away from being ready to ride at all times. There were many lightweight narrow fixed wheels with racing tyres around because the bikes had been used for time trialling. The single front brakes could be slipped off and the bike was about ready, apart from the fact you had to turn your handlebars up.
Why? Well one might say “because everyone else did”. Like so many things in cycling this habit was part of roller riding lore and was mixed in practicality and probable bull dung. One reason given was that “it opens up your chest and you breath better”. Given that people were doing phenomenal speeds on the road bent like hair pins without apparently suffering from breath problems this seems about as likely as a sticky plaster on your nose helping you play football better. Much more realistically the upright position kept your weight firmly on the rear drive of the rollers. Because you tended to bounce about at high pedal rates this made sure every pedal stroke counted and kept you stable.
However roller riding did test the mechanical creativity of the riders in one way. If you want to ride steadily at over 50 miles an hour you need pretty enormous gears, and even then a high cadence is needed. In those days 11 tooth sprockets were not even available on geared bikes, a 13 was very daring indeed and the smallest fixed sprockets were occasional 14s. But because the Godric were a roller club there was a secret squirrel store of relevant bits, including the near mythological 8 tooth rear sprocket. Old roller riders had abtained huge chainwheels, usually made by TA of France, that could go up to 64 teeth. When combined with a 14 sprocket suitable gears could be reached.
The 8 tooth sprocket was a near myth because whenever it was discussed there was always some doubt about who had it last time and quite where it had come from. I was always told that it was a lawnmower sprocket that had been filed down to the correct width for a bike chain and then welded to the side of a conventional sprocket so it could be fitted. With this baby even a normal 54 tooth road chainset gave enormous gears. In legend it could be combined with one of the giant chainsets to reach record breaking speeds but only heroic men with thighs like tree trunks could get it moving. When I saw it you could only describe it as one of the ugliest and most functional pieces of equipment ever put on a bike.
Both Freddie Grubb and the 8 tooth sprocket definitely found their way to to a Guinness World Record in 1977.
A team of four young guys from Bungay High School were set up to go for the schools’ record held by our clubmates. However we had a secret weapon. The club had been fundraising and bought a set of the newest, smoothest rollers ever made with bearings and drives of incredible quality from Cambridge firm Barelli.
Barelli almost deserve a blog entry in their own right. In the 1970s a high quality engineering firm based just outside Cambridge, England decided to make possibly the finest engineered pedals made in England, perhaps in the world at the time. They came with a lifetime guarantee and retailed from an amazing £50. But cyclists wouldn’t believe that a product was top quality unless it was continental, preferably Italian. So a nondescript industrial estate out on the Huntingdon Road gave its name to a special product. Bar Hill became “Barelli”.
But owner Geoff Chapman was also convinced that there was a place in cycling for the revival of rollers if they could be built to the same outstanding quality as his pedals. The very first prototype even featured electronic counting instead of a mechanical drive, a revolutionary concept that preceded the modern cycle computer by a good five years, but unfortunately couldn’t be made to run reliably. How do we know that? Because it was the set of Barelli prototype rollers that the Godric CC bought. Until a few weeks before the record attempt we had a lot of failures so Chapman replaced the electronics with a nylon drive cable in an oil bath, a design that still put the Barelli rollers low resistance into a different class to all the old sets.
They were, very, very quick as our trials had already proven. However we also had another secret weapon in the older club riders who had been there before and actually knew exactly how to plan a record schedule, especially ride manager John Pugh. I was actually number 5 in the squad in terms of ability and got in because my mate Dale blew up in the trial, but I got my chance from there.
I rode Freddie of course, and during the run up to the event the magical 8 sprocket was rediscovered and probably because I was the last choice for the squad the other guys had the huge chainsets and I had the 8 tooth. And here we are!
So in a village hall near Bungay we set out as four 16 and 17 year olds to break the world record for adults, not just the school distance. And the rest, as you might say is history, as my Guinness World Record certificate will attest. 657 miles, a shade under 55 miles per hour for the whole 12 hours.
I have to admit I had a bit of a personal bad day. Nerves, a touch of asthma, I have no idea why but I had a shocker. I did my part for the whole day but I am very grateful that my much stronger team mates were absolutely on top of their game that day so we had a good margin over the old record.
We held it for about two years until a team of top adult riders from Hounslow Wheelers took it, but to be fair they didn’t smash our time into oblivion. We probably still hold the schools’ record because the discipline has become so rare, maybe one of the modern promoters could encourage a hopeful team to give it a proper thrashing now.
Freddie Grubb is a world record breaking bike. Not the celebrity of the bikes that have broken the world hour record on the track or the Fausto Coppi world championship Bianchi I saw at the Padua bike show in 2013, but there cannot be so many bikes out there that have this claim to fame. And like the first part of the story it is one wrapped up in the club life of the Godric.
I carried on track and roller racing for another year or two (above in green) until I left for university at the age of 19, making it a part of cycling I too left behind. It has taken this restoration project to bring it all back.
Roller racing too has made a bit of a comeback too thanks to the public relations skills of companies like Rollapaluza and Goldsprint, they have really modernised with the right mix of noise, lights and music. if you get a chance to go to a roller night I recommend it.