Cycling before Lycra

Meandering through the interwebz I came across a fantastic website: Cycling before Lycra. And upon emailing him, Allan (Nelson) kindly said there was no problem should I want to post about it 🙂

This was a loooong while ago, but as we are close to Christmas, and as Santa’s wishes are aplenty… I wanted to share images and text from Allan’s site, about that time in history when his mum and dad were part of that partly forgotten era when cycling was something easy, fun and natural! No fancy clothing, no fancy gear… a real inspiration and delight in looking back in time.

My father, Les Nelson, was in what was known as a ‘reserved occupation’ during the Second World War, a riveter in the local Vickers Armstrong Shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness. He started cycling in 1934, and soon became a keen cyclist, who, as well as racing and touring, rode his bike to work from 1936-1947, regardless of the weather.
Well known by the bus drivers on the Shipyard run, he would regularly ‘beat the bus’ to and from work on his fixed wheel bike, a distance of around 8 miles in each direction.   As he says, the roads were a lot quieter then due in no small part to the petrol rationing (now there’s an idea!).

©Allan Nelson

I love the photograph of Allan’s mum… so incredibly fantastic, without a single bit of lycra and yet she definitely meant [cycling] business! Not to mention how elegant her bike’s handlebars look!

Here’s Mum (Joan Nelson – nee Thomas) leaning against the wall of the White House Cafe (now demolished) at Levens in 1941

The bike she’s on here is of unknown make, but she later bought a ‘Halder’ (second-hand of course as during the war it was very difficult to buy new bikes,  not many were being made).

Allan’s parents – Les and Joan – were touring in the first half of the 20th century, they had so much style doing what they enjoyed, but all with simplicity, the pictures Allan shared on his site provide an imagery that in the 21st century I hope will be re-proposed, as more people may choose to swap their cars for their bikes.

Allan's dad outside his tent on Lake Bank, Coniston

Les’s first bike was a “Sun Wasp”, 19″ frame, 26″ wheels.  He then bought a “GA” (which he thinks stands for ‘George Astbury’).  It was a Solihull model, egg-shell blue, 21″ frame (too big!), 26″ wheels, Cyclo gears (3 speed derailleur).  For racing he turned the wheel round and put a fixed cog on.   The complete bike cost him £12.00 which he paid off at 4s 6d per week, which was given to his father who had put the money up for the bike. Les’s wages at that time were around £5 per week.

Allan's mum & dad, touring in the 40s

my favourite picture of all! "The 'girls' at the White House Cafe at Levens in 1941"

Thanks Allan, for allowing me to reproduce some of the fantastic photos and text of your parents and their bikes. I really wish to see more of non-lycra touring and enjoyment of cycling around to be taken up once more by many and not just the few…

For more photos, anecdotes et al, go visit Allan’s site.

All images and quoted text are protected by Copyrights of Allan Nelson. Images and text reproduced with the kind permission of Allan Nelson.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, while sharing a toast for a Bicycling New Year!!!

Update: Allan left a fantastic comment (scroll down to read it) about more fantastic anecdotes from his parents’ cycling adventures, go check it out!


12 responses to “Cycling before Lycra

  1. Interesting link LC – the weather bit especially, and the answer to the question “Why cycle at all?” :>)

    Merry Christmas & a happy New Year to yourself and PB too – all the best!

    • Thanks Ian! A very Merry Xmas and New Year to you and family 😀 “Buon Natale!!” [It’ll be my first, ever English Xmas!*big smile*]

    • PS – have you noticed how in the pictures of Les and Joan together they both ride step-through frames as their touring bikes? 😀 Wimmins bike power!

    • 😀 When I came across Allan’s website I couldn’t resist emailing him asking permission to reproduce some of his photos and text. I am glad you enjoyed them!

  2. It’s worth mentioning that the racing kit of the time was expensive, uncomfortable, and difficult to look after, so even champions like Coppi didn’t wear racing kit to train or ride generally in.

    Dave Moulton’s blog has a good piece about it, if you’re interested;

    Of course now, “racing” clothing is relatively cheap, and far easier than the old woolen racing gear of yesteryear to care for. With that in mind, I don’t think that one can look at the tourers and riders of yesteryear and say “Look, they don’t wear racing gear” because it wasn’t a realistic option for most people back then. As Dave’s blog mentions, even those in “normal” clothes bought a degree of bike specificity to what they wore (choosing tweed and cords over jeans because of comfort on the bike, cutting down trousers to make a breeches type garment because it was more practical than full length trousers on a bicycle).

    • Hi John! All very valid points, I don’t dismiss the appropriateness and usefulness of specific cycling ‘racing’ gear. Great link/article, thank you!

      What I was celebrating in this post was the fact that, as the photographs and memories of Allan’s parents show, even without the specialised gear people back in the days enjoyed cycling and wearing ‘normal’ clothes, either for choice or need, didn’t stop them from enjoying the bike.

      There is a lot of writing, blogs, support etc out there on cycling as a sport with all the specific, technical gear that comes with it, what I like to celebrate in this blog is the ability, the possibility and the fun that hopping on a bike and go places gives you, as you are, in ‘normal’ everyday clothes and thus how the bike can be a truly viable, alternative form of transport to the car, especially when living in a city where everyday trips are often about 5-6 miles, to the shops, to school, to the doc, to work etc… 🙂

      You said it yourself 🙂 “… Coppi didn’t wear racing kit to train or ride generally in.”

  3. I just love seeing stuff like that. There just seemed to be such a vibrant cycling culture in the UK during the interwar years, and it wasn’t about expensive or fancy bikes. Just getting around practically. (And fun!)

    Love your site!

  4. Hi LC?
    Just wanted to say thanks for the very kind comments on the web site and to chip in if you don’t mind.
    I first decided to put that site up a few years ago after rifling through old photos at my parents home. They’ve always been mad keen cyclists and I thought others might like to see how it was then (also, to tell you the truth, I’m immensely proud of some of the things they did on those bikes too).
    Getting information out of them is incredibly difficult. They’re not internet savvy, can’t understand why anyone would be remotely interested in what they’ve done, and I still get looks of bemusement when I say ‘oh a chap from Canada mailed to ask about your tandem’. Canada?? How does he know us? Is usually the reply. Sweet eh? ;-))
    I wish I could get more info from my mother on a ‘womans’ take on cycling at that time. It did seem a bit more ‘mixed’ then, but maybe there were just more women cyclists in general? I don’t know.
    All I do know is that there are a couple of epic trips they made that I still marvel at.
    The first was a run from Ulverston, over Kirkstone to Brothers Water. They brewed up there (mid morning) and Dad asked where Mum fancied going. She half jokingly said Gretna Green. So, they packed the stove away (well it hung on the top tube on the tandem!) and off they went. Now that is one serious trip! On the return they stopped near Bowness for a final brew up and heard the town clock strike midnight. Probably still a good 2 hours to home, and Dad was up at work at the Shipyard that morning – by bike of course 😉
    The other was a trip from home in Ulverston to Great Langdale. At the top of the valley they wheeled/carried their bikes over ROSSET GHYLL (2,000 feet), ESK HAUSE (2490 feet), STY HEAD (1600 feet), to Wastwater.
    Now fell walkers will tell you, that’s no mean feat. They then had probably a 40/50 mile ride home after all that. So, quite a pair.
    Of course they also used their bikes to go down the shops. I have happy memories of being sat on the seat on the back of my Dad’s bike, touring around the Lakes. End of an era? I hope not – cyclings on the up!
    Thanks again and spologies for the length of this – Hell, I’d be crap on Twitter! ;-0
    Cheeers… Allan.

    • Allan! How fantastic to read all this! Thank you so much for sharing 🙂 well, from my part, please tell your parents that I admire them a lot! It was a pleasure sharing their stories, and thank you again for giving me kind permission of reproducing some of the images.

      Two two trips ARE epic! It’ll take a while before I will master the fitness level and confidence to do it 🙂 did they used to do particular training for it, or was it just a case of cycling everyday?

      Thanks again for adding more beautiful anecdotes about them!

      cheers! L x

      [LC is my ‘blog’ name 😉 In case it had confused you, compared to my original email to you.]

  5. Pingback: Winner of Cycling Embassy poster competition! | Naturally Cycling : Manchester·

  6. Members of Keighley Road Club in the 1950’s rode from Keighley in the 1950’s setting off Saturday morning to the Lakes, taking the bikes over Rossetti Gill,Esk Haws,Sty Head,to Borrowdale staying at the YHA ,Going back home via Greenup Edge and Grassmere.

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