CYCLING is a funny old game. Riders needlessly sacrificing themselves so that a single indiviual can take all the glory, bask in the limelight and reap all the rewards.
Some are happy just to be so-called ‘domestiques’, who work for the greater good. Quietly remaining in the shadows. Too shy or modest to step forward in search of their 15 minutes of fame. Content with slogging away so that others can succeed.
One such person that typifies this is Ken Beck, from Southport Cycling Club. He has been involved with the scene for longer than most can remember, but admits that he has never won a race.
His only claim to fame was being present in San Sebastián when Tom Simpson won the Worlds in 1965 and then again in Copenhagen when Mark Cavendish claimed the famous rainbow jersey in 2011.
Ken is one of cycling’s Mr Nice Guys. He’s like everyone’s favourite grandad or uncle. Always offering advice and encouragement to those who need it at just the right moment. There’s that knack for timing again.
You can usually find him working tirelessly behind the scenes at most of the junior and senior races held across Merseyside. If Ken isn’t handing out the race numbers, he is either marshalling or undertaking some other thankless task just to ensure the wheels of each race run true and smooth.
We begin our interview with Ken in the conservatory of his Crossens home near Southport. The rain is tapping heavily against the plastic roofing. Ken is wearing a rather fetching jumper emblazoned with the crest of Southport Cycling Club. This typifies Ken. He loves both his club and sport dearly.
To me, he represents everything that is great about grassroots cycling – volunteers who give up all their all of their free time to help out in all weathers, expect no thanks in return and derive emense enjoyment from watching talented young riders progress through the ranks.
JM: So, Ken. How did you first get started with cycling?
KB: I first started with cycling in March 1957. I worked in a shop-fitting company in Southport called Kiddie. There was a guy who worked in the machine shop called Gordon Edwards, who was in the Southport at the time. He encouraged me to get out on the road with him and I have been at it ever since.
JM: What was the initial attraction for you?
KB: Getting out and about, like you do. Sadly, Gordon has gone now, but he got me going and into it. I was 17 at the time and reasonably strong, if you like. Not like some of these kids who are 11 and 12 now, but haven’t developed their muscles properly. The only way to get about in the late ‘50s was on your bike. There were no cars then, you see. Once I’d got established with the club, which was during the Bill Bradley era. Bill would go out at about 9 o’clock in the morning and say ‘right lads, it’s Windermere today’. Other times, he would say to head to Llagollen, Ingleton or Malham. One of the worse ones that we ever did was head over the top of the Cat & Fiddle. It’s a fair old drag from Southport. Another one that I can remember quite vividly is going through Ruthin and up the Nant Y Garth with a dinner stop in Llangollen, then back through Wrexham and Chester. Bradley would just say that we were going and off we all went like lambs to the slaughter.
JM: So what was it like riding with Bill back in those days?
KB: Well, he was in no rush. We just rode as a group but he wanted to do 120 to 130-miles, so we did. I think the Llangollen trip through Ruthin was about 150-miles from Southport. Nobody talked about it. He was the boss and knew what he was doing, so we just all got on our bikes and off we went. It took me until the Wednesday to get over it.
JM: Did you enjoy it, though?
KB: Yeah. It’s a great game cycling. If you read the books by these guys like Vin Denson, they all did the same thing. Weekends to youth hostels with a saddle bag on, bashing away. We did exactly the same thing. The books you read, you could delete Vin Denson or whatever name and put Bill Bradley in. There was no transport, so it was just get on your bike and go.
JM: So how do you think it’s changed from back then to nowadays?
KB: Well, it’s faster, isn’t it? Everybody is going shorter distances and going faster. That’s the bottom line.
JM: Do you think that kids these days are a bit more mollycoddled than maybe back in your day? In the sense that they wouldn’t want to do 120-miles?
KB: Well, yes. In that they wouldn’t want to do that distance. If you said to them that we were going to do 120-miles, they wouldn’t want to go. Most guys that go out now, it’s 80-miles straight round because the races now aren’t much more than that distance. You don’t need to. The other thing is that it has changes from what was the traditional Sunday run. There is more going on our Saturday runs than the Sunday. They’re only going round West Lancashire, but it’s faster. It has always been steady. You can tell that from the speed of the races. Just generally, if you look at any race, it’s going faster than it ever used to. The average speed is going up all the time. I mean, the time trial records tell you that. All the records for 10s, 25s and 50s are changing all the time, but I suppose there is a bit more traffic to help them along the road now.
JM: What have been your proudest moments or happiest memories over the years with Southport?
KB: Just helping out. I realised quite early on that I wasn’t a star, so I just used to enjoy myself and we had a great group of lads when we were all 17, so we would go on camping holidays in the Lakes, riding up there and back. Norman Mosscrop, who used to run the bike shop, would take all the camping stuff up and we used to ride to the Lakes in Ingleton and all sortsof places for the weekend. They were really happy days. I just like to be involved with cycling. Whether it’s standing on a drafty corner for a club 10, it doesn’t matter to me – it’s part of the scene. Like, I was at the Eddie Soens the other week, I bet that I did n’t watch more than two laps or seen them go past a few times. The rest of the time, you’ve bumped into someone you’ve not seen for 18 months or 18 years.
JM: What can you tell me about Southport’s approach to youth development compared to some other clubs? You’ve got a bit of a reputation for bringing some quite good young ‘uns through?
KB: We’ve got a club room there, which we built four years ago. That’s a legacy as much as the youngsters. It’s ongoing, you’ve got to build on it. If we don’t have young riders coming through, then we won’t have a club. It’s as simple as that. Every club is the same. There are clubs that I have heard of that don’t want them. They just send them away or to another club. But if you do that, then the club will die. You need a certain amount of young blood coming through otherwise the club will die. If you’re getting older and you can’t ride as so far, then you might as well be helping pointing someone younger in the right direction.
JM: So what do you think Southport do differently?
KB: We just encourage them. I mean, people walk through the door at the club and you have to talk to them. If no-one talks to them, then they think that this is rubbish. I just say to them ‘ok, there are bikes here to borrow that are hung up, you can come with us at 9.30am on a Sunday to see how you go’. Then you’ve got to take stock of it all when they do come to see
how good they are and talk to them. If they’re not very fit, then you’ve got to curtail the ride and take them home. I always say to their parents that if the young lad or girl are in a mess, can they come to Rufford for the cafe stop and pick them up. About a fortnight ago, this kid fell off his bike and wrecked the rear mech. It snapped off, so we rang his dad and pushed him to the cafe. That’s always a back-up, which is a good idea. Sometimes they’re in a right bloody mess, though.
JM: What do you think the future of cycling is at a grassroots level?
KB: It’s changed a lot to what it used to be. It’s not like what it was. Like I was saying before, you don’t go 120-miles anymore. The young ‘uns don’t do that. It’s more focused on a bit of a ride round West Lancashire or maybe a little bit further into the Trough of Bowland, but certainly none of the younger generation would dream of going to Settle, Ingleton or Windermere. Like I said, we went to the top of the Cat & Fiddle, but that was a bloody long way. We used to go the Manchester Wheelers’ place for lunch on the way to Congleton and then up the back the of the Cat & Fiddle. The time that I went, you could go down what’s now a walk that’s called the Goyt Valley and it comes out halfway between Macclesfield and Whaley Bridge. Well, I’d never even bloody heard of Whaley Bridge and I thought ‘where the hell
JM: My dad always tells me that I am not a proper cyclist until I have climbed the Horseshoe Pass?
KB: Well, it’s not too bad from Liverpool. Try adding another bloody 40-odd miles on coming from Southport. I didn’t live up this way back then, but it takes me half an hour to get to Woodvale. They were happy days and we had some good times. The thing about the gang that I grew up with is that most of them are still cycling. We have a bit of a Christmas reunion ever year and they’re still the same gang. We’ve lost one or two along the way, unfortunately.
JM: What do you hope that your legacy will be?
KB: Well, the club room is really my legacy. That’s there for good, as long as we can afford to run it. I am not looking for any glory or that. You just do you bit and get on with it. You just point these kids in the right direction and if they want to come with you, they’ll come with you. If they don’t, then they don’t. I have helped a lot of people down the line, one way or another, over the years. Whenever I used to go to races, I always used to offer lifts to as many as I could fit in my car. I don’t seek the glory, you know. I just enjoy being involved in the cycling.
For more information about Southport Cycling Club, then visit their website www.southportcc.co.uk or follow the club via Twitter: @_SouthportCC