the rich and vibrant heritage regularly associated with cycling (more often than not by yours truly), is, by its very nature, somewhat generic and frequently more biased towards the countries of mainland europe. legendary exploits by gino, fausto and jacques are the stuff of legend, quite possibly in a literal sense. britain's obscure, bizarre and often nonsensical relationship with road-cycling more or less removed it from the equation. virtually nocturnal time-trial starts frequented by gents dressed in alpaca jackets are rarely the stuff of which great legends are made.
however, our delight in all things european is most likely a substitution for our lack of indigenous deeds of derring do taking place on an unmade road at the summit of a french or italian mountain. and though edinburgh's grassmarket is still festooned with cobbles, no feasible stretch of an over-active imagination would ever have a peloton of flandrien wannabees racing towards meadowbank velodrome. however, that is not to say we did not have our heroes, however subdued in the international pantheon they may be.
one who is readily deserving of such an appellation is dennis sutton horn, a track sprinter born in rural fenland, july 1909. along with brother cyril, a sibling who, albeit inadvertantly, provided the impetus for dennis' eventual successes. they all but dominated their chosen track events throughout the 1930s. for it was brother cyril who was instrumental in bringing national champion, jack sibbit, to their village home. in those days, the national track champion was entitled to wear an english rose emblem on his sprinter's jersey, and dennis was so taken with this emblem, that he resolved to win one of his own.
at the age of twenty, that's precisely what he did.
'The rules of amateurism were very strict and the merest hint of a cash prize could result in a minimum of one year's suspension. Nevertheless, riders with improbable (and almost certainly fictitious) names raced for cash in the Scottish Highland Games.'
with a uk ban on massed start road-races, a situation that existed until the formation of the british league of racing cyclists in 1942, the culture of clandestine, early morning time-trials was overseen by the road racing council until 1938 when the road time trial council took over. in complete contrast, track racing was party to far more widely spread publicity. these events ranged from small village fetes to large-scale international racing on purpose built (outdoor) tracks. and despite the above mentioned citation regarding the sport's enforced amateurism, track racing was where money could be surreptitiously earned.
'...the lucky few might win the prize of a joint of meat or string of sausages from the local butchers. This could be the ration for a family of four for a week.' however, it was also the case that many of the trophies and medals presented to the winners could be exchanged for cash, superficially maintaining a stoic amateur status, yet all the while managing to put food on the table.
brother cyril became captain of the cambridge track team, proving as competitive at bike racing as he had been at speed ice-skating, and was often included as a member of the british track team for international events. at five years younger, however, dennis began to prove himself the stronger of the two in the saddle, first featuring in the results of grass-track racing in the late twenties when still only 19. in 1929, at the same discipline, he finished in the top three at a total of 33 grass-track events, winning eight of them.
though his career continued its upward trajectory throughout the 1930s until the onset of hostilities with germany and subsequently italy, the personal emphasis of both brothers lay in the number of trophies they could win in the uk, refusing to be chosen for the olympics or commonwealth games, mostly due to the time spent away from home, in order to compete in wholly amateur events, potential glory or otherwise. however 'Track racing was effectively the only branch of the sport in the 1930s in which British cyclists could hope to measure themselves against international opposition. In the years to come, Dennis Horn was to earn numerous opportunities to do so...'
this international competition, whether played out at british or european track meets created the perfect rivalry between horn and german rider toni merkens. though the most competitive of rivals on the track, they were good friends off it, even competing as partners in tandem racing. it is thought that merkens often stayed with the horns when riding international events in the uk.
though our recent spate of track successes over the past decade or so has seen britain's riders display mastery of the genre, in the twenties and thirties, british tracks differed substantially from those of europe. the latter were often a tad shorter in overall distance, but with banking that was considerably steeper than those of britain. thus, despite having acquired a fitness and tenacity that proved them equal competitors with the european riders, a lack of overseas racing for british riders often had them at a distinct technical disadvantage when coping with such steeply banked tracks.
cyril and dennis were also provided with the opportunity to capitalise on their commerciality, being supplied with bicycles by claud butler, a company unable to directly attribute their support in advertising the brothers' many successes due to the strictly amateur arena in which they competed. however, the implication was clear to the knowledgeable fans, with claud butler even marketing a dsh model which pretty much said everything in three letters that any expensive ad campaign could have equalled. it is also suspected that the cycle manufacturer was providing more than just bicycles and a jersey.
author peter underwood has done a sterling job in piecing together an almost endless run of results and race reports from dennis horn's illustrious career. despite there being little in the way of constructive background to his life, personal or otherwise, the book is a hard one to put down. disappointingly, i cannot inform you of his school years, personal likes or dislikes, what he did in any spare time he might have had. i can appreciate that many of these can be seen to be superfluous in this context, but it would have been nice to know.
what we do have, however, is a concise insight into the importance of the sport in those pre-war years. '..in 1932 a grass-track in wales reportedly had 30,000 spectators; manchester's fallowfield reguarly had crowds of between 15,000 and 20,000; and at london's herne hill, cncerns were raised when gate attendances at track meetings fell below 8,000 people. in this respect, underwood's testament to horn's career must surely be also regarded as of serious historic sporting and social interest.
it is of great credit to adrian bell at mousehold press that this compact and bijou, yet compulsive volume has been brought to our attention. there are whole libraries of books testifying to the european greats of yesteryear, and while that is exactly as it should be, room on those bookshelves should also be made for the riders who shaped our own cycling history.
wednesday 3rd april 2013