In a city whose passion is football, say "Anfield" and the chances are you will think of Liverpool Football Club. Unless your sport is cycling, in which case the word "Anfield" will mean one of the oldest cycling clubs in the world: the Anfield Bicycle Club. The Anfield Bicycle Club and Liverpool Football Club share the same roots. John Houlding, brewer and mayor of Liverpool, was one of the Anfield Bicycle Club’s first presidents before, famously, creating Liverpool Football Club in 1892.
When the Anfield Bicycle Club was formed in 1879, Liverpool was growing fast. The port was expanding and the economy booming. And the craze for bicycle riding was in full swing. With John Houlding’s help and men like him the Anfield Bicycle Club was very successful from the start, quickly establishing a reputation for long distance riding. We were a social club too, meeting all year round, and touring together. In the winter months cycling sometimes gave way to football matches and the occasional paper chase on Saturday afternoons.
For gentlemen and ladies there was leisurely cycling on bicycles, tandems and tricycles of fabulous weight, and track racing for the competitive. From our headquarters at 8 Lower Breck Road (and later 36 Bedford Street North) the Anfield organised cycling athletics events at Kensington Fields, Hall Lane, and Aintree, with brass bands and all the fun of the fair.
Bicycles were a passport to fresh air and freedom, and the real temptation was riding high-wheeled "penny-farthings" on the road. The sleek lightweight machines of the Tour de France they were not. With their huge iron-rimmed and solid-tyred driving wheels, penny-farthings were not for the faint hearted. Riding them was exciting and fast, but full of risk. Roads in the countryside were often potholed tracks, while in towns and cities the streets were paved with cobbles or granite setts. At any moment you might be thrown over the handlebars by a stone or tramline, or by running out of control when riding downhill.
Riding as fast and far as possible became the focus of the Anfield year. The club even had a motto: "hic et ubique" (here and everywhere). From the earliest days, each season would begin at Easter with a tour. A favourite destination was Betws-y-coed in North Wales, eighty miles from Liverpool. That was followed with Saturday afternoon fixtures and 50 and 100 miles races, building up to 12 and 24 hours rides as the season progressed.
Such was the appetite for competition that many records fell to Anfield riders. The prizes were generous, but most valued was to have your name and achievements engraved on the magnificent Anfield Bicycle Club Long Distance Shield. Medals of gold or silver were awarded for "standard" rides, and for the longest ride in a day. Place to place records were contested to cities as far apart as London and Edinburgh, and many others. But most prized was Land’s End to John O’Groats. The Anfield rapidly established a reputation as the greatest long-distance riding club of its day with renowned endurance cyclists like Lawrence Fletcher, "Artie" Bennett, George Pilkington Mills and "Doc" Carlisle.
Of these brilliant riders the star was George Pilkington Mills. By the end of the 1890s he was regarded as the greatest long distance rider the world had ever seen. He set many long distance records including seven in one season. At the age of 19, in 1886, he rode a penny-farthing from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 5 days. Fellow Anfielders, who knew the roads, helped with the record-attempt. They organised accommodation and food, and ensured that local clubmen guided him along the way. Mills rode day and night, snatching little sleep, and his record for a penny-farthing was never bettered. During the next 15 years he took up the "end to end" challenge time after time, holding the record on the first modern bicycles, tandems, and tricycles.
Mills also turned his attention to racing in France, and helped inspire the Tour de France winning the first Paris - Bordeaux race in 1891. This episode revealed another talent: Mills was a crack shot, and while training was so bothered by dogs chasing him that he shot five with a Colt revolver which accompanied him on rides for just such a purpose.
The Anfield pioneers gave much as players, and also took a leading role in establishing the organisation and rules for the governance of the sport which control record breaking and time-trialling today.
Another legacy of our pioneering days is the Anfield 100 miles time-trial, which was first run in 1889. In the early years, riders and pacers set off in groups, slowest first, fastest last. The aim was that all riders would reach the finish together for a massed sprint across the line some seven hours later. However, large groups of riders racing through quiet towns and villages disturbed the peace and met with disapproval. If the police found out they would stop the event. Secrecy was therefore essential, and, somewhat optimistically, competitors were instructed not to give the impression of racing.
But by 1900 opposition was so strong that massed start racing had all but died out. That cycle sport on the road survived was thanks to the introduction of unpaced time-trialling where riders compete individually against the clock. And again the Anfield was instrumental in introducing the new format. Time-trialling was successful from the start. A feature of today’s cycle racing scene, riding against the clock is played out at all levels of the sport, from local club events to the Tour de France.
Although the first Anfield 100 started in Rainhill, on the Liverpool - Warrington road, it did not take long for the race to move to Shropshire’s quieter roads, which we have used ever since.
Long regarded as a classic, the Anfield 100 remains a cornerstone of the continuing Anfield Bicycle Club story.
© David Birchall 2006
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