Originally from the Northwest, Mark Wellings lives and works in London – a stone’s throw from Herne Hill Velodrome. His day job is running a small publishing agency, and he recently wrote Ride! Ride! Ride!, a colourful history of British track cycling.
What’s your first memorable experience of riding a bike, any places or bikes that stand out?
One of my fondest, early memories is when I was 10 or 11 and first straying on my own into the Cheshire country lanes that surrounded the village where I grew up, past farmyard summer smells, with ham and cheese on crusty bread in my saddle bag. I was close to home, but it felt like my first taste of adventure. I was riding a BSA ‘racer’. My dad worked at Ford’s Halewood and had taken the second-hand frame through the paint shop, so it was metallic blue, with yellow mudguards!
Are there any particular places you like to cycle these days?
I mainly cycle in the North Downs – you can reach the countryside in 40 minutes from Herne Hill, which is great. I love the views to the South Downs and also back into London. A particular favourite is riding through the vineyards on Pilgrims Way.
I also love to haul myself up iconic European climbs with a couple of friends – we’ve done Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez in recent years.
You’ve written a book on the history of track cycling, how did that come about?
I work in publishing, so I’ve done a lot of writing over the years and I’d always fancied writing a book, but it never quite happened. So when a friend who’s an editor said he wanted to commission a book about Herne Hill Velodrome to mark its 125th anniversary, we spent quite a lot of time talking about it and how the iconic track told the story of British track cycling. The inevitable happened and he asked whether I’d write it: I jumped at the chance.
How many bikes do you think is acceptable to own?
At one stage we had 11 bikes in our garage (including a unicycle) – not bad for a family of four!
Do you have any cycling heroes?
As much as I admire many cyclists for their sporting prowess, I’d reserve the word hero for someone like Gino Bartali. He won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the 1930s, then used his fame and popularity to save the lives of countless Jews during the war. He transported messages and documents for the Italian resistance, hiding them from the Fascists in his bike frame.
What do you think about the state of cycling in the UK, whether as a sport/hobby or just mode of transport?
As an amateur sport or hobby, it’s in a phenomenal place – just so popular, and getting much more socially mixed and inclusive than it used to be. Professional cycling isn’t in a great place due to the usual doping stories, but that’s nothing new. However, there are lots of great young riders coming through the ranks, including some former members of my club VC Londres!
Do you think things could be improved for cyclists in London?
Cycling in London can certainly be improved! The cycle superhighways obviously help by keeping riders separate. But attitude and respect make such a fundamental difference. I remember slowly cycling up a steep, narrow hill in Brittany six years ago with my then 10-year-old son. At the head of the queue of traffic crawling up the hill behind us was the ubiquitous white van. I expected expletives and Gallic gestures when we reached the top and let them pass, but they all smiled and saluted ‘Chapeau!’. You don’t get that in the North Downs!
Cyclists could also help themselves, to be honest though. I ride into central London every day and so many cyclists have absolutely no road sense – no idea where they should be on the road, how they should behave or what is going on around them. Combine that with aggressive or distracted car drivers and lives are going to be lost.
Can you sum up what cycling means to you in a sentence or two?
Spiritual and physical freedom.