The History of British Cycling

The History of British Cycling

Across the globe, Britain is synonymous with cycling. For as long as many of us can remember, especially younger readers, British athletes have dominated when it comes to international cycling events. Whether it’s Sir Chris Hoy bringing home 6 Olympic gold cycling medals over his career, or Sir Bradley Wiggins’ equally mind-blowing acquisition of 5 gold medals, Britain certainly takes its cycling seriously – we’re knighting cyclists after all!


However, if we want to understand why Britain takes its cycling so seriously, we have to look at our history with the sport and why it’s remained such a popular past time in England, Wales and Scotland.


Over the years, our Cycle SOS team have passionately celebrated the success of British Cycling as well as its rich heritage, and have been proud to support the National Cycling Museum. Take a look at our brief history of British Cycling from the first unions for cyclists through to international racing.


Bicycles of diverse varieties and styles have been produced since around 1817, having been enjoyed as a novel form of transport ever since their inception. With that being said, by 1878 the bicycle had become so popular it ceased to be novel, and within Great Britain, an association became necessary to defend the interests of cyclists adequately.



Accordingly, the Bicycle Union (BU) was formed in London on the 16th of February 1878, being primarily set up to defend the rights of cyclists as well as to organise and regulate the burgeoning bicycle racing industry. Furthermore, by 1883 the BU had merged with the Tricycle Association (TA) to form the National Cyclists Union (NCU).


The primary issue facing cyclists across the country was the official classification of their legality on the roads. The NCU worried that the entirety of cycling, as both a hobby and a sport, could be affected by the police’s concerns regarding road racing. In fact, there are even reports of police officers going so far as to charge gathered cyclists on mounted horseback or jam sticks between cyclists’ wheels in efforts to disrupt road races already in progress. During this dark period of British cycling, many cyclists were prosecuted, convicted and fined for dangerous driving – there are even accusations circling to this day that many of these cyclists weren’t given fair trials.


The NCU responded to the police’s ‘crackdown’ on British cycling by fundamentally caving in and banning all road races; they even went as far as to insist that established clubs moved their activities into velodromes. Of course, many bicycle users couldn’t abide by the NCU’s policy of appeasement and a rebel organisation was formed – the Road Time Trials Council (RTTC).


The RTTC was interested in one thing and one thing only – time trial racing. To avoid the often-dangerous interference of police, the RTTC ensured their time trials were solo undertakings, primarily at dawn or as close to sunrise as possible. Although the NCU was initially lukewarm to the RTTC rebels, the NCU eventually accepted the RTTC back into the fold, and the two organisations ran the sport together. The arrangement was as follows: The NCU would administer and manage track races, while also representing Britain at Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) events. The RTTC would instead be solely responsible for managing the time-trialling aspect of the sport.


However, peace wasn’t to last long within the BU – by 1933, another division was looming on the organization’s horizons. This time the division was sparked by the UCI’s decision that the world road championship races would no longer be individual contests, but instead competitions where all the racers began together.


Although the NCU had never stood against these types of races, they insisted that in Britain they were conducted on roads that were closed to traffic – these often ended up being airfields and race tracks. Furthermore, as the NCU was the body responsible for selecting riders that would represent Britain in international races, its selection policy changed in response to the UCI’s decision regarding the world road championship races. The first selection races were hosted at Donington Park in Leicestershire and Brooklands in Surrey. Many of the participants, including Percy Stallard, believed that these selection races should be held on the open road like the actual contests would be.


By 1942 Percy Stallard was fed up of this selection process and took it upon himself to organize a road race from Llangollen to Wolverhampton. In response, the NCU suspended Stallard and the other participants of the race from the organization; they then formed the British League of Racing Cyclists which would fight against the NCU until they merged in 1959.

The British Cycling Federation & British Cycling

When the National Cyclists Union and the British League of Racing Cyclists merged in 1959, they became the British Cycling Federation (BCF). The BCF immediately accepted racing on the open road and took control of all competitive cycling in Britain apart from time-trialling, which remained with the RTTC. Following the BCF merging with the British Cyclo-Cross Association, the British Mountain Bike Federation, the English BMX Association and the British Cycle Speedway Council, the BCF became known simply as British Cycling.


Although the organization was now properly unified, by 1996 British Cycling was in considerable debt; the organization also presided over a plummeting membership, a divisive internal dispute with its former president and the solitary fact that Britain had failed to win an Olympic gold medal in cycling for over 76 years – British Cycling was in a pretty bad state.

British Cycling & International Dominance

By 1996, something had to change in order to remedy British Cycling’s plummeting membership, its significant debts, as well as Britain’s poor international performance. In efforts to turn things around members of British Cycling appointed Peter Keen as the organization’s Performance Director.  Interestingly, Keen’s appointment almost immediately coincided with a £900,000 funding grant from the UK Sport Council to pursue his World Class Performance Plan; a plan that was intended to launch competitive British cycling into the stratosphere.



Peter Keen immediately began his appointment by further outlining his plans for British Cycling; he emphasized that the main objectives of British Cycling going forward would be centred around track cycling due to the significant number of Olympic medals available in the discipline. Keen’s plan stretched as far as eight years into the organization’s future, with the significant focus being placed on how British Cycling could continue to secure essential funding.


n 1999 British Cycling announced that is had successfully secured lottery funding until 2005 and was awarded £2.5 million in its first year. Later that same year, Great Britain’s sprint team took the first British sprint medal at a Cycling World Championship in 40 years during the Berlin Track Worlds.


Beginning in 2001, and continuing to this very day, British Cycling has managed to successfully improve its world standing in track cycling and is now considered one of the globe’s most dominant forces in the sport. Moreover, these successes, as well as further increases to British Cycling’s funding has allowed the organization’s success to flow over into competitive road racing, with British riders such a Mark Cavendish and Nicole Cooke regularly making podium finishes.


The future of British Cycling is now much brighter than its gloomy horizons in 1996. In fact, the organization is at the forefront of global cycling, with British Cycling regularly working with institutions like NASA and McLaren to improve both their equipment and performance. Furthermore, British Cycling is no longer being pulled apart by its rigidity and inability to adapt, a primary example, of course, being the organization’s partnership with BSkyB to form a professional cycling team.


British cycling has had a long and steeped past, but its future is set to be even more impressive – we’d all best stay tuned!


Here at Cycle-SOS, ‘The Cyclists National Helpline’, we deal specifically with claims regarding road cycle accidents. As we’re cyclists ourselves, we fundamentally believe that cyclists have an essential right to safety on British roads, regardless of the time of day chosen to travel. With that being said, if you’ve been involved in a bicycle accident on the road, and are unsure as to whether or not you’re entitled to compensation, make sure to check out our useful cycling injury claims calculator, and we’ll be happy to help you get the wheels rolling.