The Kingston Wheelers Cycling Club was formed in 1924, when six cyclists met in a cafe on the Portsmouth Road near Kingston Police Station. The venture was a success and the club remained active until the coming of the Second World War. The War curtailed its activities for twelve years; the last club run was held in 1941 after which the majority of the membership was called up to serve. Sadly, two club members were killed in service: one in the English Channel and one in Burma. Gil Jessop and Bill Orpin re-formed the club in Chessington in 1953. The club was buoyant in the 1960s and 1970s, holding social functions at the Griffin Hotel and meeting for club runs in Kingston Market Place. Gil Jessop took charge of all aspects of the club’s administration before passing the mantel to Jon Bornhoft in the mid-1980s.
John is remembered as running the club like a benevolent dictator, taking care of every decision and all the behind the scenes work himself. It should be noted that this was an arrangement the club membership was entirely happy with, as it meant they could concentrate on riding. When John sadly passed away in 2001, it was a shock when club members realised just how much work he had been undertaking on their behalf. His considerable responsibilities were broken up and divided amongst a committee. Despite John’s best efforts, the club was at a real low point in the 1980s with as few as six members and no club kit. Although the situation did improve, low membership continued in to the 1990s, a trend that was probably a reflection of the status of cycling in the United Kingdom at the time.
Happily, the club’s fortunes have improved dramatically. Currently the club has approximately 550 members, of whom 80 percent are male and 20 percent women. There is also a small juniors’ section. The club meets at the corner of Brighton Road and Portsmouth Road in Surbiton every Sunday for their weekly club runs, which typically go out to the Surrey Hills. The club covers a multitude of disciplines: touring, cyclo-cross, time trials and road racing. However, the bulk of the club’s membership are primarily there for the non-competitive social and fitness aspect of cycling, and enjoy exploring the countryside with like- minded people.
In Conversation with Tim Lawn and Derek Griffiths
In January, we met with Club President Derek Griffiths and Club Chair Tim Lawn to hear their thoughts on the club they have both been members of since the mid-1980s.
How did you get involved?
Derek: Well I - I had a heck of a job…finding a club. In those days you couldn’t Google. Nowadays, if I Googled cycling club…it would come up probably with a dozen. In those days I went to the library, I phoned the local Guildhall. And eventually after quite a lot of hard work on the telephone I got a phone number and I rang up and they said yeah we meet in Kingston Market Place for a Sunday club run. So I went along...there was only about five or six of us.
Tim: It was definitely through a friend at school. I would have been 16, 17, around that sort of age. We’d chatted about a mutual interest in getting into cycling, enjoying cycling. I’d watch a little bit on TV at the time so we had an interest and we discussed in theory, joining a club. This school friend told me he’d made contact with Kingston Wheelers and he’d been out once I think with them. He said come down, we’ll go out with them on a Sunday. So I turned up and this mate from school never made it. I was there on my own and met probably about half a dozen people and remember vividly Derek was definitely on my first club run. But to go to some location without any expectation or knowledge of what you were letting yourself in for at all…I really can’t believe in hindsight that my 17 year old self would have done that…but I did and I’ve been involved with the club ever since.
Derek: What it might be worth saying is that when you’ve just ridden your bike for pleasure and you’re still trying to work out what the sport’s all about, to go on your first club run it is quite nerve wracking. I suppose it's the equivalent of joining a tennis club. You don’t know how good you are, you don’t know if you’ll be about to keep up. And I remember I had the adrenaline rush when I realised that I could actually keep up but then I realised, Wait! Keep a sense of reality, you do have an 80 year old leading the club run.
Tim Lawn, Club Chair
Derek Griffiths, Club President
What do you attribute the recent boom in club membership to?
Tim: Around the year 2000, there was the rise of internet use and the club developed a website for the first time ever. I think that accessibility - through the internet - makes it easier for people to make contact with the club and to understand what the club’s about. Ultimately, it attracts people to us. This was around the same time that Great Britain first started winning gold medals on a bike. From Sydney Olympics 2000, all of a sudden public consciousness of cycling stepped up quite significantly. And then that was built on each time, with Athens 2004 then Beijing 2008 onwards. I think that mirrors our progression as a club in some respects There’s also been a change in attitude towards fitness and social sporting activity generally, be it - gym or whatever. I think there’s been a definite increase in people’s willingness to try out activities like cycling and participate.
Derek: The other thing that I think played a part was we adopted a more proactive role in who we ordered our cycling gear from. We noticed a lot of younger riders were choosing cycling clobber according to what gear they wanted to be seen in. It’s a fashion thing and our new kit was eye catching. The latest one is very professional and very modern. I mean you do see occasionally, cycling clothing which is frankly quite disastrous. The big improvement is the materials. I mean there was nothing quite like the shame of drawing up at the traffic lights with a pair of wooly shorts that have got wet. And they’re all saggy and people used to lean out their cars and make some comment.
Does the cost of bikes and equipment put people off taking up the sport?
Derek: Yes and no, I mean in the 70s we had a guy join, he smoked and he was a bit of a drinker. And he worked for British Rail on track laying. Anyway, he came along and he was riding a bike he got out of a skip. And he just blew everyone to bits. If you got it in the legs - you can race on an inferior machine but it is true that it’s getting more and more expensive and it’s in the mind as well.
Tim: I think mentally it’s a barrier and it’s a perception. Great kit and technology attracts people to the sport but the downside is if people just see the glossy image that’s portrayed then that can be a barrier. They might think, well that’s great but there’s no way I can afford that so I can’t join in. But, absolutely you can join in! If you scratch the surface you can get a perfectly decent bike at a moderate price. The boom in cycle production and increase in technology has also kept manufacturing costs down. You can definitely participate with a a very modest bike from sports superstores like Decathlon. And you can equally get cheap kit. that would not look out of place but wouldn’t cost you a fraction of the top range stuff.
Kingston Wheelers meet for a club run in 2017
Is the club doing anything to address the gender imbalance?
Tim: I think female membership of the club is on a slow upward trajectory. We’re taking proactive steps to encourage female participation. We’ve had at least one woman on the committee since it was set up. You need women involved in the organisation to commission the kind of activities that a perspective female club member might want. Based on my experience with my daughter in a different sport, its important for there to be established role models. When it comes to sport, I think society perhaps frowns a little bit on female participation and there’s lot of social pressures on young women; that they shouldn’t be seen to be too active and sweating and that glamour is key. Its great if you can provide examples as mentors and role models for young women.
Derek: People like Victoria Pendleton did wonders, gritty as hell! Tim: Also, our club runs are entirely mixed. There’s no barrier to those. Quite frankly it’s not really about what sex you are, it’s about whether you can ride the distance or not.