Graham Snowdon spent his working life as a journalist reporting top cycling events for the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and the Press Association, as well as dozens of regional and local papers, and co-ordinating the UK race coverage for Cycling Weekly magazine. But he has vivid memories of his early cycling days as a schoolboy in Doncaster.
“My name is Graham Snowdon. I am now 75 years old and retired, but I was the second of three generations of our family to run Snowdon Sports, one of Britain’s longest established sports news agencies which still counts cycle racing among its specialist areas. Dick Snowdon, my father, founded the business in Doncaster in 1936, and by the 1950s and 1960s was Britain’s best known cycling journalist, operating from the first floor of the garage annexe at his home in Bessacarr. He was also a leading local official and for many years chairman of Doncaster Wheelers Cycling Club.
However, I am writing here about my own early cycling recollections in and around Doncaster. I was born and bred in Bessacarr, and could ride a bike almost before I could walk. In those days you couldn’t ride your bike to school unless you had passed the National Cycling Proficiency Scheme, which in Doncaster was operated jointly by the local Education Committee and Doncaster Borough Police. In around 1951 or 1952, soon after I had started as a pupil at Beechfield Junior School, I became (or so I was told at the time) the youngest ever pupil to pass the proficiency test in Doncaster. You had to have a cast metal badge attached to your bike, and for many years I still had this in a drawer at home along with my Cycling Proficiency Certificate signed by the Chief Constable of Doncaster, A.E. Needham.
I started serious riding with the Wheelers, meeting every Sunday morning at the Gaumont Corner for our weekly club run, and by the time I was nine or ten I thought nothing of riding 80 miles upwards on a Sunday, even though I might have to be pushed the last few miles by an older member after a particularly hard day out. By this time I had become well known amongst my school pals and teachers for the prodigious distances I could cover. I remember being slightly embarrassed by our headmaster, appropriately named Mr Burley, who could not believe that I had cycled to Burley in Wharfedale and back the previous day, and announced the fact in morning assembly!
Club run destinations could be anywhere from Cleethorpes to Buxton. If we had been out into Derbyshire, we would stop for tea at either the Clarion Clubhouse on Dore Moor or the Pewitt Café at Owler Bar, on the west side of Sheffield, and then ride the rest of the way home through the built-up areas of Sheffield and Rotherham, past all the steelworks. One wet evening I caught my front wheel in the tram lines outside Sheffield Station and slid along the road on my backside, much to the amusement of my clubmates. I dusted myself down, remounted, and 50 yards later did exactly the same thing again.
On that occasion, I was unharmed. Much more serious damage occurred on February 1st 1955 – the date is etched in my memory – when I had my single-speed fixed gear bike upside down on the garage floor, lubricating the chain. “Let’s see how fast I can get those pedals spinning,” I thought to myself. For some reason, possibly just a reflex action, I stuck my right index finger out. It went between the chain and the front chain ring, coming out the other side in two pieces in a jagged, grease covered mush. Despite the efforts of surgeons at Doncaster Royal Infirmary, they were unable to re-attach the remains of my finger, but I have always found my right hand very useful for ordering four and a half pints in a noisy and overcrowded bar.
Although I competed in a few local 25-mile time trials as I became older, and always took an avid interest in the racing scene, my main forte turned out to be cycle touring. As well as being in the Wheelers, I joined the Doncaster Section of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (now Cycling UK), with whom I would go on weekend and Bank Holiday camping or youth hostelling expeditions, usually into the Derbyshire Peak District.
On club nights, the Wheelers met in one of the pithead buildings at Markham Main Colliery, Armthorpe, and the CTC at Elmfield House, Bennetthorpe.
In 1956, when I was still only 12 years old, I set off down the Great North Road with just my pal Anthony Taylor, who lived off Sprotbrough Road and was only a year older than me, on a nine-day youth hostelling holiday through the Midlands, into Oxfordshire and the Chilterns, across to Cambridge and then up through the Fens and Lincolnshire.
Neither I nor my parents, who were both experienced cyclists, thought anything about the possible dangers. The world was a safer place in those days. Our first night was at Grantham Youth Hostel, followed by Badby, Northamptonshire, then two nights at Long Wittenham, near Oxford, before moving on to Ivinghoe in Bedfordshire, Cambridge, Holbeach and Lincoln. Sadly, of all those, only Cambridge survives as a YHA hostel today.
It was at Old Brewery House, the name of the Ivinghoe hostel, that I first became aware that I had a Yorkshire accent. While preparing my evening meal (probably one of those cans of Heinz baked beans with pieces of sausage in it) with a group of like-minded people in the communal kitchen, an older man (who was presumably a southerner) said to me: “I know where you’re from.” I had never seen him before in my life, so I replied, in my 12-year-old innocence, something along the lines of: “I don’t think we’ve ever met before, so how could you possibly know where I am from?” He and the other members of his group then started talking in mock-Yorkshire – ee bah gum, ey up lad, and similar expressions – and the penny dropped.
At 15, against my parents’ explicit instructions, I rode with a friend from Doncaster to Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester, via Barnsley and over the Woodhead Pass, to watch the future World Road Race Champion Tom Simpson, from Harworth, compete in his last British track meeting before crossing the channel with a borrowed £100 in his back pocket to seek fame and fortune on the Continent.
Alone and in the dark on the way back (my friend had decided to catch a train home), I struggled to climb the Snake Pass with a faulty crank which meant I couldn’t pedal properly with my left foot. Once at the summit I knew I could virtually freewheel all the way into Sheffield, apart from the climb up to Moscar Top, and so it proved. But, exhausted, I had to admit defeat, and I stopped at a house at Hollow Meadows on the outskirts of Sheffield, asked if I could use their phone, and made a transfer charge call to my father who reluctantly agreed to drive over to Sheffield and scoop me and my bike up in his car.
By the time I was 16 and getting ready to leave Doncaster Grammar School, my active cycling days had largely come to an end. Perhaps I had burnt myself out. Perhaps I had done too much, too early. A more honest reason was that I had been seduced by the lure of motorised transport, starting with a Lambretta LD 125 scooter and then moving on to four wheels, although nothing as glamorous as Tom Simpson’s Aston Martin DB2.
Tom had bought the left hand drive Aston Martin from his early race winnings, and treated me to a spin around the block in it, from our house in Ellers Avenue, after he had attended Doncaster Wheelers’ annual dinner as guest of honour in 1960. OK, it was far from brand new, but what 16-year-old wouldn’t be impressed? Apart from commuting to work on a Moulton small-wheeled bike for the two and a half years that I lived in London, my own cycling days were over. However, I would remain professionally involved with cycling for virtually the whole of my working life, running our family business from 1970 until my retirement in 2007. I had joined the National Union of Journalists in 1961 as a 17-year-old junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening News in Doncaster, and when I retired I was proud to be elected a life member.”
Thank you to Graham for taking the time to share these recollections and wonderful photographs. If any of the names, images or newspaper clippings below bring up old memories for you, please do get in touch.