Pedalling to Speedway Glory
The national media is currently devoting acres of newsprint and hours of broadcast time to cycling as a sport. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the virtual boycott by the national press of motorcycle speedway, the associated cycle version is failing to share in the limelight. Philip Dalling takes a look at the 'skid kids' and shares three photographs which show the links between the motorised and pedal-power versions of speedway.
Cycling is enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity, with British triumphs in the Tour de France, the London 2012 Olympics, and various World title events. Not even the scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong can detract from the aura currently surrounding cyclists.
Amid the media adulation of Bradley Wiggins and others, there is one pedal-powered sport that seems to have been forgotten. Cycle speedway, just like its motorised counterpart, is largely ignored by the national press and the major radio and terrestrial TV channels.
Despite this lack of media coverage, cycle speedway appears to be thriving. The sport has moved away from the bomb site, 'skid kids' image of the post-World War Two era, and now operates under the umbrella of British Cycling, alongside road, track, cyclo-cross and other related sports.
Still essentially a club sport, with league matches the mainstay, there are also individual championships, including a World Championship, and some inter-country series, including regular Ashes contests between England and Australia.
The British Lions cycle speedway squad came together in Sheffield recently to prepare for the next Ashes Series, which will take place in South Australia in November.
Club competitions include an Elite League, a Midland League (with three divisions), Northern League, and sections for youth and junior riders. A promising recent development was some coverage for cycle speedway on Sky TV.
Cycle speedway was once a breeding ground for future speedway riders, producing a flood of post-war names. Former cycle speedway stars who made it in the motorised version included Billy Bales, Bob Andrews, Trevor Hedge, Bert Harkins, Len Silver, Dennis Day, Pat Clarke, Reg Fearman, Ronnie Genz, Buster Brown, Ken Vale, Vic White, and many, many more - apologies to those I have not mentioned.
There has traditionally been a close association between the two versions of the sport, and I have noticed on recent visits to Eastbourne and Coventry that the fixtures of the local cycle speedway clubs are publicised. Sadly, the flow of riders between the two versions of the same sport seems to have virtually ceased.
Looking through my photographic collection I found several pictures illustrating the speedway/cycle speedway link.
Belle Vue's Peter Craven was famed during his career for always sparing time for the fans. The first photograph shows that the double World Champion and his team-mates were more than happy to mix it on the cycle speedway track with young riders who undoubtedly also followed the Aces at Hyde Road and dreamed of shale careers.
In the photograph, which is reproduced courtesy of former Ace Bill Powell, Belle Vue's team men and novices combined to take on the Wilmslow Hammers, a successful Cheshire club which raced in the Manchester, Stockport and District League in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Hammers, whose race jackets featured white crossed hammers on a light blue background, raced at Lindow Common, off Altrincham Road in Wilmslow, on a 76-yard track with an earth surface.
The team were the sport's 1959 National Senior Team Champions, beating East Ham Wolves from East London 49 - 46, with the match raced at Hungerford in Berkshire. Individual members of the Hammers' team, particularly Vic Hinchcliffe and Derek Garnett, won many individual championships and in 1959 represented England against Scotland.
The Aces in the photograph are, back row l-r, are Brian Craven, Derek Skyner, Lew Grepp (himself a notable former cycle speedway rider), Peter Craven, and Jack Kitchen. In the front row, l-r, are Bernard McArthur, Graham Beattie, Bill Powell and Anthony Armstrong Jones - not the future Lord Snowden but a Hyde Road second halfer from Wellington, New Zealand. The rider with the Aces' racejacket at the end of the front row is believed to be a cycle speedway rider.
The second photograph shows Raymond 'Buster' Brown, later of Wembley (far right) captaining the England cycle speedway team. Amazingly, because of travel and currency restrictions in the 1940s, the match in question, against Holland, was ridden on a 'postal' basis, similar to the format used in chess. The two teams rode on their own tracks, on the same day, carefully noting riders' individual times. When these were scrutinised, results were declared. Thanks to Buster for the copy of the picture.
The third photograph was taken at the Alexander Sports Stadium, Perry Barr, Birmingham (now the modern Perry Barr Greyhound Stadium and home to the current Brummies speedway team). It shows Birmingham and former Cradley rider Geoff Bennett (who provided the picture) and a local cycle speedway rider, having a run on the Perry Barr track.
This article was first published on 3rd March 2013
"I certainly wouldn't want want to question Billy Powell's memory re this photo, but perhaps you could ask him if the rider identified in the Aces race jacket as 'a local cycle speedway rider' is in fact Tony Robinson? "
"Could that Cycle Speedway bike in the Birmingham photograph with Geoff Bennett be an original Phillips Speedtrack minus the chrome fork "protectors"?"
"It is certainly not Tony Robinson. Bill Powell is Tony Robinson's brother-in-law and would certainly have known if it had been Tony."
"The photo of Belle Vue and Wilmslow for who I rode for when in the RAF shows a good friend of mine in those days, Johnny Mottershed to the right of Peter Craven. Thanks to Bill Powell for the photo."
"The Wilmslow rider between the 1st. and 2nd. Belle Vue riders on the back row is myself Harry Marsh. I am eighty years old now! Incidentally, my father was a member of the Belle Vue midget car team 1935 to 1939."
"Re: Harry Marsh 'Pedalling to Glory': His father Frank Marsh was a highly respected midget car driver 1934-39 and linked to the Elto midget cars which were then being promoted by then Belle Vue speedway promoter the legendary E O Spence. Many of the Belle Vue midget car drivers were also speedway riders. There is much about Frank Marsh on the internet - he even has his own page. This can be found by a Google search Frank Marsh midget car racing."
" Buster Brown left Wembley to join Swindon Robins c1952 where he became a popular heatleader."
"Wilmslow Hammers 48 Belle Vue 48; SUN 28 April 1962; Hammers in photo and points scored: A Lewis1, J Percival 5, P Lomas (capt) 13, C Brecknell 1, R Holllins 5, M Page7, J Mottershead 9, J Wright 2, A Willcocks 3, M.Lees 2. To make the match more interesting Wilmslow took all outside gates. Harry Marsh did not ride in this meeting, he retired from racing in 1957."
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