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The First Seventy Years: 99 - National Service Cycling

Eric Biddulph tells of competitive cyling during his national service in the Royal Air Force.

The break came in January 1956. The Royal Air Force had deemed that I give it two years of my life. It was to be several months before I touched my bike again. My short time in Hereford permitted a limited amount of riding but it was not until I was given a posting to Bawdsey as a clerk in SHQ that it was possible for me to seriously get back in the saddle.

During the summer of that year I did some riding on my own around the lanes to the north of Bawdsey camp. I started to sound out potential members of a cycling group on the camp and sought help from the officers and NCOs in forming it. By October, Pilot Officer Davies had been appointed 'Officer in charge of cycling'. A meeting was called by him and I secured the purchase of a set of rollers and affiliation fees paid to the various cycling organisations.

By mid-November the first official clubrun was inaugurated, a ride to Framlingham Castle. Four members including myself set off with packed lunches prepared by staff in the airmens mess. Throughout the remainder of the winter of 1956/57 membership of the club continued to steadily increase. By the Spring I had measured a suitable stretch of road on which to hold 10 miles time trials. On 13 March 1957, the first event was held which I managed to win in a time of 25 minutes 24 seconds.

I had suggested to P/O Davies that we should have a team jersey for the station. He agreed and I asked Henry Lloyd to send me some samples. We decided to go for sky blue with a royal blue chest band and duly acquired six jerseys. Having successfully secured police permission for the 10 miles time trial course I was less successful with my application for a massed start road race course. We soon had teams from many stations entering our events; RAF Horsham St Faith and RAF Watton amongst them. RAF Honington contained one of my civilian
clubmates. Norman Steemson who had been called up for National Service a week after me had been posted to this Bomber Command station as an electrical engineer. He had been a leading rider in the Clarion but he had not trained so hard since he had met a girl a few months before joining the RAF. As a consequence, I was on a par with him, not having such distractions. The first' 10' that Norman's team rode at Bawdsey was won by his leader, Corporal Ron Beck in a time of 22 minutes 54 seconds, no mean feat in those days and still a respectable performance for a 21st Century rider.

During the early spring we were fortunate to have the RAF 12 hours time trial champion posted to our station. Alec Harlow was a regular on a four years contract. He had achieved a number of high placings in open time trials around the country.

By mid-May we had a reasonably strong team riding both RAF and civilian events in East Anglia. Alec won the RAF Watton '25' in 1.0.57 and I was fourth in 1.4.59. Colin Bond, a regular riding companion recorded a slowish 1.10.33 but the combined times were sufficient for us to take the team award.

In early June 1957 Alec and myself entered the RAF Championship '50' to be held near RAF Melksham in Wiltshire. We left camp at 6pm on a Monday evening with the intention of reaching Alec's home in Swindon late that evening. Missing the connection at Paddington station by the skin of our teeth after riding across London from Liverpool Street station we did not arrive until 2am on Tuesday morning. After an escorted tour of Swindon during the afternoon we rode the forty kilometres to Melksham where we were given RAF accommodation along with 150 other competitors. Up at 5.30 the next morning for a 6.34 start time I retired after only a few miles. The ordeal of the past two days and inadequate preparation proved too much. Alec however, went on to take second place in a time of 2.8.00.

By early July I had organised a '25' on the Ipswich to Norwich road. This was won by Aircraftsman Edgar of RAF Stanmore Park in 59.56, a mere one second faster than LAC Harvey of RAF Marham. Alec was third in 1.1.14.

Johnny Williams had been regularly riding with our group of dedicated cyclists but had no interest in competitive activities. He did however, express an interest in joining me on a French cycling holiday. On 18 July we duly caught the train from Felixstowe station en route to the ferry port of Dover and a subsequent railway journey across France as far as Lyon. The next two weeks were spent in the Alps and on the Riviera. Johnny had learned French at school and this proved to be of enormous benefit to me whose grasp of the language was zilt. This was to be the first of many cycling tours outside the UK.

In mid-August I took myself up to Wisbech to ride a '50' on a course much of which was below sea level with the dykes providing shelter from the wind. A couple of weeks later I was in Bury St Edmunds for the West Suffolk Wheelers '50' over a tough course which left riders exposed to the strong winds which swept across New Market Heath.

The RAF Massed Start Championship held on the perimeter track of the airfield at RAF Syerston near Nottingham saw Alec and myself representing our station in a field of 86 riders. We both retired with mechanical problems. On 1 September I competed in Colchester Rovers ' 50' and recorded my best time ever up to that time, 2.15.19 fast enough for me to win the third handicap prize. Moving into early autumn I took myself up to Norwich youth hostel by way of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and returning to camp the next day through Diss.

My final race in RAF colours was a road race around Ickenham in Berkshire. I was holding my own comfortably in the peleton until, at around forty five kilometres we came to Kop Hill. This turned out, on later enquiry, to be a 20% gradient and I was grossly overgeared not expecting to come across such a steep climb in this part of the world. I was 'dropped' and never managed to make contact again with the peleton. By the November of 1957 I had performed my final act for RAF cycling when I made a day trip by train to attend the RAF Cycling Association annual general meeting at the Air Ministry in London. The 30 January 1958 saw me finally out of uniform.


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