Sunday, 26 August 2018

Tommy Hall, Edwardian cycling star

Abney Park Cemetery has a grave decorated with an eye-catching bicycle. The text is less striking against its now-discoloured background, but does include the vital details: this is the headstone of Tommy Hall, 'great rider and sportsman' who was 'a record breaking and world famous cyclist on road and track'. Born in Croydon, he lived in London throughout his life.


Hall's greatest achievements were in motor-paced events. In 1903, he broke the hour record by cycling over 54 miles; the following year, he came third in the European stayer championship. 

Tommy Hall

Motor-paced races were held in velodromes and involved the cyclist following a powerful motorbike as closely as possible to take advantage of their slipstream. In often crowded events, he would be dependent upon the motorcyclist's skill in keeping clear of opponents as well as reliant upon their setting an appropriate pace - fast enough to allow him to win, not so fast that he couldn't keep up. The motorbikes were specially adapted, not only for speed but also to sit the rider as far back and upright as possible to maximise their effectiveness as a windbreak.


Bicycles were specially adapted, too. The front wheel was smaller than the back to allow the rider to get closer to the motorbike in front. High handlebars helped breathing. Support struts ensured the saddle and handlebar stem stayed rigid. 

The races were dangerous: motorbikes and bicycles were not always successful at keeping clear of each other. There were few rules, protective clothing and helmets were not worn by the cyclists, and tyres were prone to bursting at speed. The main concession to safety was a roller bar at the back of each motorbike to prevent the cyclist touching its rear wheel. Injuries were a common occurence, and deaths not unknown. The worst accident occurred in 1909, when a motorbike went into the stands, killing nine people.

The sport would become more closely regulated, and remained popular for much of the twentieth century. The world championships continued until 1994 and there are still European championships.  



Hall's career lasted until 1914. He later trained other cyclists, sometimes himself riding a motorbike as pacer. As his gravestone tells us, he lived until the age of 72, dying in 1949. Motor-paced cycling reached its extreme in 1995 when Fred Rompelberg reached 167 mph riding behind a dragster on Utah's salt flats!




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