From way back when...
The Vegetarian Cycling & Athletic Club is long established
At the time of the Club’s conception, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was making the news, Jack the Ripper was murderously active, and the Statue of Liberty had recently been gifted to America.
In September 1887, Leslie Large of Lewisham, a keen cyclist and enthusiast of the vegetarian movement, placed notices in a number of periodicals inviting other vegetarian cyclists to contact him, with a view to forming a club. The objective was to provide a focal point for vegetarian cycling enthusiasts and to seek to prove, by the yardstick of athletic competition, that vegetarians could easily hold their own against their meat-eating counterparts.
The Club’s first formal meeting was held on 9th October 1888 in London. Leslie Large was shortly after elected the inaugural Club Secretary and Arnold F. Hills, a wealthy industrialist, became the first President. The name of the Club was confirmed as the Vegetarian Cycling Club (VCC).
Reports from competitions in the early days are few, but the Club was starting to be recognised as being competitive.
Henry Light, one of the founder members, was elected Captain in 1890 and soon became an inspirational driving force. Under his direction, performances of the VCC improved steadily and, in 1896, the Club achieved its first outstanding success when Jim Parsley of Peckham won the prestigious Catford Hill Climb which, at the time, was the country’s top event. Not only did he win, but he did so with a new record time.
This victory was a major breakthrough for Club recognition and the VCC held a dinner in Parsley’s honour. At this event, in thanks for his drive and commitment, the Club presented Henry Light with an iron-framed pianoforte!
From then on momentum gathered and the VCC cyclists really began to make a mark. George Antony Olley, the Club's first long distance superstar, started his brilliant career by setting remarkable times in achieving the London-Portsmouth-London record, and went on to break many more point to point and distance records, including London-Edinburgh, the 1,000 mile record in 1907, and the infamous Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1907 and again in 1908.
Early 20th Century
In the early years of the 20th century the Club went from strength to strength ensuring that the Club’s name figured prominently in results lists. In Scotland, the redoubtable Jock Miller rallied support to form an active Scottish section, whilst a flourishing ladies branch started its own active programme nationally. The Club by this time was well organised socially and won several Best Attendance awards at Cyclists’ rallies.
It was in competition, though, where the Club really excelled, especially with Olley, and the emerging Fred Grubb, who was widely speculated to be the fastest cyclist in the world at that time. He proved to be a prolific winner and record breaker both on the track and the road, creating multiple national records in both disciplines. He was the first British cyclist to enter the Giro d'Italia, in 1914.
In 1910 Charlie Davey joined the Club and rapidly rose to prominence both in his own right and as a team backer for Grubb. Davey broke seven Road Record Association (RRA) records between 1914 and 1926. He held the 24 hour tandem paced track record and won open time trial events from 50 miles to 24 hours.
Widening Horizons and a Change of Name
Alongside the cycling, athletes from other disciplines were becoming prominent and helping to promote the Club. The Bacon brothers (yes, really!), six of them in total, each of them a good all-round athlete of immense physique, gained many boxing and wrestling successes. Eustace Miles was ten times English tennis champion. George Allan, the ‘little Leicester shoemaker’, walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1904 and 1908. The Club was even large and prosperous enough to boast its own ladies swimming section.
Following the widening of athletic activities, the Club’s name was changed in 1909 to become the Vegetarian Cycling & Athletic Club. The 1912 Olympic cycling road race, held in Stockholm, saw no fewer than six Club members selected as representatives. Sadly, shortly afterwards, sporting activity took a nose-dive with the outbreak of the Great War. Virtually every able-bodied man was conscripted and, though the Club survived on a social basis, no formal athletic activity took place.
The aftermath of The Great War
Following the First World War the Club was slow to get into its stride again and Charlie Davy carried the vegetarian flag virtually alone - though very successfully - winning events, breaking records and by being selected twice as a World Championship team member. Davey turned professional in 1923 and though he successfully broke several RRA records, adverse weather denied him his main goal of taking the Land’s End to John O’Groats record. In later years Charlie became a valued manager and mentor to a number of successful professional and amateur riders.
By the late 1920s the Club had once again developed a dominant status, with many riders well capable of national performances. During this period many held RRA records at one time or another, with others dominating the 24-hour time trial scene.
The 1930s - great success
In 1930 the magazine ‘Cycling’ introduced the ‘British Best All Rounder’ (BBAR) competition based on time trial performances at 50 miles, 100 miles and 12 hours. The might of the VCAC at that time ensured that we had half a dozen of the best riders in the country within our membership. The Club won the Best All Rounder Shield in 1930, 1931 and 1932, and the Club name was rarely out of the prize list in all the major events. The impact of these successes on the cycling world was tremendous and new members entered the Club’s ranks in a steady stream.
By the mid 1930s, following an outstanding career as an amateur, during which he won the classic ‘North Road 24’ three times, Sid Ferris turned professional and in 1937 and 1938 broke a number of RRA records, including Edinburgh to London, Land’s End to John O’Groats and the 1,000 miler. He also took the 24-hour record with a distance of 465.75 miles.
Not to be outdone, the ladies team also started to become well known. Pearl Wellington took track racing, time trialling and record breaking in her stride. She broke no fewer than five RRA records between 1935 and 1938.
Around this time the pilot and stoker team of Law Innes and Bill Thompson broke a number of RRA records on their tandem, culminating in the Land’s End to John O’Groats record in 1938.
Outside of competition, plant-power was publicly demonstrated in other ways. In 1936 Walter Greaves, a member from Yorkshire, set up an outstanding year’s mileage record of 45,383 miles - that’s an average of nearly 125 miles each and every day for a year. Oh, and he only had one arm, as a result of losing one in childhood.
Welshman Bert James joined the Club in 1934 and his winning ways soon elevated him to the ranks of being another outstanding member. He scored many wins in prestigious events and finished third in the 1934 BBAR table, fifth in 1935 and second in 1936. Joining Ferris in the professional ranks, he broke several RRA records including the 100 mile - in 3 hours 45 minutes 51 seconds - a record which was destined to stand until after the war. This was an outstanding time in an era of primitive machinery and absolutely no hi-tech nods towards aerodynamics.
Altogether, the 1930s can truly be said to have been the Club’s heyday. It dominated the cycling scene in virtually every sphere, and was particularly prominent in 12 & 24 hour events. One correspondent felt compelled to write to the cycling press suggesting that vegetarians should be banned from long distance events; arguing their diet gave them an unfair advantage!
The Post-War Years
Following the Second World War, things remained at a low ebb until 1947 when Dave Keeler burst upon the scene and the Club once again had a veggie superstar. During that year Dave quickly established himself as a top short distance rider and, in the brilliant 20-year career that followed, he developed into one of the greatest all-rounders ever known, taking titles from 4,000 metres on the track, to the coveted End to End record.
In 1949, Dave represented the country in the World Student Games in Budapest, riding on both the track and road. In 1951, he lowered the 25-mile time trial record, twice! During the same year he also took the 30 mile competition record. In further outstanding achievements he was the first rider to beat the hour for 25 miles in Wales, became Scottish 25 mile champion (whilst breaking the competition record), took the Welsh 50 mile championship and, on the track, took the 4,000 metres pursuit title.
In 1958, Dave broke the Southern RRA London-Southampton-Dover-London record, and the same year lowered Sid Ferris’s Land’s End to John O’Groats record. No distance or discipline fazed Dave and indeed in recent years he was named by a prominent magazine correspondent as cycling’s greatest ever all-rounder. During the ‘Keeler era’, assisted by teammates Jim Hanning and Peter Duncan (better known for his tricycle performances), the Club was once again recognised as a superior force in 12 and 24 hour events.
During the 1960s, perhaps unsurprisingly, no Club member was able to match Dave’s efforts, though top 10 BBAR places were earned by Malcolm Amey, who produced many superb performances, Graham West, who was National 50 Mile Champion, and Tom Smith.
Late 20th Century
In the 1980s, Kathy Akoslovski (nee Bellingham) established herself as the Club’s most successful ever woman time triallist and record breaker. She famously lowered the Women’s RRA Birmingham to London record - the first time anyone had beaten a record set by the esteemed Eileen Sheridan. She gained four national RRA records in total, numerous regional RRA records, and she still currently holds every female Club record on a solo bike, solo tricycle and mixed tandem. During the same decade Ron Murgatroyd, Harvey Greenhalgh and Doug Griffiths also frequently figured prominently in veteran’s time trial results.
In the 1990s, with the growing popularity of road running and multisport events, the athletics section became the Club’s main area of activity. Competitively, one highlight was a 1st place in the men’s team prize at the 1996 Chingford Orion 10 mile road race. One of that team, Richard Jordan, continued to win many local events for several years, achieving a marathon best of 2:29 and 1:10 for the half-marathon.
Second claim member Danielle Sanderson won many races around the country during the 1990s, attaining a clutch of course records as she did so. Such was her calibre that she was selected for the GB Athletics Team in 1997 and competed in the World Marathon Championship in Athens, finishing in 35th place. In the 1998 Commonwealth Games marathon she again demonstrated her pedigree and finished 6th. Later, she moved to ultra-distance running where she continued to be successful, winning the 2001 national 100K title at Moreton-in-Marsh and, in the World Championships that followed, achieved an impressive 7th place. Her best ever time for the marathon was 2:39.
Gert Cowling, a ‘Vet 50’ by the mid-1990s, concentrated on the marathon distance and, on more than one occasion, she ran the 26.2 miles on successive weekends, with her PB being 3:23. Over the ultra-distances, Brian Bosher was successful, winning medals on many occasions up to the mid-1990s. Around the same time Job King, following success as a junior, entered the senior ranks and immediately made his mark. His highlights for the Club were winning the tough Charnwood Hills 15 miles Cross Country and winning the Pitsford half-marathon with a time of 1:10 in icy conditions. At a young age, Job ran the London marathon in 2:37.
No review of the Club can ignore the incredible and enduring VCAC athlete, Ron Franklin, whose athletic career dates back to the 1950s. He represented Wales at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, accumulated a total of 10 Welsh championship medals and his PB times for all distances - including a 2:25 marathon - have still not been surpassed by any other VCAC member. Since becoming a veteran in the mid-1970s, he has competed in both World and European Veterans Track Championships with a great deal of success. Ron is the most successful non-cycling athlete the Club has ever known.
The New Millennium
Anna and Nick Berrill joined the Club in 1996 and quickly gained a name for themselves. Anna represented the GB age group team in the World Triathlon Championships in both 1997 & 1998. Both Anna and Nick won their respective races in the 2001 Bedford 6 mile event. For several seasons they were both generally in, or close to, the podium positions. Similarly, another family team, Peter and Suzanne Benyon also made an impact with repeated high level performances. Suzanne in particular was amongst the medals in most events she took part in, with her main distances being between 3 and 10k. Suzanne’s best achievement for the Club was in 2006 when she was victorious in no fewer than four road races.
Duplicating Anna Berrill’s multisport GB age group team selection, Graham White was selected for the duathlon. He recorded good results in many local triathlon and duathlon races as well as running events. Lesley Cliff, who was a late starter to competitive sport, has been one of the Club’s most successful triathletes, recording numerous age group victories and for several years was simply unbeatable, even at world level. She was the World Standard Distance Triathlon Champion in the V55 age category in 2003 & 2004 and won further podium places in National and European Triathlon & Duathlon Championships over the course of several seasons.
The Club continued its link with strong cycling performances and in the late 1990s / early 2000s scored many successes. In mountain bike and cyclo-cross events Judith Shakeshaft competed for Wales and won the Welsh Championships on several occasions. In the 1997 World Masters Cyclo-Cross Championships in Belgium she won a silver medal, and in the World Masters Mountain Bike Championships in Switzerland finished in 19th place.
Steve Wigglesworth joined the Club in the late 1990s and recorded several open event time trial victories. Upon reaching vet status he targeted the prestigious national ‘Rudy Project’ time trial series and for two consecutive years in this competition finished in the top five overall, scoring several podium places along the way. Steve also regularly competed in medium gear (72″) events, continuing a long Club association with this racing format - a format which the infamous Dave Keeler, and other members, had previously excelled at - and twice finished fourth overall in the national series. In 2005 Steve turned his attention from cycle racing to triathlon. As a triathlete he has won events outright and continued to frequently win age group races. He has competed internationally for the GB age group team and has placed in the top 10 in the world in sprint distance triathlons on two occasions.
The Club has, without doubt, helped to prove that there is no need to eat meat in order to be a successful athlete.
Whatever your athletic prowess or sporting ability, whether you're built for speed or endurance, a plodder or a sprinter, whether a fan of the track, the roads or the fells, a commuting cyclist, a fan of the sportive or a long distance eventer, there is a place for you in the Club.
By spreading the name and continuing the history you help to educate and inform. Good luck in your sporting endeavours!