After the excellent articles on Alf Engers competition record published on VeloVeritas, specifically Part 2, but also Part 1, I thought I should try to recall my memories of that day away back in 1978.
– by Jeremy Greengrass.
At 14 years old it’s not often that you can say that “I was there” but I was.
It was my first proper racing season and I was building towards doing a decent ride in the unofficial British Schoolboy Championship, George Herbert Stancer 10 mile TT (herein after referred to as the 16km Individual Road Pursuit) in early September.
I’d qualified third fastest for that in the Eastern District Heat having broken my collarbone four weeks previously and eventually finished in eighth place that year. Looking back on it I think I peaked about four weeks too soon, anyway – I digress.
Rather unscientifically, I’d ridden myself into some decent form over the summer and a couple of weeks prior to the Unity CC 25 (40km IRP) a 57 minute ride gave me a reasonable shout of getting into the event, so when the start sheet landed on my doormat I scanned to see where I would start, mainly because that would determine how early I’d need to crawl out of my pit to make the two hour journey to Witham in Essex from Norwich.
The good news, I was off at number 114 which only meant getting out of bed at 4:00 am for a 7:54 am start.
The bad news, Alf Engers was only six minutes behind me!
All things being equal that meant he wouldn’t catch me until somewhere towards the end of the return leg.
The E72 course was based on the rolling A12 dual carriageway, one of the main roads into North East London at the time, it had a reputation as a “fast course” which let’s make no bones about it should read “drag strip” and down purely to the volume of traffic which travelled on it.
The course has long since been abandoned as being too dangerous. I’d ridden it once before and looking back at it, even on a Sunday morning the route was choked with articulated lorries.
I really should have reported my old man to the social services for letting me ride on there. There’s no way I’d consider doing that now at 47 let alone 14, my boys certainly won’t be doing anything like that.
The course itself took advantage of the RTTC rule which meant that the finish had to be within a mile of the start, on this course what it meant was the outward leg was considerably longer than the return which as it turned out was a major advantage on that day.
On 5th August 1978 the wind was coming from the South West which meant that outward leg had a tail wind leaving only the final 16km or so into the wind.
As usual my Dad got me to the HQ with just over an hour to my start time and we went through the usual routine, as I collected my number I had a sneaky look to see if 120 had been taken yet, it had, just in front of me.
There he was Alf, “the King” ear-ring glistening, just ahead of me.
He didn’t look all that, but on closer inspection it was apparent he was wiry strong and had the classic gaunt look of a man who was ultra fit or maybe having read articles since, knackered from having worked all night at the bakery. I prefer to think it was the former.
Even at that age I was aware of Alf’s legendary status and how the RTTC seemed to have a vendetta against him.
I’d been at a couple of events where he’d ripped the field to shreds and recall my Dad telling the story of seeing Alf approaching a roundabout on the A1 in the middle of the carriageway sit up to grab the now infamous brake levers in an attempt to make the turn, there was no doubt he had an aura around him.
I sneaked away to warm up on, in comparison to “the” bike, my not so trick Reynolds 531 frame which had been built by R.E.Buck in Ipswich although I did have a great pair of wheels 28 spoke colnago titanium hubs on mavic rims shod with a pair of clement 1 silk track tubs.
I’ll not tell you what chainring I had on the front, suffice to say it had the look of a dustbin lid which, coupled with a six speed straight through 13-18 block gave me a ridiculously high top gear, again not the ideal combination for a 14 year old, but these were the days before high cadence and any real scientific approach to racing it was a case of get into the little sprocket and grind away.
The tubs however made a fantastic noise with 160lbs inside them and I felt superfast during the warm up.
I rolled up to the start line with a couple of minutes to go, it was on the South bound off slip at Witham, which acted as a ramp, perfect for getting up to speed quickly. The countdown came and went and I was away, all thoughts of Engers quite literally put behind me I settled nicely in to a rhythm for the short distance of headwind before coming off the main road over a flyover onto the North bound carriageway for the long leg towards Colchester and immediately felt the benefit of that self same breeze swiftly pushing me to speeds which must have been around the 55 kph mark.
At the time I’d no idea how fast I was going all I know was that it felt incredibly easy as I was catching the guys ahead of me extremely quickly.
I don’t know what they thought of being caught by someone of my age or if they even knew, but that was the last of my worries. I was thinking of the head wind return leg, oh – and avoiding the trucks that were whizzing past me.
I got to the turn which was around 23 km completed and prepared for the headwind leg, over the bridge and onto the slip road to head south again, strangely enough it still felt fast, I thought it must have been the decline of the ramp, but later realised that the wind had dropped.
After a few of scary moments as a couple of articulated trucks dived from the main road across five lanes of traffic in front of me at the Marks Tey junction the traffic flow dragged me along for the final kilometres.
I was getting checks from my Dad as usual but, couldn’t hear them due to the traffic noise, he was going mental at the side of the road, initially I thought it was because Engers was about to catch me but with only a couple of miles to go I was still ahead of the game.
Off the main road and with a swift negotiation of a couple of junctions into the industrial estate which housed the finish and I was done.
I rolled back to my Dad who had a beaming grin across his face and told me my time, I’d completed the 40 km in an average speed of 44.65 kph, knocked over four minutes off my personal best and most importantly I was there to watch as Alf flew past the finish line to clock his 49:24 – a fearsome sight indeed, and one which I don’t ever think will be forgotten.
The place was already buzzing as Eddie Adkins, who you have to feel a little sorry for, had only just set a new competition record of 50:50, he must still hold the record for the shortest length of time anyone had held it.
Me? I ended up in 8th place, and that time remained my best until 2009 when I finally managed to beat it by 7 seconds at the Scottish 25 Champs “aero’d up” to the max. Makes you wonder what “the king” could have done with all that kit.