Cyclist Alex Dowsett delves into the past of his sport at the Essex Record Office

As the Tour de France draws to a close and Britain gears up to host the 2012 Olympics, Essex’s own home-grown medal-winning cycling Alex Dowsett paid a visit to the Essex Record Office to find out about the story of cycling in his home county. The Team Sky cyclist attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, and is the current British National Time Trial Champion.

Alex Dowsett in Team Sky kit

Alex took time out of his busy training schedule to visit the ERO ahead of his next major competition, the Eneco Tour, in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Cycling was a popular pastime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Essex was a popular choice with cyclists, particularly those from the London area as it was a short distance to ride out into the countryside from the London suburbs.

The North London Cycle Club at Chelmsford, c.1895. Fred Spalding Collection, ERO D/F 269/1/384

Many clubs were formed to organise social rides and competitions, and some clubs even had huts where members could stay overnight before returning home.

Races were held over long and short distances, and some even took place on penny farthings.

A penny farthing. The reason for the large front wheel? Speed! Fred Spalding Collection, ERO D/F 269/1/329

Handbooks and maps gave cyclists advice about where to go in Essex, including one which advised that some of the terrain in Hadleigh, where the Olympic mountain biking event is taking place, was too dangerous to be ridden!

Even women took part in cycle rides, despite wearing restrictive corsets and ankle-length skirts.

The Chelmsford Bicycle Club, c.1895, Fred Spalding Collection, Chelmsford Sporting Groups 382

Archivist Allyson Lewis talked Alex and Councillor Jeremy Lucas, Cabinet Member for Customer Services, Environment and Culture, through the documents and images which tell this story.

From left to right: Alex Dowsett, his mother Jan, Archivist Allyson Lewis, and Councillor Jeremy Lucas. (Photo: Marion Wynn)

Alex said:

It was great to see all the results from back in the day, comparing the times on the machines they used then with the times possible on my modern machinery. It was also nice to see names I recognised of Essex cyclists who have helped me along the way


Racing bike and rider, 1890s – the Victorian equivalent of the kind of machines that racing cyclists use today. Fred Spalding Collection, ERO D/F 269/1/330

Alex not only got to see pictures of the kind of machines that his predecessors raced on, but got to try one out. We think he liked it.

Councillor Jeremy Lucas with a penny farthing, and Alex Dowsett on an 1890s racing bike outside the ERO. (Photo: Marion Wynn)

Bye Alex! 
(Photo: Marion Wynn)

Many of the documents which Alex saw on his visit will be on display in the reception area of the Essex Record Office from next week.