WATCHING The Tour De France on the telly, I can’t help but be proud of Coventry’s part in the race.
In fact, my city was always at the forefront of innovation, change and welcoming to people from elsewhere.
None of the quartet of James Starley, John Kemp Starley, George Singer or Henry John Lawson were born in the city, but all made their names, if not fortunes, there.
And without them, the Tour would not be a feature of the sporting calendar.
It was Starley, born in West Sussex, but forming the Coventry Sewing Machine Company, who came up with the idea of an all-metal bike and metal spokes on the wheel, making bicycles much lighter and capable of higher speeds.
The big jump forward came when Starley, acknowledged as the Father of the Bicycle Industry, came up with the idea of a differential gear on the rear wheel.
George Singer, from Dorset, worked for Starley in the renamed Coventry Machinists Company before launching his own firm and coming up with the idea of curved forks to allow for better streamlining.
London-born Lawson, whose efforts in the cycle and motor car industry, brought ignominy and shame, is credited with the first design of the safety bicycle, although John Kemp Starley, nephew of James, and a newcomer from London, produced the first safety bike, the Rover, in 1885. This was a rear wheel drive, chain-driven machine with two similarly sized wheels – the first modern bike, in fact.
Coventry had the skill sets to attract entrepreneurs. The watch-making industry gave way to, first, sewing machines, then bikes, motorbikes and cars. Aircraft and armaments were to follow, cementing the city’s reputation as a place of employment opportunity.
But city folk and those from Warwickshire were quick to seize on the bicycle not only as a means of fortune, but of sport.
The velodrome at The Butts, where Coventry Rugby now play, was built in the 1870s, when cycle racing was a fearsome prospect. Bone shakers, Penny Farthings and the like were pitted against each other on the track, which has recently reappeared at Butts Park Arena thanks to the heatwave.
It was one of the earliest velodromes, Coventry again leading the way, although maybe it wasn’t just in the name of sport, but as a test track for the numerous cycle manufacturers that sprang up.
I like the little degrees of separation of Coventry’s history. In the 1850s, a cricket pitch was created on these very fields – the Old Bull Fields – and in 1874, a certain Coventry RFC was formed there, with matches played next to the velodrome.
The cricket club later moved to Stoke, behind the Old Bull pub, and remains the city’s premier club, Coventry and North Warwickshire. Coventry RFC moved to Coundon Road in 1921, and then back to The Butts in 2004. Meanwhile, a football team formed at Singer’s works in 1883 was to become Coventry City FC.
Singer’s home was at Coundon Court, now site of a comprehensive school, when it was still part of Warwickshire, yet to be swallowed up by the city which he helped grow.
One irony of Coventry Rugby’s tenure at ‘Coundon Road’, scene of many a famous victory, was that the ‘road’ it was on was Barkers Butts Lane. In medieval times, when the city’s men were required to do military service, two ‘butts’ were set up where they could hone their archery skills for battle – The Butts and Barker’s Butts.
Coundon Road stretched from the city to the railway station, itself misnamed as Counden Road until 1894, and beyond was a country track leading to the hamlet of Coundon. It was the redevelopment of the fields after the second world war that saw the rugby club established there and housing and shops built all around.
That expansion came on the back of the war work the factories won, based on the skills of the workers in building bicycles, motor-bikes and cars.
Coventry shaped the bicycle, the bicycle shaped Coventry. It may have hosted the Milk Race a few times from the 1960s throught to 1990, but the city’s bicycle heritage has shaped the cycling world.