Jimmy Savile and the Hard Luck Tour
Opened in May 1951, the Festival of Britain was a nationwide exhibition described as a “tonic for the nation” after World War II. The brainchild of newspaper editor Gerald Barry and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Herbert Morrison, it was intended to promote a feeling of recovery and progress, particularly at a time when parts of London and many of Britain’s other major cities still lay in ruins.
Activity focused on the capital, and highlights included the new South Bank development with the Royal Festival Hall at its centre, and the bizarre cigar-shaped tower known as the Skylon, located between Westminster and Hungerford Bridges on the Thames. But of all the travelling events, which included a ship taking elements of the South Bank exhibition to all the major port cities, it was a pioneering bike race that perhaps best captured the public imagination.
Cycling had taken off as a major sport among young men during the war, gaining in popularity in the years immediately afterwards as petrol rationing left the roads largely empty of cars. Competitive and social cycling in the UK had been run by the National Cyclists Union (NCU), since 1860. It had banned road racing in 1890, fearing it would endanger other cyclists – if its members wanted to race, they had to do so under strict supervision in clandestine time trials on closed roads or airfields. Time trialists were required to wear black tops and black tights and were under strict instructions that any published photos of them were not to identify the names of the manufacturers on their bikes. The NCU abhorred all signs of professionalism.
In 1942, Percy Stallard, a competitive cyclist from Wolverhampton, rebelled against the NCU by organising the Llangollen-Wolverhampton road race, the first of its kind in more than four decades. Aping their professional heroes on the Continent, riders wore brightly coloured jerseys and short white socks, and pedalled stripped-down, lightweight racing machines. It was a new, glamorous and accessible form of cycling, and more than 2,000 people flocked to West Park in Wolverhampton to witness the finish. Stallard’s race posed a direct challenge to the stuffy authoritarianism of the NUC, which immediately expelled him and his fellow competitors. More races were quickly arranged.
Before the year was out, Stallard felt emboldened enough to form his own rival organisation, the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC), issuing three categories of licence: amateur, independent and professional. Membership boomed as clubs sprang up everywhere, adopting continental club names like ‘Velo’ and ‘Coureurs’. Snaking columns of BLRC members out on club runs, riding two-abreast and in team colours, became a feature of Sunday afternoons up and down Britain. The clubs would often greet each other with shouts of ‘up the rebels!’.
The young rebels of the BLRC were harassed at every turn. The NCU were determined to see off their upstart rivals and resorted to reporting them to the police and even accusing some of being communists. But increasingly the tide was turning in favour of the upstarts.
The first six-day Brighton-to-Glasgow stage race took place in 1949, sowing the seeds for the inaugural Tour of Britain, and it was founder BLRC member Doug Peakall who came up with the idea of a 1,400-mile road race to be staged as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations. The Daily Express came on board as sponsors, putting up £1,000 in prize money and in the process infuriating the mandarins at the NCU still further.
And so it was that on August 15th 1951, 49 cyclists representing 13 teams assembled at the ‘Cockpit’ in Hyde Park, a natural amphitheatre. The teams included outfits consisting of professional riders from France, Ireland and Scotland, independents racing in the colours of British bike manufacturers such as Dayton, ITP, Viking and Pennine, and a mixture of amateurs and independents representing the various regions.
After stretching and much massaging of legs, the peloton rode out of London under orders at 9.30am, spare tyres tied to their bodies in a figure of eight. They headed for Farnborough Common in Kent, where they would have a light snack, before the race proper started at noon.
The First Tour of Britain routed riders from London to Brighton, along the south coast and into the West Country, up into Wales, the north-west and the Lake District, before arriving at its most northerly stop in Glasgow. From there, they would head to Newcastle, down the eastern side of England and finish in London. It added up to an energy-draining 12 stages in 14 days.
Rider number 48
Once out on the road to Hastings, one of the very first to break from the pack was a young cyclist from the Yorkshire team. Rider number 48 was listed in the race programme somewhat exotically as Oscar ‘The Duke’ Savile, a 24-year-old ‘company director’ from Leeds who had recorded strong recent performances in road races held in the north of England and in Scotland.
The ‘Oscar’ moniker came from his bike’s rare frame, which itself was named after Swiss world champion Oscar Egg; ‘The Duke’ was due to his antics at start lines, where he was known to cause gasps and laughter by arriving in a chauffeur-driven car, smoking a cigar, or stripping off a silk gown like a boxer to reveal his cycling gear underneath. In later years, Oscar (real name James) would become more famous as Jimmy Savile, larger-than-life disc jockey, charity fundraiser extraordinaire and legendary fixer of dreams.
While it could be argued that the 1951 Tour provided the springboard for Jimmy Savile’s lengthy showbusiness career, Oscar Savile’s lead was not to last as long. He was quickly overtaken and the first stage was won by Frenchman Gabriel Audemard, who at one point had to carry his bike over a footbridge at a level crossing but eventually passed the finishing line on Brighton’s Madeira Drive in front of thousands of cheering fans.
After 83 miles in the saddle, the riders headed off to soak and sleep in cheap lodgings. Their first rest day was more than 72 hours and 320 miles away, and before reaching Weston-super-Mare they would first have to pass through Bournemouth and Plymouth.
The 1951 race certainly earned its epitaph as the ‘Hard Luck Tour’. There was no British precedent for a road race of this size, the weather was appalling throughout, and little or nothing in the way of food or shelter was laid on for the riders. On their way out of Plymouth and riding as one big group, the competitors pulled up alongside an open-backed truck carrying groceries. As Oscar, aka Jimmy, said: “We were all pirates in those days, because none of us cyclists had any money. So I went up to the front and talked to the driver while the lads at the back were knocking off all the gear – grapes and fruit and this, that and the other. That was how we ate.”
Even by this early point in the tour, Oscar Savile was making more headlines than he was headway in the race. If he came last on a stage, he’d change into his suit before joining the winners, race officials and local dignitaries at the evening’s prize-giving presentation. There, he’d insist on thanking the crowds for turning out before joking that while the other racers had been timed by watch, he was being timed by calendar. It went down a storm.
Savile later admitted that the Duke’s strokes were designed at getting him into the pages of the Daily Express. “They were always looking for stories,” he laughed. ‘Cyclist wins by a neck’ was the headline above an item about race leader Dave Bedwell, a 20-year-old cycle mechanic from Romford, who used the rest day in Weston-super-Mare to go for a 20-mile ride. “Before that,” wrote the Express, “he had been challenged to a race, had accepted and had been beaten. The challenger, and the winner by a neck was cigar-smoking Oscar Saville (sic), otherwise ‘The Duke’. The race was on donkeys.”
The news story went on to say that Oscar then missed the ferry across the Bristol Channel taking competitors to the start of the fifth stage in Cardiff. “I’d pulled a bird who was staying at the same hotel,” Jimmy told me. “Oh, thank you very much indeed! I didn’t want to leave at six o’clock at night to go to Cardiff. One of the officials had one of the early two-seater Jaguars. So I said to him ‘Why don’t I miss the ferry and you can drive me round to the start?’ Next morning, and with some regret and after swearing undying love, we drove all the way round to Cardiff… I got to the start about 20 minutes before the race started.”
Back on the road, things were only getting tougher for the riders. At 160 miles, the Morecambe to Glasgow stage was the longest ever to be ridden in Britain and proved to be the final staging post for Jimmy. By the time he hit the summit of the 1300-ft Shap Fell he was physically spent. Soon afterwards he climbed off his bike and collapsed beside the road. “I tell you where he packed,” confirmed Ken Russell, who would win the race the following year. “It was at Penrith. I always remember the PA van coming past and saying that he’s packed.” Oscar had paid the price for his late night carousing.
Savile’s race was over but his retirement proved to be anything but a disaster. Indeed it could be argued that what followed changed the course of his life. “The Daily Express were loth to let me go,” he wrote in his autobiography, “because in those days athletes who were sparky characters were the exception rather than the rule.” The organisers instead commandeered a second loud-speaker car and invited him to become the race commentator. “It turned out that I was a natural ad-lib broadcaster” he explained. “This lurking ability sealed my racing fate. My chat was more valuable than my legs.”
Thirty-three of the 49 riders who started the race would make it all the way back to London, led by Scotland’s Ian Steel. When his Viking racing model crossed the finishing line of the twelfth and final stage in Hampstead, it had taken 63 hours, nine minutes and 53 seconds for him to complete the 1,400-mile route, battling driving wind and rain and surviving crashes, comical wrong turns and controversy along the way. When he got off his bike for the final time, Steel was hoisted aloft. “It’s been great fun,” he told the crowds, before departing to bathe and change.
Dan Davies continues to work on ‘Apocalypse Now Then’, his long-in-the-making life story of Sir Jimmy Savile.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.