Gum, guts, and the open road

Lifelong cyclist John Summerhayes talks to Steve Watkins about his 68 years on two wheels


John Summerhayes is now president of Lea Valley Cycling Club (LVCC)

John Summerhayes’ first memory of a bike was riding around his garden in Leyton as a three-year-old.

It was the start of a lifelong passion for the now 71-year-old president of Lea Valley Cycling
Club (LVCC), who still saddles up several times a week and takes part in the club’s popular
Sunday ride.

Cycling is enjoying its most popular spell since the 1950s, helped by the success of Team GB
in the Olympic Games inspiring a new generation of cyclists. And who’d have thought an
Englishman would win the Tour De France, or that a stage of the tour would pass through
Waltham Forest in 2012?

On the day the tour came through this part of East London, a delighted John can be seen on
YouTube saying he can’t believe his eyes as the likes of Bradley Wiggins raced past the Coach and Horses pub in a blur of colour.

At present, LVCC has more than 200 members. As one of the oldest cycling clubs in London,
it offers a busy race calendar on road, circuit, and occasionally off-road routes, covering
distances from ten to 100 miles.

What does a purist like John, who has won numerous races during an amateur career
spanning more than 50 years, make of the influx of new cyclists?

“I think it’s great for cycling because it was a minority sport for so many years. Club
membership was down to around 50 riders during the 1980s and 90s so it is encouraging to
see so many new members.

“My only concern about the wider popularity of cycling is the lack of road sense and
aggression nowadays. We share the road, not own it, and it seems to be getting worse.”

It’s a far cry from John’s own introduction to cycling when roads were largely car-free and
the hardship of post-war Britain saw the majority of people using public transport or a bicycle to get around.

His parents deemed the five-year-old roadworthy after completing eight tight cornered laps of the communal gardens in Theydon Road.

“It was good training and the roads were easy in comparison,” recalls John. The drop-handled bikes of the day had one rear-wheel brake and no gears so you had to peddle all the time. On one occasion, aged ten, he persuaded his friends to cycle to the coast and back in one day, an 80-mile round trip.

“It was a bit of an ordeal for my pals because they weren’t regular cyclists and didn’t bring
enough food. It got so bad one of them asked if he could chew my gum for some energy. I
wouldn’t have minded but had been at it myself for the best part of an hour.”

John Summerhayes cycling as a young man in the 1960s

John Summerhayes cycling as a young man in the 1960s

John joined Walthamstow Cycling Tourist Club as a 13-year-old, despite club regulations
excluding anyone under the age of 14.

“It was wonderful because I was suddenly rubbing shoulders with fellow enthusiasts and
could share my passion with like-minded people. The club used to go out for a group ride
every Sunday and I didn’t miss the weekend run the entire time I was a member.

“We’d cycle around Hertfordshire and stop off for Sunday roast and pudding, which cost
around 30p in today’s money.”

John later joined Springfield Park Cycling Club in Clapton, then Century Cycling Club where
his racing career began. He finished second in his first race, despite having flu and competing against adults.

Century had racing pedigree, including riders who held national records for 100 miles and the Land’s End to John O’Groats route. One of the club’s most respected medals was for the
completion of five races of varying lengths within a specified time. This included covering
240 miles in less than 24 hours. The race was due to start in Hertfordshire on a Saturday
afternoon leaving the enthusiastic teenager with a challenge before he even reached the
starting line.

John finished work at lunchtime, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then cycled 40 miles to St
Albans where he joined 600 other riders on the start line. It is testament to the power of youth that he completed the course in 22 hours following a route that passed through Coventry, Cheltenham, and Oxford, before finishing in London on Sunday afternoon.

“I felt great when I finished in Shepherd’s Bush, so cycled home to Walthamstow.”

John’s love of cycling saw him cover up to 300 miles a week in training. He discovered the
restorative power of ‘tapering’ – reducing the volume of training before an important race –
long before it was recognised as a valid training tool. It helped him in numerous races,
including a second place finish in the National School Boy Championships.

However, the long hours in the saddle were beginning to take their toll as the teenager began working in a photography studio in the West End.

“I looked in the mirror one day and saw a zombie staring back at me. It was crazy because I
was squeezing in training in the small hours before going to bed. I can remember doing hill
reps at 1am in the morning, which was barmy.”

Something had to give, so John chose to turn his back on cycling and the possibility of a pro-cycling career.

“It was a tough decision for an 18-year-old but looking back it was the right one. Only a
handful of athletes make it to the top in any sport and the gap between them and a good club rider is huge. You just have to take a reality check and look further down the road.”

The best part of a decade passed before a chance encounter with local bike builder Dick
Morris prompted John to consider racing again.

“I initially thought ‘no way’ but Dick convinced me to join LVCC in 1976 and, before I knew
it, I was back in the saddle and training. It was easier because I owned my own business and
got the cycling bug all over again as a 32 year-old with a family in tow. “

John’s competitive days may be over but he still holds the club record for the fastest ascent of Mott Street in Essex (1min, 57secs), which is listed among the UK’s top 100 hill climbs. Does he have any regrets about spending so much of his time on the saddle?

“One of the greatest adventures you can have is getting on your bike and heading off somewhere. I love the sense of freedom and achievement that comes with completing a long ride and have made a lot of friends over the years as well as touring all over Europe.”