On the History Trail: The phenomenon of hill climbing on cycles

Hill climb on Garrowby Hill in 1907, with Lock Lazenby reaching the top.
Hill climb on Garrowby Hill in 1907, with Lock Lazenby reaching the top.

Cyclists from York held a competition in 1892, in front of 300 spectators, to cycle up Garrowby Hill from a standing start.

Although no-one succeeded, Alex Stott very nearly did so, coming within 100 yards of the summit, with J W Wood 20 yards behind him, and F.E. Wasling another few yards further down the hill. Obviously feeling that he hadn’t done himself justice, Alex Stott had another go two days later – in front of witnesses – and succeeded, thereby winning a £10 bet which was enough for him to emigrate to Canada. It was no mean feat, on a bike that weighed nearly 40lbs, and with a road surface which was “in places crossed by channels worn in the limestone or chalk by water, which were some few inches in depth, and difficult to cross”.

By 1905 this hill climbing competition had become a really big event. On the evening of 28 June so many cyclists rode out from York and the surrounding area that by the time they got to Stamford Bridge “the cyclists riding two by two took five minutes to pass a given point at a speed of 10 miles an hour”. It was estimated that there were nearly 1,000 people present, including “large numbers of farm hands and other country people, who displayed a lively interest in the event”. The man they had come to see was Alex Myers, a 27-year-old cyclist of renown who worked at a big shop on Lendal called ‘The Sporteries’. So far in his career he had won over £1,300 in prize money. For this attempt on the formidable challenge of Garrowby Hill he was riding a Lambert Brothers machine with 26-inch wheels, a gear of 58 inches, with 6½-inch cranks and weighing 26 pounds. He had raised the saddle, dropped the handlebars and changed into his dancing slippers. He was permitted a 10-minute rest after cycling out from York. The starting point was “Gough’s Farm, a holding marked on many maps as the Garrowby Inn and which in the old days was a coaching house”. The finishing point was at Petch’s Farm, one mile and three furlongs up the winding hill which has gradients of 1 in 8 and 1 in 12. The road surface was much improved since Stott’s day “having a very good surface except in places which can easily be avoided”. Rain had fallen during the afternoon, so the road was far from dry. Myers declined offers of marshalls to keep spectators back from his course, so during his effortful climb he had to keep shouting “Make way!” to force a passageway through the crowd, reminiscent of scenes from today’s Tour de France. Some spectators tried to run to keep level with him, but he was travelling so fast that they couldn’t keep up. Although he was successful in his attempt, “no measures had been taken to have the climb accurately timed,” the estimate was that he had ridden the hill in eight minutes. After the crowds left, a 15-year-old called Master Albert Pearson, using the same bike, also managed to ride up the course, though not so fast as Myers and in less of a straight line. It had previously been announced that a lady would attempt the ascent “but she did not choose to do so in the presence of so large a crowd”.

In 1907, the hill climb competition was much better organised, a stop-watch had obviously been acquired, there were two competitions being run, one limited to local cyclists, and a cup and medals were presented to the winners, with certificates to all taking part. In a newspaper report, it was described as being like a gala day, and the writer wrote “...where all the people came from appears remarkable. There were stalls set out on the roadside for tea, vendors of oranges, and other hawkable articles galore. Motorists there were in plenty, together with char-a-banc parties in merry mood, while cyclists came tripping to the scene from all directions.” There were 32 cyclists entered for the climb, and 19 started. The winner of the open competition was Lock Lazenby, of York, with a time of 8 minutes 5 & 2/5 seconds; second was Alex Myers at 8 mins 7 secs, and third was Albert Pearson at 8 mins 31 & 3/5 secs. In the competition for cyclists living within 15 miles of York, Alex Myers won, Albert Pearson was second, and William Broadley was third. Only one lady – Miss Florrie Rogers – completed the course, Miss Oxley retiring half way up. Lock Lazenby won the Garrowby Hill Climb in three successive years 1906-08, and the photograph shows him riding and reaching the top of the hill in 1907 with the crowd watching.

The phenomenon of hill climbing on cycles became an obsession for a period on many hills all over the county, such as Staxton Hill and Sutton bank. In 1908, the Pocklington Cycle Club held one at Kilnwick which included even motor cycles (see photograph). The annual Garrowby Hill cycle climb developed into an annual motor cycle and car event. In 1923, R.T. Cawthorne made the top in 51 and 1/5 seconds on a Norton 3 h.p. motorcycle, and the car class did it in 58 and 2/5 seconds in a 8.9 h.p. Beardmore car. Clifton CC still hold an annual hill climb up Worsendale road in Bishop Wilton each October.

This article uses extracts from an article written in 2004 for the Bishop Wilton History Group by Kate Pratt and is shown here with her kind permission.