A life on fast wheels

Dick Swann, ex-racing cyclist, Christian priest, American race organiser, and luminary of the Cycle Engineer's Institute in Britain talked to PATRICK FIELD.

Dr. Richard Swann was born in Brighton in 1917, into a line of hard-riders. Great-grandfather, Charlie Swann, had been a high-wheel professional in the 1870's. His grandfather was also a racing man: Dr. Swann remembers his white-washed kitchen, its walls festooned with racing machines, a front-driven 'Kangaroo' and an aluminium framed Humber. His father, a seaman, was killed in action in the Great War and mother fell sick and died soon after. Childhood was shuffled around various aunts, uncles and orphanages.  "Luckily," he observes from the other end of a globetrotting life, "all the family rode bikes."

Dick's serious riding began with a stamina-building job delivering from an ironmongers shop. This required the thirteen year old to ride a rod-braked BSA with a small front-wheel and a single-free gear in the low 40's.  He recalls the thrill of negotiating the towns precipitous descents with a roll of chicken-wire in the basket.  "There was no way I could have stopped so I'd let it go. If anything had been in the way I'd have been cut in half." 

By the 1930's he was working as an apprentice printer in West London, where he began his racing career, riding for the Actonia club in time-trials, mass-start races on closed circuits like Brooklands or Blenheim Park (In Britain at the time bunch racing was not allowed on public roads.). There were also early cyclo-cross events (known as 'scrambles'), roller-racing and Dick's favourite disciplines: track-racing on grass or cement.

For mass-start races Dick used a bike equipped with a four-speed 'Osgear'. Scrambles were ridden on a single-fixed of around 66 inches - "a little hairy at times". On the track Dick excelled at the handicap, and at his preferred distance of one mile he was considered unbeatable. "The handicappers kept moving me back but I kept winning. The papers called me 'the smiling miler'".

"The secret of handicap racing is an explosive start. My mentor was Freddie Wild a policeman from Derby.  He was big and I was little and skinny.  A push-off from him was worth twenty yards. When I caught a rider I wouldn't look at him, just go straight past as fast as possible with my head turned away. They'd never realise how much I was suffering.  They'd just see me go past and get demoralised mental domination, jump and bluff."

Dick considers this a golden period of bike racing. The scrambles and roller races were often 'unregistered' - unlicensed by the sports governing body, the NCU (National Cyclist Union), and promoted by a private individuals but with excellent prize lists. 

There was, however, a lot more to life than sport and Dick speaks fondly of the care-free and car free years of the 1930's. When young men would bring tandems to the Sunday run taking 'pot-luck' that one of the women would leave her solo and take the stoker's seat. In Winter tricycles fitted with flat bars were preferred.

War came and the adult male population was assessed for military service. After the medical most active cyclists were classed 'A1' and consequently made up a large proportion of the first call up. Far from curtailing their activities, the turmoil of  the draft allowed the new recruits to compete in fresh pastures and Dick remembers the tracks at Dover, Glasgow, Bristol and Leeds. "The first thing we did was form a unit club, we'd con the C.O.s into being Presidents. We'd dodge guard duty with long weekend passes.  The roads were empty because fuel was rationed."

Postings to fighting zones brought this to an end and Dick was sent to the Middle East.  As always he managed to take his bikes with him. Stopping off in Cape Town he rode to Muezenberg and enjoyed the novelty of bathing in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the same day. In Cairo Dick found local riders like Mohammed Mustapha (nick-named 'El Lorry' for his assertive style), Chehata Bayoumi and Gomaa Ali Moghraby, who made the soldier cyclists very welcome. The local branch of the Maccabi (Jewish) Cycling Club, the Albion Club (for British ex-pats) and the burgeoning service clubs meant that the joyful and harmonious competition of cycle-sport flourished despite the grim context of World War. Finding equipment was hard. Sporting cyclists maintained an unofficial intelligence service to inform each other when a consignment of tyres or other essentials turned up somewhere. Dick recalls a ride from Cairo down to Port Said to buy tubulars when the weather was so hot he lost a stone in weight. These rare commodities were saved for riding on tracks. For everyday use hundreds of tap-washers, strung on a wire and forced onto the rim were substituted, giving a durable if somewhat bumpy ride.

The end of the war found Dick in Tripoli, where he won the Libyan Sprint Championship on a cement track built by the Italians. His last job as a soldier was decommissioning thousands of rifles by putting their barrels in a vice and bending them.  These weren't the only things the armies had abandoned. Without ever being officially demobilised Dick made his way home.

With skills picked up as a military odd-job man and his life-long obsession it is hardly surprising that Dick found himself working in the bike trade, building  track frames for, among others, Freddie Grubb and Hetchins. "With a road frame, when it gets hard you just change gear. A track frame has to be stronger. You also have to build them true.  You can't compensate for unequal chain-stays by putting the wheel in crooked."

He rode in anything that was going: time trials, hard-track, grass-track, hill climbs. He was also promoting races and taking teams to Germany and Belgium. "Following a row with officials at Leighton Buzzard in 1951 when I punched the judge on the nose, and the Clerk of the course in the mouth, I was called before the NCU Racing and Records Committee. The event had been so badly run that I had a good case. They asked me about the punching: 'Who me?', I said, 'I'm only a skinny, inoffensive boy.' The Chairman produced two photos of me in action and asked 'What do you say to that?' 'I'll have two postcards and one 8 by 6 enlargement please' ". They suspended him for six months. Penance done, Dick joined the Polytechnic CC and stayed with them for the rest of his racing career.

In the fifties Dick took to journalism. - another trade he had picked up in wartime. "I made sure that results from the length of the Mediterranean were getting into the  Tripoli Times while I was there."  "I worked for the Weekly Sporting Review and the Jewish Chronicle.  There were plenty of Jewish riders competing at that time - Reg Harris, Lutz Durlacher - so there was plenty to write about. Later many of these riders emigrated to Israel and Jewish cycling in Britain died away.

More life changes. In 1961, having studied divinity (the origin of his Doctor's title), Dick began working for the Christian Church and a few years later moved to the United States and began editing the National Cycling Review.  He became Secretary of the Century Road Club of America, was instrumental in resuscitating the club, secured sponsorship from Raleigh USA in Boston and within three years it had thriving branches all across the country.

Once again his biography entangles with the sweep of history as he became involved in a successful struggle to open membership of the Century Club to blacks and women.  He took touring teams to Europe, Canada and back to his old stamping ground of South Africa.  He was managing a team that appeared in the Rapport Toer of 1975.  This particular race has a famous footnote. The participation of an Irish Amateur team lead to their suspension, and pushed a youthful Sean Kelly into a professional career.  The USCF couldn't punish Dick as he was already suspended for promoting a 'National 25 mile TT' in defiance of the authorities. Typically unrepentant about his sanction-busting activities, he remembers multi-racial crowds and racing, although the teams were segregated.

Radio and TV commentating was a natural progression from his journalistic work.  As a member (and Vice President since 1978) of the Cycle Engineers' Institute he also appeared as an expert witness in cycle accident court cases across the USA.

As late as 1985 he was adding to his palmares by winning an International Veterans Championship at Lincoln.  He still enjoys regular international travel and the company of his daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughter. His trenchant and often controversial views on modern cycle technology appear from time to time in the newsletter of the Cycling Engineers' Institute.

(Sadly, Dick Swann died in September 2003 - Editor).


1. Dick Swann in the pilot's seat time-trialling in 1961

2. Mohamed Mustapha el Loru, national champion of Egypt in 1939. He and Dick Swann rode and raced many hundreds of miles together.

3. Dick Swann wins a sprint at Herne Hill, England, in 1946

4. Dick Swann meets the Archbishop Donald Coggan in 1966