Ilkley - The town that got on its bike

Members of Ilkley Cycling Club pass the Cow and Calf.
Members of Ilkley Cycling Club pass the Cow and Calf.
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It was only ever supposed to attract a dozen or so riders, so how did Ilkley become home to the largest and fastest growing cycling club in the country? Nicky Solloway reports.

Paul O’Looney knows he has created something of a monster.

He’s a keen cyclist and two years ago he had the germ of idea. Talking to a group of friends he suggested setting up a bike club. It was always supposed to be an informal affair and having organised a public meeting at a pub in Ilkley they reckoned about 20 people would turn up. In the event, 85 people tried to squeeze into the upstairs room of The Yard.

“It was quite chaotic,” recalls Paul, a computer consultant who works in Leeds. “People couldn’t get up the stairs. It created this whole massive buzz straight away.”

That was just the start. Two years on Ilkley Cycling Club is the largest and fastest growing cycling club in the country. It’s estimated that eight per cent of the spa town’s population - around 14,000 - are members and it’s at least part of the reason why on any given weekend the country lanes in this part of Yorkshire are thronged with bicycles.

Following a little research, Paul discovered that a cycling club had long been part of the town’s history. The original Ilkley and District Cycling Club was founded in 1896 and enjoyed a heyday of competitive road races and social rides around the region before it was disbanded in the 1950s. After that night in the pub, Paul realised that there was an appetite to revive the club as a community project, open to everyone.

“It’s not like a golf club, it’s very, very inclusive and anyone can turn up with any old bike and join in,” he says. “We didn’t want it to be a club for middle-aged men.”

And it certainly isn’t. Around 40 per cent of its members are female and nearly 30 per cent are under 18. A youth section is coached by a whole team of youth leaders. Several club rides go out throughout the week, including a popular Monday morning women’s ride and Sunday morning and Thursday evening club rides which are divided into three ability sections. There are also organised sessions for time trialling, mountain bike riding, road racing and cyclo cross. Part of the club’s appeal is no doubt the low cost of membership. It costs just £10 a year for an individual or £15 for a family.

“I’d never organised a club before nor even been in a cycle club so I was a bit in the dark and didn’t really know how much to charge,” admits Paul. “I wanted to keep it really low cost to encourage people to join. We believe it’s better to have a thousand members paying £10 than 200 members paying £30.”

And that seems to be the key to its success; there is safety in numbers. The award-winning club is run by an army of 300 volunteers, including a youth officer, women’s officer and social officer.

Katherine Church, who was the chairwoman of the club until the beginning of February, won a Community Sport and Recreation Award from British Cycling last year for her work with young cyclists.

“Traditionally cycling clubs are perceived as something for middle-aged men in Lycra so we wanted to make sure it wasn’t like that,” she says.

The club is now part of British Cycling’s Go-Ride programme, a national network of cycling clubs which provide training to young riders.

“We have a very strong structure for the youth development programme but we are looking for a lot more people to help.”

Katherine is working with local primary and secondary schools to provide Bikeability courses, which have replaced the traditional Cycling Proficiency programme and she is keen to bring more women into the sport.

“We want to establish more girls’ rides to catch that classic 12-16 year-old age group where girls tend to duck out of sport a bit. It would be great to get more girls out on their bikes. “

They have also been approached to teach cycling skills to people with learning disabilities at a social enterprise in the town and eventually they hope to build a purpose-built training track. “A headquarters would be lovely, but what we really need is somewhere traffic-free to coach in,” says Katherine. “At the moment we’re using the rugby club car park, which has cars that we have to manoeuvre round. If we had a track we could do some proper racing.”

The club received funding from Sport England for the Youth Development Programme and bought a set of bikes which they loan out through the local bike shop.

The re-located Ilkley Cycles is another spoke in the wheel of the town’s community cycling spirit. Following its re-branding from JD Cycles, owner Adam Evans has just relocated his shop to the main road through Ilkley. Though he didn’t know it when he signed the lease for the building, it couldn’t be better placed for the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in July.

“We signed for the building on the Tuesday and the Tour was announced on the Thursday,” says Adam.

The peloton will be passing a few feet away from the shop window which has brought a raft of enquiries from television crews interested in hiring out his flat roof. He is also hoping to build a viewing platform on the pavement outside for invited guests.

The shop has planned a programme of community events, including free bike maintenance classes and a monthly social evening with a guest speaker at the cycle shop’s cafe.

“There are such wonderful opportunities for cycling around here,” says Adam.

As you might expect, Ilkley Cycling Club has also come up with a detailed programme of events to celebrate the Tour in July. They have organised a campsite at the Rugby Club, races in the town centre which will be similar to Otley’s popular annual event, a retro-styled Tweed Ride and a party in the park with big screens to watch the Tour travel along the 190km opening stage.

The weekend before the Tour, the club are putting on the White Rose, a road cycling sportive challenge for 1,000 amateur riders.

The club resurrected the annual sportive in 2012 and is now using it to fund its other activities, as Paul explains: “We put our energies into the White Rose Classic and make enough money out of that to keep the club alive and thriving.”

Of course people power is at the heart of the whole thing. The White Rose is run by around 60 volunteers.

“We try and get everyone to do something and that’s one of the reasons we can keep the fees low.”

It’s another example of how the club is getting more and more people out on their bikes.