Opera’s song of praise to a cyclist who lived the Olympic ideal

Lal White the steelworker who became and Olympic cyclist.
Lal White the steelworker who became and Olympic cyclist.
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The story of a steelworker who became an Olympic cyclist has inspired a new opera. Sarah Freeman reports.

Albert “Lal” White was a steelworker. He was also a cyclist who claimed silver at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and now some 40 years after his death he’s the inspiration behind a new opera.

His story, one which moves from humble roots to international glory with a generous sprinkling of grit and determination was made for the stage.

Born in Brigg in 1890, Lal’s early years were typical of a working class boy. One of 17 children, the family moved to Scunthorpe and he was barely out of short trousers when he started work at a local steelworks.

Marrying the girl next door, his life would have been largely unremarkable had it not been for his passion for cycling.

Lal’s first victory came in his first competitive race at the age of 12. He was bitten by the bug and despite later pressures of work and raising a family, any spare time he had was devoted to training.

Often unable to afford the train fare to attend competitions, he’d regularly cycle to meetings with his racing bike strapped to his back and once the finishing line had been crossed, he would return home exhausted, but more often than not with a medal in his pocket.

Not even bad weather could deter Lal. With the help of his brother Jack, a couple of mangle rollers and a little ingenuity they fashioned an indoor training machine which became the envy of the cycling world.

His career stats were needless to say impressive. Over the course of 30 years career, Lal won 55 cups, 200 gold watches and more than 100 medals, but his pinnacle of success came at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp when he took silver.

He remains one of the greatest cyclists of all time, but the man who embraced the original Olympian ideals has been largely forgotten or at least he was.

Lal and the history of competitive cycling has inspired a new opera as part of Imove, the region’s cultural contribution to the Olympics. Cycle Song, with a score by Tim Sutton and a libretto by Yorkshire Post columnist Ian McMillan will be performed this weekend in an open air production at Brumby Hall where Lal himself used to train.

Involving more than 1,200 performers, singers and cyclists, it is opera on an epic scale and organisers are hoping the weather is kind to the open air production.

“Lal symbolises the spirit and determination needed to compete at the highest level and when he went to the Olympics he carried the hopes and support of his home town with him,” says Cycle Song’s musical director Sue Hollingworth. “While it was still an amateur sport he did become a bit of a celebrity in his day. One story goes that after one of his victories he got off the train at Doncaster and pedalled home to get an early night.

“What he didn’t realise was that a large crowd was already waiting at Scunthorpe station and he was smuggled into the Station Hotel and made to ‘appear’ when the next train arrived so as not to disappoint the fans.

“Aside from his physical feats, he also had a huge amount of mental strength, sticking to a gruelling training regime, abstaining from alcohol and going to bed early every night. He wanted to go faster, reach higher and become stronger and we hope Cycle Song will be a fitting tribute to the man and his legacy.”

Cycle Song will be performed at Brumby Hall on July 14 and 15. For tickets call 0844 854 2776.