For the last several years, major news organizations have placed Austin somewhere towards the top in their lists of bike-friendly cities in the United States. While Austin cyclists might add a word of caution regarding safety on Austin roadways, in general they feel a lot of pride for the local cycling culture. The stalwart commuters, the intense roadies, the activist critical-massers, the fixie hipsters, the earnest triathletes, the waggish cyclocrossers, the easy-going mountain bikers, the gravity-defying BMXers—all these cyclists and more make up an eclectic community of people who pedal.
Even so, Austin’s cycling culture cannot hope to rival that found in certain areas of the globe. For a substantial portion of the population in cities ranging from Denmark to Portugal, the bicycle is a primary mode of transportation and a given facet of everyday life. This was certainly the case for many cities in England during and after World War II. Because of petrol rationing and because long “commutes” were not the norm—you lived where you worked, bicycles were part of everyday life for Brits of this era.
Portsmouth was just such a British city, and this was the cycling culture into which Brian Riley was born in 1935. Even though his family and friends were working class people, everyone had a bike. At 14, Brian joined a local bike club, the Fareham Wheelers, and began participating in “club runs” of 25 to 60 miles every Sunday.
There were local bike races, but the sport of cycling was an interesting scene in England at that time. Even though many countries in Europe had established traditions of road racing from the turn of the 20th century–both the one-day “Classics” and the multi-day stage races, the governing body for cycle racing in England (the National Cyclists’ Union, or NCU) had actually banned cycle racing on open public roadways in 1890. For that reason, there were two venues available to racers when Brian was a young man: time trials and velodromes. Time trials used the roads, but the participants took steps to keep from breaking the no-racing rules. In addition to the time-trial structure, which avoided a mass start, racers wore black shorts, muted-color jerseys, and no racing numbers. Brian raced for Zenith Cycling Club, which was affiliated with the NCU.
At 17, Brian went to France to spectate at the Tour de France. Not surprisingly, he started racing shortly thereafter, focusing on the 10- and 25-mile time trials and velodrome races in his region of southern England. In the late 1950s, when he and some fellow racers violated the rules of the NCU by participating in mass-start road races, they were suspended from racing. So he and four of his friends founded Velo Club Aquila, sponsored by a British airline.
Things had started to change for cycle racing in England in 1942, with the formation of the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC), which sanctioned and organized mass-start road races and provided an alternative to the NCU. Paralleling those national changes, Velo Club Aquila was formed in association with the BLRC. When they gained the sponsorship of a French wine-maker, Velo Club Aquila was transformed into Velo Club San Raphael, a cycling club which is still operating over 50 years later. In addition to the title sponsor for the racing club, team bikes were donated by Rotrax.
As part of the Velo Club San Raphael, Brian raced Cat 1 at numerous BLRC-sanctioned single-day and stage races in the southern part of England and in the London area, almost always placing in the top three, and often winning. Working 40-hour weeks as an upholsterer–a skill that would always be his line of work–he trained in the evenings and raced on the weekends. For ten years, that combination of work and cycling characterized Brian’s life in England.
Then in 1964, Brian had the chance to make an exciting move. A friend had moved to the Los Angeles area, and he told Brian of his “Hollywood” life. In short order Brian decided to join him. He found work as an upholsterer and enjoyed the party atmosphere and the warm, sunny climate. But eventually, Brian sought out cycling. He got back on the bike and joined a local club, the South Bay Wheelmen. As he puts it: “That first ride was hard. But I knew what it took. Train. Sleep. No parties–well, sometimes.”
A few years later, Brian moved to St. Louis. He got married and had a son, and the time he had available for cycling lessened. But he still trained—including getting to ride alongside an athlete from the 1948 Olympics, Chester Nelsen, Jr., and he participated in local road races and time trials.
It was in 1980 that Brian found his way to Austin. He and his wife had divorced, and when Brian moved to Texas, his 16-year old son came with him. Continuing to work full-time as an upholsterer, raising his teenage son as a single parent, Brian stayed with cycling to whatever extent he could, having joined the local club Velocity Cycling. When his son decided to attend college and then medical school, Brian grew his upholstery business, establishing his own shop in north-central Austin: Briley’s Upholstery. The resulting 12-hour work days meant that Brian could only get about 100 miles a week in on his bike, but he still participated in road racing. Now in his 50s and 60s, Brian raced all the regional road races and a few time trials just like he had as a young man in England, but now as a top-ten finisher in his age group in Cat 4.
In 2004, at the age of 69, Brian participated in his last road race, finishing first in his age group at the Pace Bend Road Race. A few years later, he sold his upholstery shop and retired. And what did he do with his free time? He rode his bike, more than he had in the previous two decades. At 78 years of age, Brian now rides about 150 miles a week, over 7,000 miles a year. He keeps a log of his rides and “spends too much money on bicycles, but what else would one do with it?” New training gadgets hold no interest for him; he just purchased a used Garmin, but only because a standard cyclometer would not mount on the fork of his bike. He continues to travel almost every year to see the Tour de France. He was there for the 50th edition, and he was there for the 100th edition.
Brian rides now for the same reasons he always did: to stay fit and able-bodied, and because he continues to be “intrigued with road cycling.” Doping scandals aside, he still feels the same love for the sport that he did as a young man, the same joy in riding his bike, and the same sense of community that comes from being part of Austin’s cycling culture.