‘If you can race at Palace you can race anywhere’ – I was told that when I first got involved in cycle sport in London.
Crystal Palace is a park in the south London borough of Bromley which was once the home of the Crystal Palace, the star of the Great Exhibition held during 1851 in Hyde Park and then relocated to this spot in October 1854.
Cycle racing has been held in the park for almost the whole time since and each Tuesday in the summer it still plays host to grassroots racing for women, youth and men of many abilities.
The feature picture above is from the women’s race held on May 15 2018 (more pictures below).
The Crystal Palace
Prince Albert, the Consort of Queen Victoria, was a man who wanted to make his presence felt and he occupied himself with many projects. One such was the Great Exhibition of 1851 held at Hyde Park in Central London.
When obtaining permission to hold the exhibition showcasing the British Empire it was agreed that its location in Hyde Park would be temporary. The main hall was made from iron and glass and was assembled from pre-made components. The marvel to all was the huge open space it created and the use of glass that allowed light in and which sparkled – it became quickly known as the ‘Crystal Palace’. Once the exhibition closed in October 1851 it was disassembled and shipped to open land in Beckenham (including Penge Common) in 1854 where it was assembled once more with the addition of a number of features such as the Italian terraces.
In the years since 1854 the park has become enveloped in the massive and fast moving London expansion that saw huge swathes of often anonymous urban sprawl created (suburbs).
Victorians – mad for sport and leisure
Crystal Palace became a major sports and entertainment venue for Victorians and was very much in line with the Victorians gung-ho attitude for mixing sport and money (many schemes did not survive). In 1880 a concrete velodrome/motor speedway was built, situated where the National Sports Centre is today. A road layout was also created and developed upon which both cycle and motor races were held from 1889. In 1927 the gravel straights were resurfaced to match the by then tarmac and concrete turns.
All racing halted during the Second World War and after ward the layout was changed when the Maze Hill/New Zealand Hill section was omitted.
Still racing cycles
Motor racing at Crystal Palace had a golden period through the fifties until 1972 when it closed to motor sport but cycle racing remains a feature of the park to this day. The cycle races are now held on a much reduced top loop and not the full Grand Prix Circuit.
Both before and after WW2 large numbers of riders contested regular races, the Southern Counties Cycling Union award a trophy each season in memory of Alick Bevan, a regular at Palace who was killed on D-Day as part of the 1945 Normandy Landings.
The park has seen many changes although the general layout remains much as it was when first opened. Gone is the Crystal Palace itself, sadly having burnt down in 1936, the full Grand Prix circuit is no longer complete and sections that remain for cycle racing have been narrowed.
Grand Prix course gone
When I began racing in the 1980’s my favourite haunts were ‘Palace’ and the now lost Eastway Cycle Circuit at Stratford – the latter now being the site of the 2012 Olympic Velodrome and post games Velopark (only a few trees remain).
The current ‘Palace’ cycle circuit is a far cry from the full Grand Prix course (see pictures below) and I can recall racing there in the ‘London Championships’ where I was dropped on Fisherman’s Hill and the Glade climb. Whilst cycle races would go up this section motor races would go down.
Being shorter, tighter, narrower and more compact than in the past the competitors now have to handle sharp turns, some of which drop off camber, blind corners, a longish hill (maybe better described as a good rise) and one straight with a hairpin at the end. To race Palace well means you MUST concentrate hard and be ready to sprint out of each corner or be left behind. If you have good skills and have the ability to duck under branches you can do well (or bunny hop squirrels), even if you have less in your tank than others.
Looking back, I can recall when first I raced at Palace and found the atmosphere fulfilling, I appreciated the intense need to think, laughed off the inconvenience of the basic facilities on offer, plus the closure of the tea cabin that has long since gone, and the hours spent not only racing but sitting on the grass in a wonderful parkland setting, chatting in the sun or huddling under a tree from the rain – yes, we used to race in the wet there before a stupid new dry weather surface was put down not so long ago.
There are many purpose built cycle circuits in existence and I have found them more worrying because riders can switch off and crashes occur (they have a false sense of security). Palace is not crash free, although in my experience there are less of them here simply because you have to have your wits about you at all times, and that’s why people say “if you can race ‘Palace’ you can race anywhere”.
If you include the many years helping to organise, judge and commissaries the Crystal Palace Circuits my relationship with the CP Circuits covers two decades.
Future – ‘up the Paragons’
The Palace Circuits have provided great cycle sport for men, women and youth riders, and they have also produced a good number of World, Olympic, International, National and regional champions. Thankfully the circuits look like they will continue into the future and are in the safe hands of Dulwich Paragon Cycle Club who in turn are backed by a large number of London and South East Cycle Clubs.
Cyclo Cross at Palace
Crystal Palace has also hosted cyclo cross races including the 1973 World Championships.
Pictures – Links to shots from the past
– Crystal Palace Circuits 10 years ago – Seniors
– Crystal Palace Circuits 2012 – Five years ago
– Crystal Palace Circuits – Final evening 2005
– Crystal Palace Circuits 2004
Pictures – Palace Park
The wonders of Crystal Palace include the high level rail station, one statue that has retained its head, one of a number of sphinx that look over the grand Italian steps and a very small section of the ‘flat pack’ design of the now lost Crystal Palace itself. I also saw the Velvet Underground perform in the concert bowl.
Pictures – Race Night – May 15 2018
I stepped away from the circuits in 2017 and May 15th was my first time back – the sun shone brightly, the wind stayed calm and when the sun faded it remained warm. And for the first time I watched the racing without thinking like a judge or comm, I also had a chance to say hello to people!
I didn’t take many race pictures as that would have detracted from actually enjoying the occasion.
Pictures – The 2018 cycle circuit and the lost full circuit
‘Ramped Bend’ just after the National Sports Centre – the race cars would often sweep out to the left and rub this wall sending sparks into the air. (note comments on each picture)