“On the 16th of July 1939 two gentlemen walked into a hotel, right across the railroad station of Blankenberge. The first of these gentlemen, a well-built, dark type, remained completely silent. The other, more aged and with a nervous, yet aristocratic look, turned to the hotel owner and tried to arrange a room for a few days. After the owner gave his blessing, he turned around and declared: ‘It’s right. We stay here’. Cyclist Benny Clare and his manager Tommy Hill carried their suitcases up the stairs, where they still are today!”
In a slightly exaggerated fashion, journalist Achiel Van Den Broeck, writing for Sportwereld, describes the arrival of our Anglo-Saxon duo in the West-Flemish coastal town of Blankenberge. They certainly stand out to regulars: Hill works, at least according to the official documents, as an ‘international manager for professional cyclists and accompanies them in Belgium, where they managed to sign a contract with the velodromes to compete in track races’. One of these cyclists filled with ambition is Clare, who wants to make a name for himself outside of his native country.
After a first short stay in Blankenberge, at the Hotel du Buffet, Clare takes up residence with manager Tommy Hill and his wife Louise Muyldermans, not to far from his first address. For Benny Clare, born in Australia, raised in the city of Manchester, these are his first steps on Belgian soil. Hill on the contrary spent his whole youth in Flanders, growing up in the café of his British born parents. As a man of many talents, he had owned a bar, worked as a car mechanic, and even tried to train racehorses.
During the course of the nineteen-thirties however, Hill shifts his focus from horses to cyclists, aspiring to take up a more managerial role. He first lays his eyes on Benny Clare while on the hunt for new talent at the 1939 Six Days of London. The young, yet clearly skilled rider charms Tommy Hill. He senses the opportunity has finally arrived to pursue a life-long dream: introduce a new generation of British cycling prodigies on the European continent, where they can get a first taste of the ‘real deal’.
Up to that point the National Cycling Union (NCU), the governing body for cycling, is mostly fixated on track racing and time trailing, as it had banned all mass start events. On the continent however these mass start events had already become ‘business as usual’. Cyclists in Britain it seems, are isolated athletes, competing on closed-off tracks and racing with the clock as their only adversary.
Hill realises that if ever his British disciples want to leave their mark on big and significant races such as the Tour de France, he will have to teach them the Flemish, continental way of cycling. Thanks to this epiphany Benny Clare is able to compete in a couple of Belgian track and road races such as the famous Scheldeprijs.
Among Clare’s main competitors on the track is Sydney Cozens, one of the other British Aussies brought to Belgium by Tommy Hill. There Hill enjoys the support of bicycle manufacturer Dayton. At the company’s request, he hunts for (preferably) Belgian cyclists to defend Dayton’s colours both on the track and in road races. For the UK-based manufacturer this is a way to gain more exposure and simultaneously introduce young and talented British cyclists to road racing on the continent.
The growing threat of the Second World War forces Dayton to close its books in April of 1940. Other brands counting on Tommy Hill as their representative in Europe, such as the Hercules Cycle Company, suffer the same fate. The German invasion in May of 1940 completes the chaos. Hill manages to escape across the Channel along with his wife and eventually joins the Royal Air Force to serve as a sports trainer.
Wartime proves to be an unexpectedly productive period. Hill uses the time on his hands to engage with the newly founded BLRC or British League of Racing Cyclists and meanwhile further tighten his bonds with the National Cyclist Union. The BLRC works as an independent body and organises both track and road races. This leads to the discovery of promising cyclists such as Ron Kitching, Jeffrie Clarck and Ernie Clemmens, the 1943 British road racing champion. A big leap forwards! Without official recognition by the international cycling federation UCI however, participating in events on the continent is impossible for BCLR-riders.
Towards the end of 1949 Hill brings this inconvenience to the attention of the Belgian press and public through articles in Sportwereld and Het Volk, two of the most popular newspapers in the country. Hill writes about his ambition to help BLRC-riders obtain a license with the NCU and also mentions his dream of gathering a British team to compete in the famous races in Flanders as well as the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest event.
In January of 1946 Tommy Hill again travels to Belgium, not only continuing his work from before the Second World War, but also encouraging cyclists to make the opposite trip and try their luck on the British Isles. In Hill’s wake Ron Kitching and Jeffrie Clarck, two former BLRC-riders, head for the European peloton.
Theo De Neef on the other hand travels to England during the course of 1947 to represent the Dayton team in a couple of cycling events. According to Sportwereld Kitching, Clarck and the others are joined the following year by Britain’s Johhny Raine, who starts competing in the typically Flemish cyclocross races. Hill in the meantime also focusses on a job as masseur. He builds quite a reputation for himself when he helps Albert Sercu overcome a seemingly career-ending injury.
As masseur/manager Hill gets closely involved with Bertin, cycling team of talented and popular riders such as Sercu. In 1949 yet another project pops up: a wholesale business in cycling accessories named ‘The Continental Sports Outfitters – general imports & exports’. From his store in Sint-Gillis, a district of Brussels, Tommy Hill ships Alex Sport clothing, Titan handlebar’s, Hector Martin cycling shoes, and many other bicycle related goods to his native country.
Over the course of a year, he manages to sell and transport no less then a thousand pairs of bikeshoes by Camiel Thomas, a local shoemaker from the Belgian city of Roeselare. This nicely exemplifies how British cycling stands on the verge of a major breakthrough by the beginning of the fifties, not in the least thanks to knowledge, experience and work of Tommy Hill.
Thanks to Aline Thomas, Michael Breckon and the city archives of Blankenberge.
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