Alf and the 49:24 - written by Gordon Hayes.
It was a different time…1978…In the future cycle sport would learn of technology, of pulse rates, of carbo-loading, of disk wheel technology, and finally of the Scott down-hill handle bar, or tri bar.
But in 1978 bicycle design was still much as it had always been, frame-building materials had improved and tyres had improved, but clothing was still rudimentary, feet were still positioned with clips and straps. This was the end of the Eddy Merckx era, the bicycle design of this time devoid of tri-bars and aerodynamics would be the style adopted decades later as the 'Athlete’s hour' event emerged as the new time-honoured yardstick of champions.
Early Morning…It is 05 August 1978…At 7:00 am precisely the first of the 120 selected riders set of on the traffic laded E72 TT course. Each minute for the next two hours a rider would depart. Every tenth rider would be a 'top 12' seeded champion. As had been the case for the last decade the top seed rider of the event and last man away on this day would be the enigma: Alf Engers.
An hour before he was due to start Alf would be warming up, silently bringing his body up to race temperature and preparing his mind for the challenge before him.
After the initial ride in an effort to guard against painful chafing Alf would apply surgical tape as required to the various areas of his body, skin tearing chafing is an affliction that can easily occur during the point of the saddle gut wrenching efforts of the short distance TT events. Then would follow the methyl silicate based embrocating fluid that is massaged into the legs, then another loosing up ride, then finally the roll toward the starter’s hands.
At exactly 9:00 AM the great guru of speed sport launched into ride to define a career, astride a purpose built TT machine this aging fighter with the rock star persona strained every sinew as he pushed forward from the start line. Ahead lay 25 miles of testing… schooled by two decades of competition Alf would have quickly fallen into his race stride, not a gentle roll, or even a head down hard effort, the very nature of a 25 mile TT demands nothing short of maximum performance at every level, mental, physical, mechanical…never has the old saying 'when the flag drops the bullshit stops' been so appropriate. The TT offers no-place to hide, no recovery, preparation leads to performance and that’s it in the nutshell. Less than a mile into the event and Alf would be forward on the saddle, head buried almost to the bikes head-stem and only millisecond glances would be taken to view the road ahead. Astride his state of the art TT bike locked into the 12 cog…full effort must prevail…a human body propelled as much by force of will as unquestioned athletic brilliance. Now 2 miles into the event and with the wind at his back the King at greater than 34mph was literally alone and riding solo into battle. Alf settled into the contest…traversing the rolling roads and hedge lined lanes. In some sections when the 'King' powered on through it would only be the road side grass of late summer silently witnessing the human history unfolding. Locked into his centre of the road white line/head down attack position Alf pushed on forward, the 56x12 gear being torque turned as if by a sprinter and the Alf Engers juggernaut continued on as the miles progressively ticked past…each one in just a fraction under 2 minutes. Out there on the British roads of 1978 the Alf Engers battle with time was now at its peak, at his age he had no years left, no time to wait, no time to develop, it was now or never…this had to be the ride of his long sporting life.
Around the results board the time of national Champion Eddie Adkins went up...Eddie had reached the long 14.5 mile turn... 26:08 and the rumble went through the watching crowd...26:08 if the National 25-mile Time Trial champion could hold the form on the return leg....and the crowd wanted it....after 9 long years a new 25-mile record was looking a distinct possibility.
At 26:08 Adkins had set a blistering pace, averaging well beyond 30mph he was a champion in top form and he would be thinking now beyond the race its self...for as Eddie Adkins rounded the far turn nothing less than the national record 25-mile record was now the target. In the mind and will of Eddie Adkins Alf Engers 'The King' had rained too long…his 51:00 flat record so unbeatable for almost a decade, yet now it was now there for Eddie Atkins to take and Eddie knew it…the opportunity must not be missed.
The crowd then fell silent again....the question went out...What is Alf doing?
Out on the course Alf Engers 'The King' was in fact ascending to the throne. The great battle weary greyhound...with 38 years behind him was flat out...could there be a greater picture in sport than that of a great champion in full flight at the peak of their career....This was Alf…05 August 1978, the beer belly of seasons past was gone...leaner than ever, tanned and fit the ageing King was in absolute command...for in a staggering, awesome, brilliant, breathtaking display of athletic prowess Alf Engers had hit the 14.5 mile turn and stopped the clock in 25:05...leaving even the national champion Eddie Adkins a shrunken figure over a minute in his wake. This was the legend of Alf Engers at his best... controversy all around...but he was answering with his sport. And Alf was literally on fire with the breeze at his back reaching beyond 37mph in sections as so the great man averaged an astounding 34.95mph to the far turn. Magazine frozen images of a figure hunched over a bike can show the historic form but they never capture that real life image of the legend that is Alf Engers heaving oxygen and pushing that leg ripping 128 inch gear to average 34.95 mph for 14.5 miles. Never before in the history of the sport had the out and back 25 miles been ridden in under 50 minutes. Alf was on this day at a level beyond the national champion, he was beyond the race... Alf was alone... clear of the field… his battle was now a personal war... He would modernise his own national record in this ride…of that there was no doubt, Alf’s own 51 minute time had stood for a sporting eternity... Today Alf would take that crown again... but would he close his sporting life with the greatest accolade of all... would he fulfil the boyhood dreams of the generation... and ride the 25 miles in under 50 minutes?
As Alf rounded the turn the breeze that had been at his back now blew into him and the King hunkered down for the long run back into the wind… then fate stepped in… and for a time the wind eased, not enough to subside away but enough for a great champion to capitalise on the moment. With his race legs accustomed to the fast run toward the turn this drive back into the waiting wind was always going to be difficult, not just for Alf but for all riders as their legs re-adjusted to the tempo and torque loading presented by the oncoming wind. A great athlete locked into race mode would be unaware of any drop in wind speed, the concentration demanded by the time trial event is so overpowering that the body becomes a processing unit, the brain and body are by the second processing information in relation to lactic acid accumulation, lung function, heart rate, road surface, gear choice and so on. All Alf would have known was that this was the moment he had been waiting for… every great athlete faces a such a moment in their career, for Alf Engers this was it … he was in the defining ride of his racing life… out on the road he was now well under the existing record and a sub 50 ride was no longer just a ghost… no longer invisible, flat out and mid ride on the E72 and the “sub 50” was taking shape into a real possibility. Alf Engers had 9.5 miles left in which to demonstrate the years of training, to showcase the force of his concentration, of all the race wins in the many years that had come before none now counted. It all came down to this moment … he was alone in the second stanza of this his legacy race. For indeed if he could punish his mind and body enough and pull back hard into the wind then Time Trial sports Holy Grail … the first sub 50 ride… now awaited.
“ADKINS Vs ENGERS” and the War of the road had now been reduced from a starting list of 120 to a field of two serious combatants… just two riders each separated by distance were united in the challenge of time.
Having started 10 minutes before Engers and so ahead of Alf on the road the National Champion Adkins completed his struggle and greeted the time keeper… and what a time ! 50 minutes and 50 seconds and the long standing British 25 mile time trial record held by Alf Engers had now fallen to Eddie Adkins.
Eddie was now National 25 mile TT champion and the outright 25 mile record holder.
OK… so the record had fallen… but the jubilation was stunted as all those present wondered just how King Alf was going as he ploughed back into the wind.
Did the watching crowds physic ask in bird flock unison “WHATS ALF DOING?”
In fact Alf Engers was delivering the virtuoso performance if his long career, with head buried almost into the bike, his eyes focused on the dashed white line flicking under him the King was alone, the head wind was without mercy and with each passing mile it continued to cut into his average speed. Yet Alf stayed concentrated … disciplined … effective… grinding down the miles with rhythmic endurance… when a true athlete “hooks-up” the intensity is so concentrated, there is nothing else in the world…nothing breaks the focus…..things just arrive and depart … undulations in the road, hedges, cars, fans, other riders, wind breaks, faster and slower sections …. All are irrelevant… for nothing holds back the avalanche of effort…
As Adkins flashed past the time keeper Alf had less than 4 miles left to ride. The minutes ticked past… And then the isolated figure that had dominated the sport for so long heaved his way toward both the time keeper and history books… beyond effort a body lost in nightmare… some kind of blind instinct that carries this lone fighter forward …. then almost too soon… it was over…
It was over….
And he actually had done it ! “The King” Alf Engers had pushed the record way below the “unobtainable” 50-minute mark clocking an astounding 49 minutes and 24 seconds and the moment in sporting history had arrived, Alf’s time ran across the crowd then spread almost instantly into the cycling community like a moon landing at NASA... Yet for Alf Engers the toll of time and time trial was clear in the grey face and body, Alf had this time pushed his unquestionable ability to the limit… he had nothing left.
Yet still he allowed himself to savour the moment in life… his normal dead pan expression was replaced with a faint smile and the standard post race escape to the car was replaced with a few tired still gasping rides up and back past the results board… The watching subjects acknowledging the enormous achievement with cheers and praise.
Finally Alf Engers had done it.
Hundreds of race wins were behind him in a career that had shone from way back in 1959 when in 55:11 he had set the National record over 25 miles, and now almost 2 decades later came this… the finest hour.
In fact with first sub 50 minute 25 mile TT and the 1:26 beating of national 25 mile champion Eddie Adkins Alf had in the eyes of all those present usurped the national 25 championship as well.
They didn’t call him 'THE KING' for nothing!
The Alf Engers at speed page.