Tour de France author pens portrait of industry stalwart

Graeme Fife, author of the recently updated and revised 'Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders', has written a biography of Bob Chicken Snr. 'Bob Chicken - A Passion for the Bike' is interspersed with a history of the post-1945 British bicycle industry. Book extract within, including the history of the famous 'pub', The Penguin and Fishbowl.
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Fife's book was launched yesterday at Islington's Business Design Centre, with BDC owner Jack Morris heaping praise on the 84-year old Bob Chicken. Friends at the launch included Phil 'voice of cycling' Liggett, Tour of Britain's Tony Doyle, cycling tsar Phillip Darnton, track builder Ron Webb and tricycling commentator David Duffield.

Bob Chicken is a past president of the Pedal Club and the Pickwick Bicycle Club. He joined the Pickwick - the world's oldest bicycle club - in 1954. He's the club's longest serving member.

Chicken Snr is the former owner of RJ Chicken & Sons, the UK importer of Time and Adidas. The company is now run by his sons, Robert and Cedric.

RJ Chicken & Sons introduced many European road bike accessory brands into the UK from the 1950s onwards.

Phil Liggett describes Bob Chicken as ‘a doyen of the bike industry’.

Fife's text will be uncomfortable reading for many in the industry. It describes the golden years of the British bicycle industry - the mid 1950s - but then lists the management failures at a whole host of former world-leading bike firms.

"Like many of his generation who had fought in the [Second World] War, Bob Chicken espoused the cause of European unity, and the support of European markets, in a rapidly changing commercial world. Whilst iconic British manufacturers like Raleigh, Hercules, BSA, buckled and eventually yielded to the pressure of fierce competition from the Far East, a number of old firms in France and Italy survived by holding true to their traditional production values as well as adapting to new demands," says Fife.

The book also looks at the troubled history of cycle sport in the UK: "the unseemly wrangles between the purist sponsors of the narrow discipline of time-trialling and the more buccaneering spirits of road-racing continue to bedevil the sport," says Fife.

"Like the board of Raleigh, remote and supercilious, the cycling authorities in Britain have so often closed the official door on these buccaneers - men like Brian Robinson, the first Briton to make a career in the continental peloton, and Sid Barras and Keith Lambert, both of whom rode in a team sponsored by RJ Chicken.


An extract from: 'Bob Chicken - A Passion for the Bike':

In the autumn of 1976, Bob, Cedric and Robert, now trading as Chicken and Sons, went to a cycle show in Milan and came back with a galaxy of new agencies. Wim Oorlog of Vredestein introduced them to Gianni Tagliabue, agent for a number of the top Italian brands of cycle components.

‘Here, meet my friend Gianni’ - and the whole deal, agency agreements and terms, for three exceptional Italian marques, Selle Italia (saddles) Ofmega (alloy and steel chainwheel sets, headsets, hubs, pedals, work tools) and BRT (toe straps and toe clips) was settled in an afternoon: copious quantities both of 100% commercial good sense and 13% alcohol by volume of good red wine. Another wall in the Watford premises was knocked through to provide an additional 1,000 sq ft of space (this happened every year in succession as the business grew and grew), Bob moved his business south and, the Baycliff upset still nagging at him, decided to look for another outlet in luggage. Container lorries packed with bags from Dionite in Canada began to roll up but, unhappily, customers did not. The European importer in Belgium could not help. The two sides of the Chicken business were so different: most of the cycle components went to wholesalers, the luggage had to go to retailers and there simply were not the resources to drum up that market, despite all Bob’s efforts. It was an expensive excursion. The distraction of the booming Chicken cycle enterprise was too consuming. They took on supplies of bike-locks from Trelock in Germany, then found out that the locks were going to be made in the Far East. Bob instantly and adamantly refused to have anything to do with them: the European manufacturing base had to be defended against all such incursions, particularly from the Far East where business practices and manufacturing methods were so utterly at odds with the traditional European ethos. 1978 was a freak year: 40 foot containers full of mudguards were arriving at the warehouse and the contents, as soon offloaded were being sent out for delivery without even going inside the building. Everything they were dealing in was over-sold. Customers would phone and ask for ’10,000 kick-stands’. They’d get 1,000, maybe 2,000 at a pinch and have to wait for the next flood of deliveries to come in. Another partition in the Watford works got knocked through. In November 1980 Chicken and Sons moved to their Bisley Works near Dunstable. An ammunition factory during the war, the site was sold by Imperial Metals Industries manufacturers of shotgun cartridges and clay pigeons who wanted to centralise in Birmingham. Across the way from the main premises stood an outbuilding, about 30 feet by 12, with toilet facilities. This Cedric and Robert designated the works canteen. Then, the idea occurred to put a barrel of beer behind the counter. Bob came into the office, having been to the works canteen. ‘There’s a barrel of beer in the canteen’ he said. ‘That’s right’ said the brothers ‘it’s the company pub.’ ��Company pub ? You can’t do that’ said Bob. ‘Bollocks’they said. Now, to contemplate the very notion of the Chicken triumvirate getting into a blazing altercation about the provision of alcohol on or off the works premises for the stimulation and encouragement of leisure-time unwinding and creative relaxation ranks with earnest mediaeval scholastic arguments as to how many angels could perch on the head of a pin. However, plonking a barrel on a table did not accord with Bob’s sense either of decorum or of practicality. His forte had always been organisation, whether it be a double-decker bus for his friends and neighbours in Southgate for the jaunt to Epsom on Derby Day or an international import agency. So, the works canteen got properly fitted out as a company pub – interior design and decoration courtesy of Robert’s Christine. There remained the vexed question as to what to call the place. Isn’t there a cruel, sickening and frankly inhuman story behind that song The Pub with no Name ? I believe there is. Thus it was that when the Chicken brothers met up with the Halford’s people at an Italian show for an evening’s light-hearted banter and mild imbibition of the local beverages, the conversation turned upon a name for the Chicken company pub. Now, I have sat in rooms with members of a band with whom I played and locked the door on pain of finding a name before anyone was allowed out even for a pee. Vagaries of title are amongst the most elusive of vagaries. However, the name-quest that evening found its target and, some while later, the Halford’s men sent the Chickens a present: a handsomely painted wooded pub sign in black and white bearing the legend: The Penguin and Fishbowl. For reasons entirely locked in the haze of failed memory and vinous exuberance, nobody now knows, or owns up to knowing, why that name was chosen, but chosen it was. The sign was hung outside the premises where it could be seen by all those to whom it mattered. That was Cedric. Cedric, also known in the business as Jeeves, for his urbane air, immaculate turn-out, polished manners and accent does Publicity. The Penguin and Fishbowl became a sort of nerve centre, on and off duty, for many aspects of the Chicken enterprise – not least entertaining clients and staging product presentations. As Bob remarked when I went to the works (the Penguin and Fishhbowl gone, alas) ‘They concluded a lot of business in there, team presentations, too.’ For, as the boom in bicycle sales continued, Bob had gone into sponsorship of cycle racing. It’s not easy to say why the sudden soar in sales happened. Perhaps, a decade on from the last throes of post-war austerity, people were spending more and more money on inessentials. Had the health and fitness craze begun ? Did the oil crisis of late 1973 which precipitated the three-day week and petrol rationing imposed by the Heath government on 2 January 1974 send people out to the garage to lift down the old bicycle hanging, neglected and cobwebby, from a hook?

The Tour de France came to England for the first time in 1974 and may well have sparked new interest in the beautiful machine. Certainly, huge crowds came to the portable velodrome at Wembley designed by Ron Webb for the Six-Day races sponsored by Skol through the 70s. In the central bowl, Chicken and Sons entertained their customers amid the excited roar of the spectators and the rumbling thunder over the steep-raked wooden planking of thin track-bike tyres pumped hard with helium: the flash of the racing silks, the thrill of the high-speed chase within inches of the rails, sometimes, the close-calls in the jostling of the take-over when a rider handed over to his partner, grabbing his hand for the forward sling through into the pell-mell action.

Want to read more? Buy the book. It's available for £15 via an email to http://www.bobchicken.co.ukor £16.99 on Amazon, click here:http://tinyurl.com/ar5gn Trade deals are available on the book, it's £10 for a single copy, £9 per book for five copies and £8.50 per book for orders of ten copies. Trade deals available via sales@prime-secretarial.co.uk

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