Co-operation on wheels

Cycling and cyclists have always been a big part of society, but co-ops seem to have more than their fair share of cycling connections. As the Tour de France...

Cycling and cyclists have always been a big part of society, but co-ops seem to have more than their fair share of cycling connections. As the Tour de France Grand Départ in Yorkshire approaches and cycling fever hits the UK, there is an opportunity to explore these links at a new exhibition at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum.

Created to mark the Tour’s arrival in Rochdale on 6 July, the Co-operation on Wheels exhibition explores cycling and co-operatives through bikes, cycling memorabilia, games and activities. Co-operative Wholesale Society delivery bikes sit wheel to wheel with a state-of- the-art road bike made by Spanish co-operative Orbea, which is used by professionals today, while other highlights include the skinsuit worn by Bradley Wiggins after he became world individual pursuit champion in 2003. There is also a tiny toy bike made in the likeness of a Birmingham Co-operative Society grocery bike, and the chance to win a new bike, donated by Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative, in a prize draw.

Interactive elements include a Tour de France-themed four-in-a-row game, a chance to design your own Tour de France jersey, an exercise bike cycle challenge, a cycling wheel of fortune and everything you need to build you own set of gears.

Building gears at the Co-operation on Wheels exhibition
Building gears at the Co-operation on Wheels exhibition


“We challenged ourselves with this exhibition,” says museum manager Jenny Mabbott, who has been in charge of Co-operation on Wheels from planning phase to launch. “We wanted to engage a wide range of visitors, from families to cycle enthusiasts.

“We’ve also worked with Rochdale Youth Service and kinetic sculptor Richard Dawson to create a cycling-themed piece of art to go alongside the exhibition – the result is really impressive.”

The installation, created from old bike parts by young people from Sparth Community Centre, will be unveiled at the museum’s Tour de France countdown party on Saturday 28 June.

The exhibition not only looks at how bikes were used by co-operative societies and members, but also why, following World War II, the Co-operative Wholesale Society manufactured bikes.

It features co-operatives which sponsor cycling, such as French financial co-op LCL, formerly known as Credit Lyonaise, that has sponsored the Tour de France since 1981 and the yellow jersey since 1987. And it explores the new wave of co-ops keeping the historic links between cycling and co-operation alive, including worker co-ops The Bicycle Doctor, based in Rusholme, Manchester, and Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative. These two co-operatives have sponsored the exhibition, along with Sustrans, Rochdale Council and Hewitt Cycles.

The exhibition includes a state-of-the-art road   bike made by Spanish co-op Orbea
The exhibition includes a state-of-the-art road bike made by Spanish co-op Orbea

Cycling and co-operation also come together in club cycling, with co-operatives such as Otley Cycling Club not only catering for competitive cyclists, but also for beginners, children and the community. The Clarion Cycling Club, named after Robert Blatchford’s socialist newspaper, formed in Birmingham in 1895, and grew to become the National Clarion Cycling Club. Its membership peaked in 1936, when there 8,306 Clarion cyclists in 233 local sections.

Cycle blogger Peter Underwood says that in the ‘classic era’ – the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – there were police clubs, railway clubs, large company clubs and even clubs for showgirls from London’s theatres. “Co-operative clubs also existed, such as the Middlesborough Co-operative CC,” he says. “Sunday night debates in the Clarion Cafe on Market Street, Manchester, were a favourite meeting place for Trotskyists, Independent Labour Party members, socialists, communists and other assorted leftists.”

Dennis Pye, author of Fellowship is Life: The National Clarion Cycling Club 1895-1995, adds that there was a craze for getting out into the countryside at weekends in the 1930s. “Between the first and second world wars, despite recession, depression and unemployment, a bike, either new, on hire purchase or secondhand, came within the financial grasp of a far greater proportion of the population,” he explains.

“Most manual workers used a bike to travel to work every day, even though many in white-collar, salaried jobs were beginning to find a small car within their means. There were probably about ten million cycles compared with only one million cars on the road as cycling clubs proliferated in the 1930s.”

Peter Roscoe, Clarion’s cyclists’ touring club affiliation officer, secretary of Bury Clarion CC and secretary of Bury Members Group of the Co-operative Group, remembers: “Back in the 1950s, Clarion Clubs around the Manchester area would hire co-op halls for their ‘do it yourself’ social events. They also booked the catering departments of co-operatives for their annual dinners – Manchester Clarion at Downing Street as I recall, Bolton Clarion at the Comet (Co-op) restaurant in Bolton and Bury Clarion at the Emporium Cafe.”

Now with around 1,300 members in 30 sections, Clarion remains one of the UK’s biggest cycling clubs. Bob Harber of the Co-operative Group board of directors has been a member of Clarion for 20 years. “There’s been a revival in recent years, with sections being set up in new places, including the Yorkshire coast, West Lothian and north Cheshire,” he says.

“It’s very much about the co-operative values of fellowship and mutual support. Being in a club with fellow-minded people is still important. It’s always been seen sympathetically by the co-operative movement and, in Clarion, there’s always been goodwill towards co-ops.”

Mr Harber adds that the Co-operative Group itself continues to foster strong links with cycling. Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), for example, has a thriving cycling group, which last year saw 27 riders pedal from Bristol to Manchester to raise funds for charity.

This September, CLS cyclists will ride from their head office in Bristol to the group head office at 1 Angel Square, Manchester, over three days. They aim to raise £15,000 for charities including CLIC Sargent, which supports children and young people with cancer, and the South Manchester Downs Syndrome Support Group.

Earlier this month (3-4 June) the Co-operative Group was promoting its cycle to work scheme at 1 Angel Square, with representatives from Halfords, its scheme provider.

Fast-growing businesses such as Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative, quirky co-ops such as Manchester-based Coffee Cranks, which promotes cycling as it sells ethically sourced coffee tea and snacks from a converted bike, and training organisations such as Pedal Ready Co-op, a Sheffield worker co-operative of National Standard cycling instructors, all help prove that the movement’s cycling tradition is alive and kicking.

Chris Tomlinson works at Birmingham Bike Foundry, one of a growing network of worker co-ops offering reasonably priced bikes for sale, along with repairs and training. He says that co-ops in the cycling sector could leverage joint buying power to purchase more ethically, where possible from other co-ops.

“We’d like to develop how we work with other worker co-ops,” he says. “There are lots of benefits of cycling – including independence, health, greater self-esteem and environmental benefits. We want to remove the barriers and enable more people to be able to cycle.”

The Co-operation on Wheels exhibition was unveiled on 10 May and will be on show until 25 October. Rochdale Pioneers Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. For details call 01706 524920 or e-mail [email protected]


There are bike co-operatives across the UK that can help with buying, repairing, training and more. If we’ve missed any, let us know in the comments below.

Bicycle Doctor (Manchester)
Birmingham Bike Foundry
Bristol Bike Project
Brixton Cycles (London)
Cycle Training UK (London)
Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield)
Green Bike Project (Birmingham)
The Mountain Bike Consortia (Scotland)
Otley Cycle Club (near Leeds)
Westcountry Cycle Training (Devon)
Union Cycle Works (London)


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