International Cycle Sport | December 1974 | Issue No 79 | Page 14
by Colin Willcock
The picture in our last issue showing Ernie Clements racing over the cobbles provoked some interesting enquiries from many of our younger readers as to where the photo was taken and just how much success Mr Clements had achieved. The picture was taken in the Paris-London race and this was one event he didn't win. However, he did have a marvellous career spanning the years, so we sent Colin Willcock to find out some of the details and here's his story.
TALKING to Falcon Cycles Managing Director Ernie Clements recently it became obvious that here was a man to whom the old adage "once a cyclist always a cyclist" really did apply. During a racing career that lasted from 1936 to 1953 he survived without any really serious injuries yet, only three years ago, at a time when he admits himself to being 'old enough to know better' he fell off and broke his skull while out on a Sunday 'burn up' with friends including Jack Tighe, one time co-sponsor of the Falcon pro' team.
It was back in 1936 when, at the age of 14, he first threw a leg across a bike to race and within 12 years had won three national titles, ridden the Olympic Games in London, and, to his sorrow, changed camps in the cycling world. The Wrekin C.C. claimed his first allegiance but real success came in later days when he joined the Wolverhampton RCC. Those early years saw him riding on the track a great deal at Bourneville and it was here in 1940 that he scored his first success. In the same year he won the Red Cross 25 from a field of 153 riders and for many people he had "arrived", he, however, thought differently. Again in 1940 he rode his first 'massed start' event at Donnington Park and was beaten into second place behind his club-mate Bill Kirby. It was enough, and he was bitten by the road racing bug.
By this time of course the war was on and he had received one of his real disappointments by being turned down by the R.A.F. and although it was sad at the time it did leave time for bike riding that was to be his first love for some time to come When the British League of Racing Cyclists came along in 1943 he was among the rebels in the Wolverhampton RCC and looked forward with great eagerness to the Llangollen-Wolverhampton race that played an important part in British cycling history. Much to his mortification, however, he was bitten by a dog a few days before the event and couldn't ride. A few weeks later he won the Circuit of the Wrekin and in that same year his first national title when the B.L.R.C. champs were held at Harrogate.
From the middle of 1943 well into the 1944 season he won 12 successive events, something that he is obviously proud of. He talks with the same pride of the Falcon Cycles team and points out that between 1959 and 1972 they had a team in the field every year.
Obviously he doesn't think the British pro' class is finished, quite the contrary in fact. "Why are you coming back into the game" I asked him. His answer explained the value of a professional team to a large manufacturer. "If you are not connected with the sport then you don’t know what's going on. You don’t know what the youngsters are looking for, and what they want on their bikes. You cannot sit behind an office desk and decree that they want the same as 10 years ago!
That isn't the way to sell bikes",
Reflecting on the teams he has sponsored over the years he was full of praise for Albert Hitchen, for many years the King-Pin of the Falcon set up. 'He was a real pro' and damn good bike rider". The Falcon teams have never signed star riders, except one year, "when we did nothing, too many stars expecting star status", The policy has been and will be to sign new pro's, young riders who'll ride together as a team and win a lot of money.
Back to his own career and the 1944 national championship which was in Harrogate again. The field climbed the ferocious slopes of Greenhow Hill where Geoff Clark (Bradford RCC) jumped away and dropped everyone out of sight only to wait for the field a few miles further on. At the top of the climb Ernie punctured one of his WIRED ON TYRES (youngsters please note). In those days following cars were the exception rather than the rule, in fact they were just about unheard of. On this particular day one of Ernie Clements' arch rivals, Ron Kitching, (Who's career is another story) just happened to be there and supplied a tubular tyre that was hastily fitted to the wired on rim. This isn't an exercise to be recommended at any time but to those who know the Yorkshire Dales area it could have been positively suicidal. However, in the event, he regained the field and was beaten into second place behind Percy Stallard in a sprint finish. Stallard in fact is the man he rates most highly among the British riders he competed against. At Shrewbury the following year he won the title for the second time but by now had realised that however much success he might achieve in BLRC circles they would never present him with the opportunity to ride the world championships, the Olympic Games, or any other properly internationally recognised major events. So, after a great deal of heart searching, he and Ted Jones decided to cross to the accepted side of the fence and join the National Cyclists Union. It was a difficult decision to make, after all at the time, he was the League's number one man.
The day they went to the N.C.U. offices in Doughty Street produced an experience that still brings a wry smile to his face. They went and asked if they could get into the amateur team for the world championships. "No" was the answer, "the team has been picked. But you can turn professional and ride the pro' championship if you want to". Needless to say it was an offer they both declined. At Finsbury Park in 1946 he won the NCU road race championship, a victory that was in it's own way quite a morale bcoster for the BLRC men.
Throughout our discussion he had been completely positive about all aspects of his career, business, pro' teams and everything else, until he talked of 1947.
This was the year he made his first sortie abroad to take in Continental racing. He spent several months in Belgium doing well without pulling off a win. In those days of course British riders just didn't win in Belgium, except on the rarest of occasions. An offer to turn professional came from Dayton Cycles and with it the opportunity to ride the Tour de France. Back home in Birmingham he had his own business building bikes and declined the offer. To this very day he still doesn't know if he took the right decision.
Every amateur rider wants to ride the Olympics and he did just that in 1948 when the Games were in London. All hopes of personal success went when he had mechanical trouble but he did collect a Silver Medal for the team prize and pride of place on his office wall at Barton-on-Humber goes to his Olympic Certificate with a small Union Jack. From 1949 with the pressure of business increasing his form gradually declined until he called it a day. Following the successful riding career there came the equally successful business career. In 1958 he joined the Coventry Eagle Cycle Company and promptly introduced the Falcon marque that has become so well known.
Some interesting observations based on his own experiences came from the talk. For instance he believes that most racing men don't know exactly when they are at peak form. "You don't appreciate it until you begin to tail off a bit". No doubt many of our current men would bear out that view point. As to making the grade in Europe he believes that there is only one way "you have to go and live there, it's no good trying to commute in the hope of success".
Business takes him to America at least three times a year and he is impressed with American racing. Last year he saw the national championships in Milwaukee "they are coming on fast and with the right international competition they will be a world power in bike racing".
Despite his broken skull he still takes his bike everywhere, even on holiday as far afield as Turkey. "I still enjoy it and ride when I can although now I am just a little nervous at times".
On the chain stay of the lightweight Falcon frameset it says "Designed by Ernie Clements".
Very few more people so high in bike manufacturing world as he is can have the same wealth of personal experience to put into designs themselves for since 1970 he has become the 'Mr Falcon' having bought the Company himself four years ago.