An Opera for an English Olympic Hero

Lal White was forgotten by many, even residents of his small English factory town, but the whimsical Cycle Song hopes to change that

Tenor Darren Abraham plays Albert White, the previously unsung steelworker and bicycling champ. (Kieran Dodds)
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Bicycle design improved incrementally, achieving mature form by 1885, when an engineer from Coventry—100 miles south of Scunthorpe—introduced the Rover “safety bicycle.” A low-slung contraption, the Rover had a chain-driven rear axle and lever-operated brakes. Its mass production propelled the subsequent bike boom, just as its popularity scandalized Victorian society.

To many Brits, the bike was a symbol of unwelcome social change. They feared the technological innovation would lead innocent young girls astray by encouraging immodest attire, spreading promiscuity and providing sexual arousal. Some fretted that the bike might even prevent women from having children.

The Victorian male was, of course, impervious to ruin or disgrace. Which may explain why by 1905 pretty much every working man in the country owned a bicycle. In fin de siècle Scunthorpe, none rode faster than Lal White.

Training in the snow, riding in the rain
He’s got a bicycle wheel for a brain!...
Punctures in the morning at half past three
He’s got a saddle where his heart should be!...
Pedal through the mud, stumble in a hole
He’s got handlebars on his soul!

Whereas the world-class cyclists of today perform in a professional sport tarnished by illegal drug use and other grown-up foibles, White was an amateur with an almost childlike belief in the ancient verities: courage, perseverance, loyalty, honor, honesty. Once, when challenged while testifying at a trial, White snapped that he never told a lie. The newspaper account was headlined: “George Washington in Court.”

In photographs from his sporting prime, White seems as hard as iron. Thick and solid, his eyes pure bottled fury, he looks as though he’d get the best of a collision with a truck. His muscled forearms are so cartoonishly plump they would make Popeye blush. “Lal’s steely spirit matched the town’s,” says Beale.

White worked at steel mills for 50 years, most of them as a molder in the Frodingham foundry. Molders were the artisans of their day, preparing castings for the crucible pour of molten steel. Their craft was mostly unchanged by the industrial revolution that brought clanking machinery to the workplace. Standing atop a pile of damp sand, White labored in rising heat as white-hot liquid metal was ladled into molds, like lava oozing from a volcano.

You get the distinct impression that White was extremely hard-working and capable of taking infinite pains to achieve precision. The truth is his cycling career was practically a hymn to the work ethic. He accomplished his feats astride a bespoke bike with fixed gears, low-tech even by early 20th-century standards. His refusal to accept limitations became a self-fulfilling destiny.

White was born in Brigg, a market town along the River Ancholme. When he was 5, his family moved down the road to Scunthorpe. His first victory came at his very first race, a contest for boys 14 and under during the 1902 Elsham Flower Show. He was 12.

White had 16 siblings, at least two of whom cycled competitively. He won his first national title—the one-mile tandem—in 1913 with his older brother Charlie aboard. Over the next two decades he won hundreds of medals, cups and watches. He used his prize money to buy a wedding ring for his bride, Elizabeth, prams for his three children and a Cole Street row house. He named the house Muratti after a silver trophy awarded to the winner of an annual ten-mile race in Manchester. Only the top ten riders in the country were invited to compete for the Muratti Vase, which White won outright in 1922 with his third straight victory.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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