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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The conquering hero was driven home in a convertible; all of Scunthorpe turned out to cheer him. To be feted by his hometown was not uncommon for White. Once, he got off the train at Doncaster and cycled home, only to learn that a huge crowd of well-wishers awaited him at Scunthorpe Station. Rather than disappoint his fans, he arranged to be smuggled to the terminal by car and suddenly appear when the next train pulled in.

Scunthorpe had no track within 30 miles, no local cycling club. So White improvised. He roller-skated to stay in shape. For speed training, he sometimes raced a whippet for a quarter-mile along Winterton Road. Before long-distance events, he’d enlist as many as 20 racers to pace him in relays. In bad weather, he kept fit on the primitive stationary bike that he and Charlie had rigged up. Two static rollers carried the rear wheel while a ceiling rope held the apparatus in place. To keep their invention from flying out a window, they added a front roller and drive belt, and dispensed with the rope. Which may explain why the White brothers are never confused with the Wright brothers.

In the event that Lal was unable to scrounge up money for a train fare, he’d pedal to a meet, race and then pedal home. When he could spring for a ticket, he had to be mindful of railway timetables. He tried his best to be accommodating, most famously at an event that ran late in Maltby, some 36 miles from Scunthorpe. According to a report of the competition, White “had already won one race, and had led his heat 42 for the last event of the day. He changed into a suit, and was crossing the track with his machine and bag when the judge called, ‘Hey! Where are you going?’ He was told that he must ride in the final, which was just about to start. He put down his bag, mounted his machine and won the final fully dressed.” Then he pedaled home.

White’s championship season was in 1920. On the strength of having won four major races from 440 yards to 25 miles, he was picked to represent Britain at the Olympics in three of the four cycling track events, and as a reserve in the tandem. He won his silver medal in the team pursuit, nearly single-handedly upending Italy’s gold medalists in the final stage. After the race a French cyclist, perhaps upset by White’s tactics, rushed the Englishman and decked him. Unconscious for two hours, White missed the 50-kilometer event. But he recovered and four years later rode in the Paris “Chariots of Fire” Games.

White retired from racing at the precocious age of 42. In later years he ran a confectionery stall in Scunthorpe’s indoor market. He died in 1965, at 75. In 1994, his medals—among them, the Olympic silver—were quietly auctioned off. No one in Scunthorpe seems to know what became of them.

“Scunthorpe is a place where losing comes easy and nothing much is ever achieved,” says Ian McMillan, the Cycle Song librettist. “It’s full of ordinary people not used to winning or doing well. When you get a winner like Lal, his glory reflects back on the town. He’s proof that success can happen here.”

When he cycles the streets we cheer him:
Very soon another cup will be displayed
Shining like summer in his window
He is forged from finest steel:
He’s Scunthorpe-made!

McMillan is an exuberant and relentlessly jolly man, with thickets of gray hair, a reckless optimism and an undepletable fund of anecdotes. A modern-day troubadour who plays schools, theaters and arts centers, McMillan was enlisted for Cycle Song because of his renown as host of “The Verb,” a weekly cabaret of language on BBC Radio 3. Called the Bard of Barnsley, he has published collections of comic verse, including I Found This Shirt; Dad, the Donkey’s on Fire; and 101 Uses for a Yorkshire Pudding. His reputation of never saying no to a job offer has led him down some twisty paths. He’s been poet-in-residence for the Barnsley Football Club, beat poet for the Humberside Police and performance poet for the Lundwood sewage treatment plant.

McMillan’s theatrical oeuvre includes Frank, which envisions Dr. Frankenstein’s monster as a window cleaner, and Homing In, an operetta in which a flock of racing pigeons chorus:

You can see our home from here
You can see me Aunty Nellie with a bottle of beer
You can see me cousin Frank with a sparse comb-over...

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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