The Manchester weather is no respecter of seasons. It was though most obliging when in late July 2016 a funeral cortege departed from an otherwise unremarkable housing estate in Wythenshawe, South Manchester, and embarked on the short journey to the church.
The only tell tale of who was taking their final journey was in the small peloton of cyclists pedalling behind, a dozen or so lycra clad men and women who decided this was their way of paying their respects. On arrival at the church it soon became apparent from the sheer volume of mourners that this was a popular and much respected figure. Yet this was no local dignitary, politician or celebrity, to the 500 mourners and many more around the world who couldn’t attend this was the funeral of someone of so much more.
Harold Nelson, or “H” as he was more affectionately known was 88 years old when he passed away. For the majority of his life he “helped” cyclists of literally all shapes, sizes and abilities, I choose the word “helped” deliberately. Ostensibly H was a coach but to give him that title alone would do him scant justice, he was a friend, mentor, father figure, bollocker, soigneur, confident, oh and yes he was also a coach. Of the thousands of riders that came into contact with H you would get a thousand different descriptions and opinions of their perception of the man. What all these people would affirm is that there is probably no one in cycling who has given so much for no financial reward.
This network of riders, friends and colleagues of H were part of something which became known as ‘The Establishment’. Within this group were people from all backgrounds, professions, regions and abilities. What they all shared was a love of cycling of all forms, track, road, time trial, cross and I suspect even the odd mountain biker sneaked in too though I suspect they told him they were something else.
What this group did was help each other. This was a body of often well connected people who could not only open doors but firmly close them too. At the centre of all this was H and his only requests were that riders with the relevant skill sets help out ‘The Establishment’ in whatever way they could. Whether it was an IT expert tweaking the computer programs that riders trained to or someone who worked at WH Smiths dropping off the odd packet of A4 printer paper, no one really knew who was in or out of ‘The Establishment’ but neither did they care. There was no membership card nor subs levied, it mattered not what results you had or what trophies sat upon your mantelpiece. H was certainly no respecter of money, power or influence and to try and use them would be a fruitless exercise. Riders were accepted into ‘The Establishment’ for no better reason than, well H thought you were alright.
If a rider misbehaved, were rude or simply disrespectful to the wrong person at a race word would often filter back. Retribution was certainly never severe, it didn’t have to be, you would simply find that the next time you call up to arrange a visit that the day in question would be full. Not a big deal as the following week would be fine and all would be forgotten, the thought of being cold shouldered or denied access would be enough for it not to be repeated.
Woe betide anyone though who ventured to H’s, trained on the bike or even left the confines of their home without a hat on their heads. No not a cycling helmet, Trilby, Panama nor Bowler. Just a run of the mill woolly hat/beanie, call it what you will. Words would be had if riders were spotted going to the cinema or the pub without their hats on. Imagine explaining to your first date the vital necessity of the old bobble hat. Try to explain to a previously starry eyed teen why the 7 Eleven woolly hat sat proudly upon your head was fundamental to your wellbeing as a bike rider. Oh and trust me when I say the long tentacles of ‘The Establishment’ stretched far and wide, riders all had their own ways of trying to wiggle out of this but H was more than a match for them all. The old sweaty, or non-sweaty forehead being checked on arrival at the doorstop caught many unawares, of that I can testify.
H’s home was a modest council house in arguably one of the less desirable districts of south Manchester. This is a man who would never accept a single penny for any of his services. This was because of a promise he made to his mother never to accept payment and something I only learnt from the eulogy at his funeral. Modest is actually an understatement when describing Orton Road, this was a home very much given over to cycling. Most of the rooms, H’s bedroom aside, were sacrificed to create an environment where riders could sit, get advice, train on the rollers and afterwards get “their legs done”.
The living room was where the riders would congregate before or after a session on the rollers, this was the meeting room and on any given moment there could be half a dozen people sat talking, though more often than not listening as H dispensed advice and opinion. I remember fondly the tea trolley upon which sat the thermos flask, biscuits and mugs, upon the wall sat a picture of Paul Sherwen, Tour rider and ex British Road Champion. Of all the great cyclists who passed under H’s roof Sherwen was the one who seemed most revered.
If the living room was the cockpit then the roller room was the engine room. Situated next door via the hallway and linked by computer screen this was where the real work was conducted. Bikes set up on rollers, linked to computer screens measuring first heart rate and later on working on power output. The steeds that bore the brunt of this work showed the obvious signs of what thousands of hours of sweat can do to metal. I was in this room that as a cyclist your physical fibre was truly put under scrutiny, every session was logged and with H watching the monitor from the next room there was no hiding, shirking or showboating. He had an almost sixth sense.
Upstairs was the massage room, this is where riders are checked over, their pulse readings taken, breathing monitored and their general well being scrutinised. Similar to the mechanic in the workshop H would check for signs of a cold or bugs, any hint that the rider wasn’t 100% then the roller session wouldn’t happen or be seriously dampened down. The attention to detail to a riders health was always of paramount importance, the discipline that H instilled was as important off the bike as it was on it.
The trade of a Soigneur, the French word for carer, is a hugely respected one and H was one of the best. Their job is to take care of the riders wellbeing whether physical or mental. The soigneur massages tired bodies, takes care of cuts and bruises, listens to riders, talks to riders and if away on race duty prepares the riders food, drink and so much more besides. What also set H aside was his understanding of riders and he understood perfectly how to treat each individual. I remember him telling me that he could often tell about someone’s family background looking at their temperament and how they interact in a group. What he did though he embraced all his riders and accepted their quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that all this went on under the roof of a small house in Manchester. Transfer this knowledge and passion to a lab and many thousands of pounds would change hands. Coaching now is an expensive business and yet we who were lucky enough to be accepted in to ‘The Establishment’ had it all for free. That is an enviable and privileged position to be in and one that I and many others will be eternally grateful for.
Note. Harold H Nelson (BEM) 30th January 1928 – 2nd July 2016.
Last month H was quite rightly added to the British Cycling Hall of Fame