John Greatwood – The “eternal” club champion

by Chris Law

This article is a the full version of a shorter piece published in the Spring 2024 edition of Paragon News.

Some of you in today’s modern Dulwich Paragon may recall that at your 80th Anniversary Dinner at Dulwich College a number of us “Oldies” appeared and enjoyed the evening’s celebrations along with you.

We represented a completely different era, and I spoke about it at the dinner. Different (heavy) bikes, different roads, different standards etc.. Nevertheless, one person there, John Greatwood, was, uniquely, the Club’s most successful and talented rider ever, on Road, Track and Time Trials. His presence in the sixties and seventies raised the Club’s profile and set it onto the national stage.

Unbelievably, he won no fewer than forty road races and forty time trials. He also held every single club record from The Hill Climb, through all distances at TT’s up to and including twelve hours. His hundred mile record stood for over forty years!

His racing career was exceptional and would have slipped quietly into the past if it were up to him; a quiet and modest man who never spoke much of his successes.

And so it’s now time to gather together the story that some of us witnessed unfolding over those years, and to set it in such a way that today’s Paragonians can recognise and appreciate what it meant to the Club to have someone like JG as it’s “Eternal Champion”.

John started out with a great pedigree. His mother, Betty, was an active rider with the club before the war and was the sister of our former club Champion and Chairman, Frank Gosney. John’s father was Henry Greatwood, the former club champion of The Don Road Club. Cycling was in John’s blood.

As a young rider John started modestly, and his earlier rides were often eclipsed by Dave Morris, the then club champion who was a prolific, and very tough rider. They were just beginning to “square up to one another” when Dave suddenly left us to join the Tooting. It was was now time for John to step up.

With help, advice and support from both parents John dedicated himself to time trialling in his early years with the club, and his fast pedalling action suited the popular mode of riding fixed wheel bikes. Gears in the early sixties were not favoured at the time and John’s Gillott track bike was soon appearing, with him on it, in the pages of Cycling Weekly. (see attached pic).

Breaking the hour for twenty five miles riding a single fixed gear of 86” (about 48 x 15 in modern money!) is not the easiest way to do so but, in those days, that’s mostly how it was done. Although John tried a few time trials on gears, he soon went back to just fixed riding and all his records were achieved accordingly.

Just to set the scene a little, although most of us were able to get a lift out to races, it was quite common for competitors to ride out to events on training wheels, with their racing “sprints” strapped either side of their bars, and change them over before the start. Not ideal, but often the only way.

On training nights in the early sixties Dulwich riders came home from work, and rode out to meet up at Croydon Town Hall at seven o’clock. We then set off along the A23 to either Redhill, The Chequers Pub or Gatwick Roundabout, sometimes diverting up Redstone Hill and back, via Godstone. This was a round trip of around 45-50 miles and always with a finishing sprint for a road sign for anyone still left.

Strung out along the dimly lit roads with only the front rider and the rear rider switching their lights on as, in those days, batteries had a very short lifespan. In this way, there was at least some chance of getting home still with a dwindling flicker of light left.

This was done two or three times a week and, in early January, the year kicked off with Sunday coast rides on heavy winter bikes down to Worthing or Brighton and back. The accent was mainly on endurance and ‘toughening up”.

Speed work really only started when early season road races began, and the Crystal Palace Crits and Monday Comp races at Herne Hill were the main “sharpening up” events, together with Thursday night evening tens.

John had a rather odd style when out riding; he only ever kept one foot strapped in for most of the training rides (we all used pedals with toe-clips and quick release straps of course) and, to this day, no-one has ever found out why. But we all knew when he was about to ‘up’ the pace when we suddenly saw that BOTH feet were strapped in. Worrying!

It would bore anyone to death to have to now read through a diarised account of everything that JG rode, and by how much he won and so on. I can easily refer to those rides that stood out thanks to the fact that John’s wife, Sheila, compiled a whole stack of his start and finish sheets, and many news cuttings from the time; I have them by my side as I write this.

Early successes for John began in 1959 and he was soon winning 25 and 50 mile time trials. Along with other excellent club riders like The Mason Brothers (Pete and Rob), our Olympic Speed Skater Johnny Hearn, Steve Lawrence, Kenny Haynes, Stuart Crabb and, latterly Bob Green, the Dulwich were soon becoming a known force to reckon with. (Notice I’m not included ha ha). There were many others of us, of course, but we didn’t figure in the results as often as they did.

My first glimpse of our soon-to-be-champ in action was on my first ever marshalling stint in Guildford during the Paragon Christmas “25”. On a freezing cold late December morning in 1961, shivering on a corner with frozen pointing fingers, I saw JG hurtling along, smooth as silk, and wearing…normal summer kit. Most riders were wearing scarfs, woolly hats, tights and so on but not John. He didn’t win it but knocked out a short “four”. Pretty good for an “off-season” ride.

When I read, nowadays, about the scientific training methods being used by even modest performers, I can see how difficult it was, in the past, to develop pure speed, given that the accent in training – even amongst the pros – was mainly on being tough, gutsy and riding yourself to a standstill. Pedalling at a really high speed hurts. The pushing of huge gears was a mode yet to come, and our equipment didn’t allow for it. In the early sixties we had chainsets of only 49/52 with a five speed block of 14 to 25. Try shoving that lot up Titsey or Cudham!

The Dulwich Paragon, in those days, was purely set up as a racing club and all other members volunteered in support roles. They ran their own club time-trials, from the pipe-opener medium gear “25”, throughout the whole racing year, with evening tens several twenty fives, a thirty, a club fifty (The Memorial Trophy) and the club hundred (run in conjunction with other clubs for The Don Road Trophy).

With the legendary and effervescent “Robbo” handling our awards for the Club Dinner, it was possible for most of us to pick up a medal or two during our season, even if it was only for a second place handicap award.

By his second season John was already competing with the big names, and winning but that’s not to say that he ever stopped supporting the club events or other Dulwich riders. In fact he once “gifted me” the Club Hill Climb after we had tied and, on another occasion, dragged me round Herne Hill in the distance event for a second place in the track champs. (I could hardly stand up after the finish!) John was a real team player.

On club-runs John always came back and rounded up any riders “off the back” and took part in all the club social rides which included the Speed Judging Event, the Treasure Hunt, and the annual Freewheeling Event at Tilburstow Hill.  But, once the season was under way, he was his own boss. And pretty soon his name was regularly appearing in “Cycling Weekly”.

After the first few successful seasons of time-trialling JG decided to try his hand at a road race. He had little idea of bunch racing so from the start he simply rode away and wasn’t seen again.  Back at the changing room he was surprised how little impressed his ‘roadie’ competitors were, and heard murmurings of “He’s just another bloody ‘tester’, not a proper road rider”. Slightly bemused by this he rode another event and sat in the bunch until the finish….
…….where he outsprinted all the ‘proper’ roadies. Point proven.

These were good days for the Paragon and our team of first cats were a threat in any race. John used road races to sharpen up and get to peak fitness but, as the season hotted up he always settled down to hit the Time Trialling peaks he aimed at.

Of course, his results encouraged other riders to join the club; Richie Williamson, Barry Packman, Martin Garrad, the talented Bob Green and many others.

Lesser known today, the British Best All Rounder Comp was the highlight of the tt calendar. With a prestigious awards dinner at the Albert Hall and famous guests, including  five times Tour De France Winner Jacques Anquetil giving out the awards, they served to inspire the elite riders to devote their whole year to it. ‘Cycling Weekly’ gave regular blow-by-blow updates throughout the season and excitement reached fever pitch when all the main contenders were vying for good times in the longer events. The qualifying distances were 50miles, 100 miles and twelve hours; a real mixture of speed and endurance. Soon John was in the mix and competing against the Nation’s very best. Exciting times to be a Paragonian.

The BBAR, as it was known, drew out from riders their very best times throughout the whole season, and they all searched for the fastest courses. With prayer mats out begging for decent weather conditions, places were changed each week as first, one rider put in a superfast 50 time, only to find a couple more had found a ‘float’ morning for their hundred times. But towards the end, inevitably, all of them had to put themselves to the sword to do well in the twelve hour events. It’s quite staggering, nowadays, with riders specialising on shorter speed events so much, and to think that those same guys would have to adjust their talents in order to ride as many miles as possible in half a day. Awesome.

Even the greatest champions have their dreams shattered. Losing is part of winning. However, one of John’s most memorable ‘losses’ was a headline hitter that has been written about in several books.

In 1968, at the peak of his powers, JG was attempting to win the Bournemouth “100” for a record breaking third consecutive time. He already held course record and was vying to break the four hour barrier.

On the day, both feats were successfully achieved and would have stood as one of his finest moments, were it not for women’s champ and probably the greatest female athlete in any sport at any time, Beryl Burton. She, it was, who once caught and dropped the men’s winner in the National 12 hour comp thereby holding both men’s and women’s record at that distance. So, imagine an exhausted John, feeling wonderful about his latest and greatest success when he heard that Beryl, on the same course, had just won the women’s championship by smashing the four hour barrier and his time by over three minutes. “Gobsmacked” could well have been the headline.

His new club record for the distance. (3-58-28) was exactly the same as the previous National record set by Ray Booty a few years earlier, riding on exactly the same ratio fixed wheel.

When I asked him recently what he considered was his best ever achievement he said that was the one. But he grumbled slightly and said something about not understanding how Burton could have beaten him by so much. As many other guys conceded at the time.

The second near miss was a three-up time 25mile time trial with team-mates Robin Mason and Bob Green.
Held in pouring rain our trio rode identical fixed wheel bikes and were soon setting a tremendous pace. And they needed to, as they were up against the Old Ports team of National Champ – Dave Bonner, and fast man Ian Jewel. For this prestigious event, the Old Ports were unable to find anyone else of their class, so they simply “attached” a road rider from the club whose main talent was that no matter what, you simply couldn’t shake him off.

On the way to the turn, having overtaken many Juggernaughts on the busy trunk road, Robin lost his nerve approaching a wet and slippery roundabout and decided to clatter OVER it instead of round it. Somehow or other he held onto the bike and with the other two waiting for him up the road, made contact again.

Apparently Bonner began panicking when he heard the time that the Dulwich trio were putting up and their third man got slaughtered on the return half. In the end our team got beaten into second place but they were well clear of the rest of the field that day.

In those days a lot of us rode the weekly Witcomb Crits at Green Street Green. They attracted full fields and were so fast that breakaways never lasted; a sprint usually decided it. For two seasons in was usually either Bob or John that took the honours. Another sign of the high profile our riders were achieving.

It is hard to imagine how, during two of his busiest seasons, he took time out, together with a few other lads from the club, to stay and race in Belgium, and still come home and add more to his growing tally of wins.

I have resisted the temptation to record all John’s many wins, and his times do not now relate in the modern era.  However, here are just a few snippets before I list his total sweep of club records.

Aged 17 he wins the first year riders trophy
Aged 18 he records 8 wins in club events and two “open” wins. He also breaks the club record for 25 miles (59.01)
Aged 19 many more wins plus lowering the 25 record to 58.53
Aged 20 he becomes club TT champ, road race champ, track champ and
now holds club records at 10,25,30 and 50miles.

John continued in this vein and began embarking on national honours in the BBAR year long competition. He placed in the top twelve for four consecutive years with 11th, 7th and tenth until, in 1966 he achieved fourth place, confirming his status as one of the UK’s top time trialists. (See attached certificates.)

John continued his enviable career, winning open road races, time trials and most club championships despite managing his family and his own business, right through until he reached veteran status. Thereupon, the Greatwood name continued amongst annuls of our history by virtue of elder son Rupert winning the club seniors championship, younger son Marcus winning the junior championship, and John, himself, winning the vets championship. (We had no other lady racers at the time, or else wife, Sheila, would surely have picked that up as well!!!)

It should be remembered that most riders in that era worked a full day before evening training, and were self-funding. John owned and ran a reptile business, was a consultant to all national zoos at home and abroad. Together with wife Sheila, they also became world experts in Gemology.

John is, still, a classy table tennis player and regularly coaches younger players.

So, there it is. An account of an exceptional athlete who just happened to be a member of the same club you are. Somebody who is still a vice-president and still regards himself a true Paragonian.

I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed reading about John and that he may have inspired in some of you the endless ‘will to win’, for which he became a cycling legend.