Harry Middleton Cycling Club: In the saddle with Lancashire's most chilled-out cyclists
For four years, the Harry Middleton Cycling Club wasn't even a club.
Having started life in 2004 as an informal meeting of 10 to 15 riders outside their local bike shop in Ormskirk, the group was a safe haven for all those turned off by the politicking that can take place in other cycling clubs, a refuge for those more invested in the fun side of two-wheeled pursuits.
However, by 2008, the gatherings outside the store, itself named The Bicycle Lounge, had grow in popularity enough that eventual-founder Matt Middleton decided to officially start a club. He named it in honour of his father, the late Harry Middleton, himself a well known local cyclist and the former owner of The Bicycle Lounge, which Matt runs to this day.
But the mantra stayed the same: no to membership or subscription fees, yes to enjoying the simple act of riding together.
"We didn't really have a club to start off with, we just used to meet up and go for a ride," explains Matt, 46, from Ormskirk. "We decided to set something up which was a little different from most clubs and we keep things simple. It's all about riding your bike and it's worked really well."
The Harry Middleton Cycling Club has since gone through the gears at pace since then and now boasts almost 400 members of all ages, yet still retains its casual and friendly atmosphere and focus on enjoyment. Provided people have a helmet and third party insurance, everyone and anyone is encouraged to come down regardless of their fitness level or experience.
"The club's named after my dad, who died in 1998 and who was a huge cyclist and big into racing," says Matt. "We've grown and grown and, in 2012 when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, it really exploded. It's such a good social scene and we have such a good laugh - that's why the majority of people are part of the club, I think."
Steve Depport only started cycling at the age of 38, having been enticed into giving it a go by watching the Tour de France. That was 25 years ago and he's never looked back.
"I just thought I'd have a go and, eventually, I met Matt through the shop as a customer," explains Steve, now aged 63. "That's how it started. The club is purely about coming along and enjoying riding together. If you want to go at 18mph, there's a group for that and, at the other end, if you want to stop at two cafes and only do 25 miles, there's a group for that as well.
"We even have Thirsty Thursday rides visiting a couple of pubs, chip shop rides, and ice cream rides," adds Steve, who lives in nearby Lydiate. "There really is something for everyone."
The club's main weekly ride takes place every Sunday morning, with groups of up to 60 or 70 riders meeting at The Bicycle Lounge before dispersing into four or five different rides of varying difficulty. As well as the Sunday runs, the HMCC also have meets on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the summer, with members also getting together throughout the week.
Always keen to encourage the next generation of cyclists, the club also holds weekly Go Ride youth coaching sessions with St Anne's Catholic Primary School in Ormskirk and, according to Matt, has seen an influx of new members since the latest Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.
"Everybody was on their own during Covid - I did thousands of miles in my garage on a turbo-trainer," says Steve. "Being able to ride with somebody else has been great and it's been so nice to see people again. It's a really positive environment for everybody - I've got my grandkids some bikes, so I can't wait until they're a bit older and I can start taking them out."
Matt agrees. "I've been a cyclist my whole life and my passion for it now is probably bigger than ever because of the club," he says. "It's great to see so many riders coming down, to see people improving, and to meet so many different characters. People have been chomping at the bit to get back at it, which is really good.
"It's not about how fast you are, it's about getting out on the bike."