Gazette legend Les calls time after 50 years in the saddle

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It’s the end of an era in sports coverage in The Gazette...

After 50 years’ faithfully and accurately chronicling the Fylde coast cycling scene for this newspaper, Les Cross has finally decided to step down from the saddle.

Gazette cycling correspondent Les Cross.

Gazette cycling correspondent Les Cross.

It was back in 1964 that Les tentatively approached the then Gazette sports editor Cliff Greenwood if could he pen a weekly column on the sport.

Little did he know then that it would last 50 years, writing under the pen-name Elex (a play on his Christian and surname).

Since then, Elex has marked the go-to spot for up-to-date, weekly cycling news – but now ill-health is forcing 85-year-old Les to call it a day in a distinguished period that spans snail-mail to email.

Les, of Castlerigg Place, Blackpool, said: “I have enjoyed doing my column so much, but reluctantly I have had to stop.

“I never thought when I first set out that it would last so long – I wish I could go on for another 50 years, but I know that can’t happen.

“It’s been a wonderful 50 years.

“I have always loved writing – and cycling, of course – so it just seemed natural to marry the two.”

Les was bitten by the writing and cycling bug early on in his life.

In the saddle, Les has certainly had no end of adventures, clocking up thousands of miles on his bike on the roads of Europe – and having his unwitting run-ins with Communist authority along the way on one infamous occasion.

It soon became apparent that Les was mad on cycling, getting on a bike almost as soon as he could walk.

The former British Nuclear Fuels worker at Salwick said: “From what I recall, I first rode a bike when I was three or four.

“I started on a tricycle and one day I decided to go a bit further – and it turned out to be three miles!

“My parents wondered where I had gone and there were search parties out looking for me in Blackpool.

“Eventually, they found me and asked me where I’d been.

“But I knew where I was and I wasn’t lost. I was on my way home when they found me, but I ended up getting banned from the bike for a while!

“Since then, I have always had bikes.”

It was in those formative years that Les was bitten by the writing bug, too.

He entered a writing competition on the old BBC radio programme Children’s Hour, sending in an essay that so impressed the judges that it earned him a prize.

The sport has given Les no end of pleasure down the years, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing,

On the bike he has had his share of spills – one such accident left him in hospital and incapacitated for three months – and it included an unwanted, tricky run-in with Russian security personnel while on a cycling tour of Austria in the early-1950s.

It was at the height of the Cold War and the Austrian capital was in separate sections – British, American French and Russian zones – as anyone who has viewed the film The Third Man will readily recognise.

The incident left Les wondering whether he was destined for a punitive spell in the salt mines!

He explained: “We were at Bruck station in Austria and the friend I was cycling with pointed to a Russian officer and said it would make a good picture of him in his uniform.

“After I had taken the picture, I was told by the Russians in no uncertain terms that I should hand my camera over.

“They then told me to get off the train and marched me off to a waiting room.

“At that point, I could almost smell the salt in the salt mine in Siberia!

“I opened up the camera and re-wound it by hand so that, if he developed it, there would be nothing on it.

“Thankfully, they let me go after that, but I missed my train and had to catch up with my pal.”

Les’s enthusiasm for cycling is summed up by his lone quest to tour the French Riviera in 1951, as well as touring across the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic.

At his peak, he covered the small matter of 8,000 miles in a year.

Les, who is married to another keen cyclist, Win, has also combined his love of cycling with his support for Blackpool Football Club.

He used to follow them around the country – travelling by bike, of course.

That included an adventurous journey to and from Wembley Stadium to watch the Seasiders’ finest moment, beating Bolton Wanderers 4-3 in 1953 in what is forever known as the Matthews Final.

Les just parked his bike outside on the car park and made his way to the turnstiles.

He had less happy memories of Blackpool’s attempt to keep hold of the trophy the following season.

Blackpool suffered one of the worst-ever FA Cup losses at the hands of lowly Port Vale in the Potteries, going down 2-0.

Les remembers: “We had cycled down to watch the match and we stopped off in a cafe on the way back to warm ourselves up because it was such a cold day.

“We met a man in the cafe and he offered us a lift back home – we were so happy and relieved, until we realised how we were going to get back – on the back of a lorry alongside a cement mixer!”

Sadly, Les had to quit anything like serious cycling seven years ago, reaching the end of the road after a competition at Chester, which turned into a personal ‘disaster’.

He said ruefully: “After 30 miles I was suddenly struck by severe back pains when going up a short hill.

“I dropped off the group I was with and continued thinking that I must have pulled a muscle of something.

“For a rider who had climbed some fearsome continental mountains, this seemed ridiculous, but as the pain got worse I called it a day after 66 miles and accepted a lift back by one of the organisers.

“It was the end of my cycling days – I tried some very short rides afterwards only to find the pain was unbearable.

“The pain is always there if I do anything manually and I find I have to rest even after a few minutes of any sort of work.

“In 2012 I had another week in hospital with prostate problems and have not cycled since.”

He can look back on a life that has seen him make a rich contribution to cycling, as well as getting enormous personal satisfaction out of it.

Les has been a stalwart member of Cleveleys Road Club for many years, working as organiser, chairman and currently vice-president.

He has been a member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club since 1954 and when an action group was formed in 1991 by Fylde Coast cyclists who were dissatisfied at the facilities that the local councils had provided for them, Les was at the forefront from the outset.

Though Les has penned his final column for The Gazette, that doesn’t mean that he has given up writing – anything but.

Some years back, he invented a fictional character called Stanley and his various adventures with the ‘Westerby Wheelers’.

For the stories, Les drew on some of his own cycling experiences – so he is calling on a rich pool of anecdotes!

He said: “I am in the middle of writing my 10th short story about ‘Stanley and the Westerby Wheelers.

“I have only written them for my own amusement and I don’t suppose anyone else will ever read them.

“I simply wrote them out of a feeling for cycling as I am no longer able to take an active part.”

Les’s philosophy on the sport of cycling – and his invaluable contribution to The Gazette over the years – is best summed up in the introduction to a book he wrote on his life, times and enjoyment that can be engendered by riding on two wheels.

He wrote: “Perhaps, I fear for the future of cycling – perhaps I yearn for the long-lost days of carefree cycling to return.

“Perhaps I am a dreamer – or, better still, perhaps I am simply a cyclist.”

Gazette sports editor Andy Moore paid his own tribute to Les on his retirement.

He said: “An awful lot has changed in my 15 years at The Gazette, but we could always rely on Les’s weekly column to provide some reassuring continuity throughout that time.

“Les will always be a treasured friend of The Gazette and we all wish him the very best for the future.”