Nev Tong – The wheel deal
After all the sporting euphoria of the London Olympics 2012, and before the build-up to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014, let us reflect on the efforts of one of our county’s finest cyclists, Neville (Nev) Tong.
Nev was certainly a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1950s on the grass, red ash and hard tracks (there were no fabulous wooden velodromes in this country in those days) throughout Britain, and he won a gold medal at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff.
Neville Tong was born in Burton Constable, East Yorkshire in 1934, at the home of his mother. His father, who came from Winterton, was working for the National Grid erecting electrical supplies to Scotland at the time of Nev’s birth. The family eventually settled in the Winterton area, where Nev was educated, and lived a fair distance away from the school, so Nev cycled the three miles each way every day. This was the key to his eventual enthusiasm for the sport of cycling. Around the age of fourteen he got the urge to obtain a decent bicycle, so he went potato picking to raise the money. He first bought the frame (a Holdsworth) then a pair of wheels, and the rest of the parts as and when he could afford them, before assembling the machine himself.
Nev joined the Barton Wheelers at the age of fifteen, and took part in time trials, with success, the same year. The following year, 1950, he started grass track racing at Spalding on the Whit Monday with immediate success, winning two races. In fact he won races at meetings on the following four weekends. He soon became so successful that he gave up his job as a steel erector during the summer months so that he could concentrate entirely upon his cycling. He lodged with his friend and fellow competitor, Tony Skinner, and his family at Cowbridge near Boston for quite a while. Just before he served his queen and country, doing his National Service in the army, Nev rode in the national junior sprint championship, on the hard track at the Butts Stadium, Coventry in 1952, finishing second to C Wiles.
After completing his National Service it was back to the old routine, cycling during the summer months and working during the winter. In those days most villages held annual shows, which included cycling, with quite a lot of them taking place during the week. For instance, Heckington Show was held on a Tuesday in those days – this was not unique to just Lincolnshire, it was similar all over the country. And of course the miners’ welfare clubs and large firms also had their open sports days throughout the summer. During his career Nev won several scratch trophies outright, winning the same event either three years running or four altogether. His first national championship win came in 1957, when he won the 880-yard grass track championship, held at Harworth, beating the favourite, Keith Harrison of Birmingham, by three quarters of a yard. During this stage of his career he was really flying, and just about unbeatable – not only in England but Scotland too. One race Nev won over the border was for a cup which had not been used for over fifty years. This event took place at Caird Park, Dundee, over the distance of five miles. His winning time was then the fastest ever recorded in Scotland. With thirty-five competitors, this event was known as the Dundee Grand Prix. Locally in 1956 he was awarded the Festival of Britain Trophy by the directors of Scunthorpe United FC for being the area’s sportsman of the year.
1958 was to be, for Nev, a year he would never forget. Early in the season, on the Whit Monday, he rode a 1,000-metre time trial at the Harris Stadium, Fallowfield, Manchester for the first time. At that time it was the nearest hard (or cement) track to his Winterton home, ninety miles away. He finished second to John Entwistle of Burnley who rode for the Fallowfield club. Entwistle covered the distance in 1 min 13.2 sec, only one second outside the British record. Nev was beaten by only 0.4 seconds, finishing with a flat tyre after picking up a puncture coming around the final bend. The England team for the forthcoming Empire and Commonwealth Games to be held in Cardiff had provisionally been selected, with Keith Harrison of Birmingham and Alan Danson of Manchester nominated for two of three places available in the team for the 1,000-metre time trial event. The England team manager, Benny Foster’s original intention was that the winner of this event would complete the team. But with Nev only being beaten by such a short margin, with a puncture, he decided there would be a run-off between John and Nev at a later date. This event never took place as Entwistle had not cycled for a while and his form had dropped, so they both made the team for Cardiff.
On Wednesday, 24th July, Nev set out and cycled the eighteen miles from the games village at St Athan to the Maindy Stadium, Cardiff. He chose this mode of transport as part of his warm-up for the 1,000-metre time trial event later in the day, instead of the transport provided. Nev started as number three, of the twenty-six competitors. His time of 1:12.1 sec was to prove to be the winning time, and he set a new games record in the process. Second was Warren Scarfe of Australia with a time of 1:12.4 with Warwick Dalton of New Zealand third, 1:12.6. There is no doubting the pride and pleasure he must have felt when the gold medal was hung around his neck. And the headlines that the next morning’s daily papers brought, we can only imagine. The previous record was a time of 1:12.5 held by Dick Ploog of Australia and Alfred Swift of South Africa, as a result of a dead heat at the Vancouver Games of 1954. The times recorded by the other two Englishmen were: Keith Harrison, 1:14.4, finishing in sixth position and John Entwistle, 1:15.9 in eleventh.
The next month, on 6th August, Nev was training with the Great Britain squad at Fallowfield, Manchester, getting ready for the forthcoming world championships to be held in Paris, under the supervision of Reg Harris (five times world sprint champion – once amateur, four professional) when a terrible crash occurred. Nev was riding among a string of riders when one of the riders who had done his stint, instead of moving to the outside of the track remained on the inside, and the rider leading the string failed to notice him until the last second and swerved violently bringing down a bunch of riders including Nev in the process. It was obvious that he was seriously injured and unconscious. Reg Harris immediately took him to the local doctor who sent him straight to Macclesfield Infirmary. The doctors there said Nev had fractured his skull and held very little hope of recovery, giving him only twenty-four hours to live. He was unconscious for eight days before regaining his senses. Then they told him he would never ride again, nor would he be able to continue in his job as a steel erector – he would have to find some lighter employment. After he was released from hospital he went to stay with Reg Harris and his wife, who had visited him every day while he was in hospital. In fact they insisted he should go to them to try and help his recovery. Those doctors at Macclesfield Infirmary were brilliant, but they knew nothing about the mentality and strength of character or the determination of Neville Tong. Five weeks after his spill he was back on his bike again, just pottering, but he was soon doing a hundred miles a week.
At the end of 1958 Nev joined the London Polytechnic cycling club; this lasted until the end of his career, which was to come at the end of the 1960 season.
By March 1959 Nev and Karl Barton of Coventry were selected to take part in the Southern Games in Trinidad, and very successful it turned out too. Later in the season Nev was a member of the England team that visited East Germany, and at Leipzig in front of a crowd of 100,000 he broke the East German record for the 1,000-metre time trial, with a time of 1:11.5. 1960 was to be Nev’s final year as a successful cyclist, culminating with him winning the national five-mile grass track championship at Littleport.
By now Nev had started his own roofing and construction business, and he put just as much effort into this as he had into his cycling. This also turned out to be another success. So his time and effort over the years has been consumed by his two major interests, cycling and his business. Nev made up a quartet of track cyclists from the Barton and Scunthorpe area who really made a name for themselves in the sport. Albert (Lal) White had won a silver medal in the team pursuit at the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games; he also rode in the 1924 Paris games. Peter Brotherton, a multi national champion, had represented Great Britain at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Finally, there was Jack Tighe, a former national champion and international rider, and a very good friend of Nev’s, for many years. John Downing, a South Yorkshireman with a wealth of experience and success in the sport, said Nev Tong was the finest rider he ever saw or competed against on the grass tracks, and the only man he has ever seen winning a handicap from scratch (probably at Darlington). To this day Nev is the only Englishman ever to win the Commonwealth Gold medal in the cycling 1,000-metre time trial discipline. So it is no idle boast, Neville Tong is a true Lincolnshire cycling legend, and his success has certainly never changed his personality. Nev has now retired and lives in Scotter, with his wife Joan. They have two children and three grandchildren.