Category Archives: History

RIP Ian Steel

I was sad to read Will Fotheringham’s obituary of Ian Steel yesterday. Ian died last week on 20th October aged 83.

Ian won the Tour of Britain in 1951, the Peace Race in 1952 and rode the Tour de France in 1955 among many other achievements. He was one of Scotland’s and Britain’s greats.

Despite a relatively short career he kept an active interest in cycling – one of my previous posts included a photo of him being presented with a Glasgow United jersey – one of his former clubs.

ian steel cyclist

Cyclist Ian Steel in Glasgow United jersey March 2011

I had heard that writer Richard Moore had been in touch with him recently and hope there are a few more stories to come out of that – Richard has an obituary in the Scotsman.

Tribute on Scottish Cycling

My other blog posts on Ian Steel.

Grass track cycling keeps you young

Grass track season starts in May, which reminded me of Hugh Johnstone, who took part in the retro exhibition race, a few days shy of his 80th birthday, at the Scottish circuit  championships held in Stirling last August.

Hugh Johnstone

His frame was built in the 1953 by George Elrick, a frame builder who was based in Lower Bridge Street in Stirling up until the 70s –  a steel single speed frame with extra tyre clearance and a higher bottom bracket. Continue reading

When wheel changes were not allowed

Found on the blog of former BLRC track and road rider Alf Buttler comes this story from the 1954 Tour of Ireland.

I was on the motorcycle and had with me a new pair of wheels that I had built complete with freewheel and tyres, we fitted these on the rear carrier with only three toe straps (very like Mavic do now for mountain stages and/or time trials in the big tours on the continent). Outside the headquarters we found the Scottish team in deep conversation near our Ariel… their manager, who we took an instant dislike to, said ‘you cannot carry them wheels its against the rules’. Where are these rules? we asked, he could not produce any. But the next day before the start of the race he got the commissionaires to get us to remove the tyres as it gave us an unfair advantage. This silly way of going on went on for at least 2 years because in the Peace Race the following year no team was able to fit a wheel complete. If a rider punctured he had to change his own tyres. This rule was changed by U.C.I for 1956

A recap of the race by Jock Wadley for The Bicycle is recorded for posterity on the excellent historical website Tour-Racing.co.uk.

Scotsman John Kennedy, riding for the Scotland team, was second on the first stage, which was won solo by Bernard Pusey, riding for the England “A” team. Kennedy kept his place on GC after stage 2, where breakaway men Shay Elliott and Stan Brittain were caught a mile from the line.

He disappears from the top 10 in the stage 3 results and given that only 15 of 108 riders finished, you can assume that if a crash or a mechanical had not ruled him out on this stage, he would have been one of the 59 abandons on a snowstorm-hit stage 6.

An R. Mackay of the Scotland was 14th on the final GC, but he wasn’t the only Scot to finish – John Burrowes of the VC Stella rounded out the classification in 15th (and last). His teammate, Ron Park was 6th, albeit 30 minutes down.

Tour-racing’s recap is a good read, including such drama as a runaway horse and cart which led to the death of a rider, the snowstorms and mass abandons, and a neutralised final stage.

Central Scotland Wheelers Cowie Road Race, 1986

Actor Greg Drysdale edited this old footage for the Stirling Cycle Hub short film competition a few months ago and I recognised some of my local roads on it.

The Central Scotland Wheelers (now City of Stirling Wheelers and still running a time trial on the Cambusbarron course) ran a race on the Cowie loope.

The loop is still used for Falkirk BC’s Billy Warnock memorial, which is one of the first races I entered.

Central Scotland Wheelers Cowie Road Race 1986 from Greg Drysdale (Actor) on Vimeo.

The course is largely flat but includes one steep little brae before the town and another incline as you come into the centre of town. If those are not enough to split the field up, an attack through the narrow twisty back roads between Cowie and the Bellsdyke Road might get away. I like the finish in Cowie, but you could never have that now with all the road furniture and speed bumps. Today’s finish on the main road is always a bit sketchy for me, with the bunch fanning out and cars invariably coming in teh other direction.

“Yes, really, 1986. I filmed it using our new (at the time) Sony CCD V8 AF E Video Camera.” explains Greg.

“I think it’s interesting not only because it’s a nostalgic record of a bike race that happened nearly 30 years ago… but also reveals some vintage cars (and vintage people!) and may be of some interest to the people of Cowie to see their old town and how it’s changed .”

Greg’s cousin Raymond was in one race (he is wearing black and yellow and can be seen on the right at the finish line.)

Please post up a comment if you were involved in the race or recognise anyone in it.

Ronnie Park, VC Stella

In one of my previous posts, I tracked the growth of the VC Stella, a club formed in Scotland as a formidable race outfit. In the 1950s in Britain, road racing was only just taking off, as a segment of cyclists sought to break away from the touring and time trialling culture and emulate their continental heroes of the Monument Classics, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.

John Kennedy was one of the VC Stella’s most successful riders, winning the Scottish Road Race championship in the 50s, amongst numerous other results, and going on to a professional career on the continent. The SCU team for the Oats 8-day Circuit of Britain, and later the Milk Race, was often comprised of mainly VCS members.

One of the founder members of VCS, Ronnie Park, was an accomplished rider about whom little is known today. I hadn’t heard his name until I began researching the VCS.

Below shows the start of the Glasgow Highland Games road race, in George Square in June/July 1954. The race was won by Joe Mead of St Christopher RC.

L-R Albert Wheeler (Douglas CC), David Ross, James Kelly, Ronnie Park (all VC Stella). Continue reading

Racing in Ayrshire, 1953

These images, courtesy of William Holden, show Scottish domestic racing in 1953 in Ayrshire.

There are several of John Kennedy, a rider that regular readers of this blog will know I have developed an interest. is there racing for Velo Club Stella in a few of them.

The Velo Club Stella has been described by a few people to me as ‘the first elite cycle racing team in Scotland’ and below we see what I guess to be the leaders of the respective races depicted, with John Kennedy in the mix.

John Kennedy Ayrshire 1953

Above, Kennedy in the foreground, racing for Velo Club Stella with Harry Fairbairn (Ayr Roads CC), left, and Cathcart McCurdie Hay (New Cumnock Cycling Club), middle tackling a climb in Ayrshire.

William’s father, Thomas Moss Holden was connected to the NCCC.

Harry Fairbairn is a name riders from today should recognise, as his BMW dealership still graces the jersey of the Ayr Roads CC. One blog reader recalls that he may have started with a bike shop before diversified into cars, and that he is the brother-in-law of Ian Steel .

John Kennedy Ayrshire Road Race, Dalmellington, 1953

Ayrshire Road Race, Dalmellington, 1953. L-R Harry Fairbairn (Ayr Rds CC) John Kennedy (VCS) Curdie Hay (NCCC). Curdie punctured at Dalleagles.
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Memories of Belgium, summer 1960

A recent interview on Veloveritas with Craig Wallace highlighted how important the Belgian scene is for serious riders who may be looking for a career in bike racing and need to push themselves on. Although Jim Robinson, whose shares memories of the 1960 season below, wasn’t necessarily looking to go pro, there were plenty at that time who were.

1955 Oats Scotland 016

It was spring of 1960 and we were sitting in an early-morning commuter train heading from Ostend to Kortrijk. I sat listening to the chatter around us thinking how much it reminded me of the blue trains going into Queen St. Low-level every morning full of Glasgow office-workers. Flemish shares a lot of vocabulary with old Scots and as my ears got a little more attuned to the accent I almost felt at home. Also, I had spent my National Service with the RAF in Schleswig-Holstein, a part of Germany where Plattdeutsch was still commonly spoken. Plattdeutsch, Frisian and Flemish, all Low Germanic languages, are still spoken up and down the North Sea coast from Denmark to northern France.
Continue reading

The Velo Club Stella and John Kennedy

In part 1 of this historical research project I looked into the Belleisle Road Club, based in the East end of Glasgow.

The story continues with the establishment of the Velo Club Stella in 1953, as a team concentrating on road racing, as opposed to the touring and time trialling that clubs tended to focus on.

Jimmy Rae recalled: The Stella Maris was around when I was a lad and was one of the first Road Racing clubs with the old SCU/BLRC, it had Hugo Koblet as its Patron. It changed its name to the VC Stella in ’53, amongst its members were John Burrows, John Kennedy, Bobby Dykes, Ronnie Park, Joe Linden, Archie Fitzgerald, Brenden Roberts, John McLaren, John Fraser, the Downes brothers. They were among the trail blazers for road racing at that time who faced a ban by the NCU/RTTC for taking part.

1955 Isle of Man018
“Velo Club Stella L to R: John Fraser, John Burrowes, Ronnie Park, Archie Fitsgerald, David Ross, James Kelly (all founder members) and Gordon Watson of Belleisle R.C.”

The Stella Maris was formed as a road racing club from the St Christopher’s CC, which itself was a Catholic club, former member Joe Linden told me. While the Stella Maris wasn’t deliberately closed to non-Catholics, the membership was predominantly Catholic, and he remembered some dubiety about the acceptance of non-Catholics. The VC Stella seems to have been established as a club that was specifically available to all, with it’s main objective being competitive road racing in the continental style.

VC Stella

John Burrowes, one of the founder members, wrote to Swiss rider Hugo Koblet, winner of the Tour de France in 1951 and the Giro d’Italia in 1950, to ask him to be honorary president of the new Velo Club Stella, and he agreed.

La Perle - Hugo Koblet - Le Pedaleur de Charme - lui-meme 1951

The background to this is the restrictive ethos of the NCU/RTTC federation, who were against racing on the open roads and wanted to keep the status quo of the past 50 years, where only time trialling took place. The BLRC was a breakaway federation which, since 1942, held controversial road races and wished to emulate and ultimately compete against their continental heroes of the Spring Classics and the Grand Tours.

Continue reading

What is an ‘Oppy Cap’?

Ever since I read an interview with Jimmy Rae by Ed Hood on Veloveritas I have wondered what the phrase ‘oppy cap’ meant. I took this to mean a cycling cap, buy why ‘oppy’?

Isle of Man International Cycling Week, 1961.

As Jimmy explained to Ed, in 1953 a new type of cycling was on the rise. The Scottish Cyclists Union was formed and the struggle between the BCU (who banned road racing and wanted to focus on time trialling) and the BLRC (who wanted to emulate the continental style of road racing) was over.

‘It was variable gears and oppy caps for us – we wanted to be like the continental roadmen of the day’.

During my research into Scottish clubs in the 50s, I asked former Belleisle RC and VC Stella rider Joe Linden about the Oppy Cap.

Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman was the first Australian pro to move to Europe in the 1920s and had a stellar career.

He rode the Tour de France in 1928 and 1931, finishing 18th and 12th. He won the 1928 Bol d’Or, a 24 hour track race, the 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris, and broke numerous place-to-place records.

His white cap was distinctive, as was his out-of-the saddle climbing style, Joe told me. ‘Oppying up the hill’ was a term that pervaded into the 50s, as was the slang for white ‘Oppy’ caps.

457px-Hubert_Opperman

The Belleisle Road Club, 1950s

I was given scans of some old Scottish cycling photos, which have led me down a trail of discovery. After investigation, I found that two of them are of the Belleisle Road Club.

I have had some trouble finding out when the club started. The photograph below was not dated but is from the early Fifties, definitely pre 1955 and probably pre 1953. A notable rider, John Kennedy, is sixth from the right, with a chimney pot behind him. He went on to ride the Tour de France, of which I will write more later.

Click on the image to see an annotated copy with the names of most of the people pictured. I spoke to David Ross, who was briefly a member of the Belleisle CC, as well as Joe Linden who also knew some of the members. Between them, and their friends and contemporaries, we been able to identify many of the faces in this image.

Back row, L-R: older man with hand on saddle, unidentified; hand on saddle, Angus Cameron; standing behind, unidentified; hand on saddle, Frank Wiggins; standing behind, Jackie Mullen (aka “Chossie”); hands on top tube and handlebars, Jackie Todd; standing behind, hand on shoulder, John Kennedy; behind, Martin Bonnar(sp?); hand on handlebar, Alex Campbell; behind, unidentified; Jim Crawford; unidentified.

Front row, L-R: kneeling, hand on top tube, Roger Wallacott; kneeling, arm round shoulder, John McNee; kneeling, Charlie Fleming.

Cycling club life at this time revolved around the social side of things- group rides, drum-ups and evenings in the club house. The Belleisle RC met in the East End of Glasgow, with a clubhouse in a converted tenement on or near the London Road and Fielden Street. Celtic Park is just a stone’s throw away. As the SpokeyDoke Blog discussed, rides were often a way to get out of church of a Sunday, but some clubs were not free of religion – the St Christophers CC was one Catholic organisation. With a club hut in this part of Glasgow you might assume that the Belleisle was a Catholic group, but it was non-denominational and there were an equal number of Catholic and non-Catholic members.

The picture above may be a meeting in the clubhouse of the Belleisle Road Club, likely in the early 1950s, and possibly in the London Road club house.

Many of the guys pictured above are sadly no longer with us. Joe Linden, who was a member for a short while, recalled that like many riders, National Service got in the way. John Kennedy was stationed with the RAF at Ballykelly in Northern Ireland around 1952-3. Joe himself spent two years in Pakistan from ’53 to ’55. David Ross was another who was a member briefly, but who told me his racing career took a downturn after his stint in the army.

The club was still going into the 1960s and their colours at this time were a copy of the Italian National Championship jersey: green, white and red. At this time, the Belleisle RC won the Scottish 25 mile team time trial championship in 1960 and broke the team record. The 50 mile team time trial record also fell that year, according to Steven McGinty.

Fraser Connell (who is more associated with the Johnstone Wheelers) was part of those teams and also won the National Road Race and 100 mile time trial championships in 1963 when he also broke 100 mile record. The championship team also incuded ome UCI Commissaire-to-be, Gerry McDaid.

Ian Sharp recalls that this team may have actually been specifically put together to win the team time trial championships, with Fraser Connell reverting to the Johnstone Wheelers and Gerry to the Glasgow Nightingale after. Another memorable member was Willie Anderson, described by one as a ‘firebrand that was the scourge of Centre meetings’.

As I drift in to the 1960s, some readers may recall that the Belleisle Road Club was revived in the 1980s. However, I wish to stay in the 1950s to pursue the next chapter of this story: the emergence of Scotland’s first elite road racing team.

[12 Feb 2012, edit paragraph 5, to reduce emphasis on idea that clubs were formed on religious grounds]