The front page of the French La Voix des Sports newspaper, June 1978 – Italy and The Netherlands in World Cup action, Formula One legend Niki Lauda and; ’20 year-old Scotsman Maurice Laing the first leader of the Three Days of Marck-en-Calais.’
Maurice won the Scottish school boy road race and time trial championships, made the podium of the junior and senior road race championships; won the Davie Bell, Sam Robinson and Trophy Pernod; rode the Milk Race and performed with distinction in France.
But like a comet he burned brief and bright across the Scottish cycling firmament; his career over at 20 years-of-age when perhaps six or seven years from his peak.
He’s still slim – he does 200 miles/week on the bike – and he still has that glint in those blue eyes as we sit down with a coffee in the cosy kitchen of his beautifully renovated farm house out in the rolling Perthshire countryside – ‘I did all the work myself’ – to discuss his short but scintillating career on the bike.
How did you get into the bike, Maurice?
“When I was a wee boy I had a Triumph palm beach and used to bomb about on it and by the time I was 10 or 11 I had pictures of Eddy Merckx up on the walls of my bedroom. [good boy! ed.]
“As I progressed as a schoolboy I won the Scottish road race champs on the Saturday at Bellahouston Park then the 10 mile time trial champs on the Sunday at Wallyford.”
Do you remember your very first race?
“It was an APR on the Monikie circuit and I was off in the first group, I ended up alone, in the lead but was swallowed up just a mile from the finish.
“I got a good write up in the paper, they said I was the ‘hero of the day’ – my dad carried that clipping in his wallet all his life.”
Tell us about your Scottish senior results.
“Before I turned senior I was second in the junior champs and made the podium in the senior champs behind Jamie McGahan and Robert Millar – I also won the Davie Bell and Sam Robinson Memorial races.
“But the ride which I look back on with most satisfaction was the Pernod Trophy race in Glasgow, 1976 when I was 18 years-old.
“It finished in Strathclyde Country Park and Sandy Gilchrist, Jimmy Millar and I were in a breakaway group with just a few kilometres to go when George Miller, the commissaire drove up alongside us and said that if the traffic lights we were approaching turned red and we jumped them, we’d be disqualified.
“We all stopped and I looked back to see the bunch hurtling down the hill towards us; as soon as the lights went to amber I was off, I had a fair jump on me and left Sandy and Jimmy – they were scoped up by the bunch and I was alone in the lead.
“I never used to look back in situations like that but I had to steal a look; and there was the bunch in arrowhead formation lead by Bobby Melrose, he was snapping at my heels all through the years I raced – he was like a terrier you couldn’t get rid of!
“But I held on the win – that one gave me a lot of satisfaction.”
And you had some good results in England.
“I won a stage in the Skelton Two Day at Hull and when I was with the Roiseal we were fourth in the British team pursuit championship.”
Tell us about the Roiseal club.
“It was a racing team set up by Angus Fraser from Edinburgh who gave us so much of his time for no reward other than the satisfaction of seeing us do well in races.
“When were still schoolboys he’s take us over to the Netherlands to race – 72” single freewheel.
“He’d take us down to the British Track Champs and races in England and Wales; he also organised our training programmes – and he didn’t spare us with those!
“‘Russian steps’ intervals with increasing effort and decreasing rest.
“He’d also organise training camps for us in the winter so we’d be riding on different roads up at places like Fort William and Inverness.
“I was lucky too with my boss at work – I was an apprentice joiner with the Co-operative – if we were doing a job at a store in perhaps Aberfeldy or Blairgowrie then he’d let me cycle from Perth to the site for training.”
And you rode the Milk Race – but that didn’t have a happy ending…
“That was 1978 and we were dragged around England by the Russians, Poles and Czechs – it was so hard, on the rivet all the way.
“It was crazy, a young joiner from Perth racing against these East Europeans who were professional in all but name.
“On the rest day at Scarborough with just a few days to go to the finish it was the rest day, we did 50 miles or so easy to keep our legs loose and Jimmy Dorward, our manager said we could go out in the evening just to get us away from the pressure of the race we but had to be back in the hotel for 10:00 pm.
“Rab Mcleod and I missed the curfew, we came in around midnight but it’s not as if we’d been drinking – we knew we were racing next day.
“But the next morning Jimmy took our jerseys back, gave us any prize money we were due and that was that.
“But the thing was that we’d already lost Les Mcleod and Bobby Melrose by that time.”
And you went straight to France from Scarborough?
“I remember phoning my mum and saying to her that I didn’t see any reason to come home and I was going to join my friend and team mate on Roiseal, Graeme Nisbet in Lille.
“I’m still not sure how I did it but I got the train to London and then on to Lille where Graeme met me.
“But my bike went AWOL on the train it took me two days to get it back – but with the benefit of hindsight it was the best thing that happened to me because I did nothing for two days which allowed me to recover from the Milk Race.
“My bike turned up and I started racing and I went for primes – I needed the money!
“But I’d stepped up a level of performance after the Milk Race, all of that hanging on behind the East Europeans had brought me on another rung up the ladder.
“I joined Graeme’s club Pedale Madeleinoise which had MÉO and Mercier as sponsors and began to compete. Graeme and I were racing three or four days each week and doing OK with the primes – I was sharing a double bed with him and his landlady said I could stay for two weeks until I found my own place in a hostel.
“The Three Days of Marck-en-Calais was coming up and Graeme pestered our team manager into letting me ride.
“The field was strong with riders like Alain Bondue [subsequently turned pro with La Redoute and was double world professional pursuit champion, ed.], and Didier Vanoverschelde [who also turned pro with La Redoute and rode five Tours de France and won the prestigious Paris-Bourges semi-classic, ed.].
“I jumped away and won the first stage by a minute-and-a-half – I think I ended up third overall in the final GC.
“I got to remain in the digs I was in after that and we had a big celebration meal!
“I’d been on the list for the Scottish Commonwealth Games team but back then with no internet or mobile phones, no one knew what I was doing. That was about two weeks after the Milk Race and as I said I’d move up to another level.
“I didn’t win any other races after that one but was on the podium pretty regularly.”
“I went home August/September time with a view to making money over the winter so I could go back to France the following season.
“I got a start joinering up in Shetland and was making big money there – and that was that until I came back as a vet for a while.”
So the cash was mightier than the Campag and you were lost to the sport at 20 years-of-age with your best years ahead of you?
“I suppose you could say that!”
Going back to the Milk Race, you must have a Robert Millar story for us?
“When we got our ‘goodie bag’ for the Milk Race there was a Milk Race T-shirt in it, I was chuffed and excited about receiving such a nice souvenir.
“Robert looked at his and said; ‘I guess it’ll be all right for cleaning my bike with.’
“But you could see he was special, he wanted success that bit more than the rest of us”
Regrets/what might have beens?
“It would have been nice to stand on the podium as a British medallist with the boys in the team pursuit.
“And I wish I’d ridden the vets road race championships when I came back as a vet at 40 years-of-age.
“I was third in the one Peter Fryer [very popular British vets road race series, ed.] event I road and had podium places in Scotland.
“I was at my best when I raced in France – but I don’t know if I’d be in the comfortable position I’m in now in my life if I’d persisted with the bike.
“But I do remember in one race where I had broken away with Didier Vanoverschelde – who went on to ride the Tour de France five times – me shouting at him in pijin French to; ‘come through!’
“And him replying; ‘I can’t, I only have small legs!’”
But you’re still turning the pedals?
“Yes, 200 miles/week, I’m Garmin-ed, Strava-ed, into segments and I’m thinking about a new Pinarello with Di 2…”
The man has moved with the times, that’s for sure – but one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he’d gone back to France, instead of chasing that gelt up in the Shetland Isles?