If you were on the cycling scene in Scotland in the early 80’s then you’ll be familiar with the name of Finlay Gentleman.
A precocious talent, winning the Tour de Trossachs whilst still in his teens then the Scottish Road Race Championship and a member of the Scottish team which won the British 100 kilometre Team Time Trial Championship.
A move to France to catch the eye of one of the professional teams and ‘do a Robert Millar’ was the next step.
VeloVeritas recently caught up with Gentleman – who lives south of the border, these days – to get the low down on what happened next.
Remind us of some of your Scottish and UK results please, Finlay.
“The year I turned senior I won the Tour des Trossachs – setting the record for the Dukes Pass climb – and the Scottish Hill Climb Championship.
“In my first full senior year I won the Scottish Road race Championship and was on Sandy Gilchrist’s Commonwealth Games squad – we were third the first year then won the British 100km TTT Championship.
“And I had a fourth place in the Merseyside Invitation TT behind Chris Boardman – I remember I was flying on the first lap but cracked on the second circuit.”
How old were you when you decided to go to France?
“I was 19, which with the benefit of hindsight was too young. It’s so long ago now that I can’t remember how I set it up – perhaps it was through the Riddle brothers?
“The club was VC Evreux in Haute Normandie, it was the feeder club for Systeme U but they lost that sponsorship so the town of Evreux took over sponsoring the team.
“There were two Irish guys there, Andrew Moss and Ian Chivers and I hooked up with them.”
What was the set up like?
“It all got off to a bad start when I arrived at the airport and they kept me waiting four hours to pick me up – I should have known there and then that it wasn’t going to be a good experience! And then when I got back to the house there was no food – I was ravenous and I remember thinking; ‘is this what it’s going to be like?’
“They had a new DS who had a bike shop and he was a shambles. I was supposed to get a nice carbon bike but it transpired that he wouldn’t give the good bikes to the foreign riders in case they took off with them and sold them at the end of the season.
“I crashed and bent a bike and ended up on a handed down machine which didn’t fit me – that wasn’t good for the head.
“The accommodation was a wee house in Evreux with no wall paper, old military beds, an outside toilet and the shower was in the kitchen. Initially there was no TV – but eventually we got a little black and white one.”
What was the programme like?
“It was actually OK and there was an ex-pro on the squad, Yvan Frebert; he came from Evreux and was a pro for three seasons, one with Systeme U and two with Peugeot.
“He rode the Tour de France twice and was well respected – he won the Tour de Normandie twice – when he went back to amateur status he worked as an electrician with the town council – but they looked after him as far as time for training and racing went.
“He was a really good guy and he took me under his wing, talking to me during the races and keeping me right about when to move up and where to position myself.
“I remember on one occasion we were all going down to train and race in the Basque Country and team’s big old Citroen CX Pallas wouldn’t start – all the bikes were on the Renault mini bus but the Citroen just wouldn’t fire up.
“Again, I remember thinking; ‘this isn’t a good sign!’ But I enjoyed training and racing down there and it’s where I first came across ‘The Red Machine’ – the Russians.
“Talk about, ‘men against boys?'”
Did you get any results of note?
“Nothing special – but I did get 12th from 200 starters in my first Classic; I got in the break which was a good start but messed up on the finishing circuit. But it was difficult because I had no money for decent food; all you got from the club was your primes and the money I brought soon ran out.
“I remember on one occasion that my pre-race dinner consisted of boiled potatoes and sardines. I had to keep asking my mum and dad for money – and I couldn’t keep doing that forever.
“Hindsight is a great thing but I should really have gone to Spain – the hilly nature of the races suited me much better.
“I rode the Tour of Malaga and was 10th with a third place on the fourth stage to the Colombian Nelson Rodriguez who went on to win a Tour de France stage. The first stages were in Morocco and when we got back to the mainland, on the very first climb Rodriguez and his Colombian team mates shelled the whole field – except for me and a couple of Spanish guys.
“The Spaniards and I just looked at each other like; ‘what’s this all about?’ I liked the hills and the heat in Spain but like I say, hindsight is a great thing.”
Paul Kimmage says that during his time as an amateur in France he was completely unaware of any doping – is that how you found it?
“I saw guys injecting; and I couldn’t figure out how my team mates who were creeping at the Pays Basque training camp could suddenly find such good form a matter of two weeks late – until I realised . . .”
When did you realise that it wasn’t for you?
“After I crashed they gave me a bike which was a hand me down and too wee for me. And I could never afford decent food – I can remember Mossy and I doing three or four hour runs and all we had to eat after it was a baguette with jam. When the Irish guys went home and I was on my own I began to think about my situation – no money, poor food and the DS a con man.
“I heard the stories about Stephen Roche at ACBB where they would only give him repaired tubs to ride ’til he proved himself and I thought that maybe this is how has to be But I was young and on my own – looking back I should have come home, regrouped and gone to Spain but I’d pretty much made my mind up that I didn’t want to live like that.
“But all of that said, it’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world – I met some great people. The club president’s mother was an old lady in her 80’s with wee grey, blind dogs running about – she’d sometime have me round for dinner and did my washing. It’s not like she had loads of money, she just wanted to help me.”
Did you race much when you came back – did you consider racing for one of the big English sponsored clubs or riding as a pro in the UK?
“No – my head was messed up and I’d decided I wanted to be a continental professional or not at all. I didn’t give it as much of a shot as I might have – nowadays I think it’d be much easier; you’d have a coach and things would be mapped out.
“Back then I had no coach, no real plan and there was no internet – I’d go to the phone box once a week to call my folks…
“I’ve always been into cars and I used to sit on the wall outside the house watching the traffic go by to entertain myself. As for being a British pro, that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what Robert Millar did and not ride criteriums in England – I wasn’t suited to that type of racing.
“Like I said, the Spanish races suited me – those big echelons on the flat roads of Northern France weren’t for me. Although I did ride the GP Isbergues as part of the GB squad; I was in the break but got shelled. Sandy Gilchrist was in the car and told me that whatever happened, I was to finish – I was the only GB guy who did.
“I was riding in and I was caught by a Panasonic rider and we spelled in to the finish, together. At the finish, Sandy said; ‘do you know who that is?’ it was Erik Breukink – he was a nice guy. I also spoke to Greg Lemond and Sean Kelly that day and I remember thinking; ‘this is what I want to do!'”
Will we ever see you in vets races?
“I’m back on my bike but my wife is concerned that I end up with a ‘Bradley Wiggins’ body.
“Maybe if I was single then I’d consider it – but that ship has sailed.
“I’m friends with Deno Davie, the ex-Carrera professional and it’s nice to ride round the lanes with him – just nice to be on the bike…”