Thursday, August 5, 2021
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Eric Stone – Top ‘Crosser in the 1970’s

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Eric Stone
Eric Stone.

We know the ‘cross season is over and our Angus Edmond interview was supposed to bring the curtain down on VeloVeritas ‘cross coverage but bear with us on this one, please – it’s a ‘goody.’

Back in the 70’s when ‘The Comic’ [Cycling Weekly, ed.] was virtually the only source of information on bike racing during the winter there were comprehensive reports on ‘cross and the Six Days over the winter months.

It was hard not to notice the top ‘cross men of the era; John Atkins, Keith Mernickle – who has featured on this site – and Chris Wreghitt, who we’ve also spoken to.

But there was another man whose face graced the magazine most weeks during the ‘cross season – Eric Stone.

Stone was a wiry ex-runner who made the top 20 in the Worlds six times including a top ten result – and that was in the days of the De Vlaemincks, Van Damme and Zweifel.

We caught up with him recently at his home in Australia to ‘talk cross’ for the last time until the autumn – unless we get hold of Eric De Vlaeminck that is…

You were a Fell runner, Eric?

“I was originally a runner, yes – but no, not the Fells, road and cross country. My goal was to make the GB team for the marathon; back then you couldn’t run a marathon if you were under 18 years-old. So when I was 18 I ran the European Marathon Championship which was held on a course near Hull. It was won with a 2:20 on a really brutal day, I did 2:32 but it took so much out of me that I struggled to recover from it.

“I rode the bike as a kid and one of the guys I worked with suggested I try cyclocross – of course, I didn’t know what it was and he had to explain. There was a race for ‘non-experts and juniors’ at Bromsgrove and I entered – I won by two or three minutes and thought; “this is for me!”

“I decided that my aim was to ride for GB – a goal I achieved within a couple of years.”

Eric Stone
Eric’s running background was an advantage in cyclocross.

You were a pro for a long time; 1969 to 1983.

“I would have stayed amateur longer to contest the Nationals and Worlds but the BCF declared me ‘professional’ because a picture appeared of me in the local paper wearing a Dawes track suit top – there weren’t many cyclocross pros back then but I just had to accept it.”

You were good at picking up sponsors.

“I rode for Tower Cycles, with whom I had a lot of success then Research Building Materials before going on to Ron Kitching, Benotto, Emperor Sport and Andrews BMW.

“It’s not well known but Bill Dodds – the main man at RBM – had me under a lot of pressure to perform.

“I had the late Danny Horton [ex-British professional road race champion and top time trial rider after he quit the pro ranks, ed.] as my mechanic and Sid Barras [big sprinting main man on the British pro scene of that era.] was retained to train with me in the summer – and Chris Dodds [top British ‘Cross rider of the day] to train with me in the winter.

“I’ve always managed to build good rapports with people over the years. Sponsors weren’t easy to get back then but I would push, push, push ‘til I got a deal.”

Seven National podiums but no win – you were unlucky to come up against Atkins and Wreghitt…

“Those podiums were achieved between 1969 and ’81 and I beat both of those riders on more than one occasion during those years but if I’m honest I think there were two occasions where I was capable of the win – on one occasion I had a ‘mechanical’ then on the other occasion I caught flu just before the National.

“I’m still good friends with all of that ‘old guard’ of ‘cross guys.”

Eric Stone
Stone, Ledger and Wreghitt found themselves pitched together at the top races.

But you won the Three Peaks on five occasions.

“I think I could have won it a few more times but on one occasion I fell out with the organiser because he was paying the Swiss to ride but wouldn’t pay me.

“The last time I rode I won it for GB and we won the team, too – beating the top Swiss guys of the day.” [The Swiss were one of the dominant forces in ‘cross during that era, ed.]

What was your best finish in a Continental race?

“I never won one but was second a few times; on one occasion to Albert Van Damme – who went on to be world champion. [Van Damme won more than 100 crosses in his career, including six Belgian Championships and the Worlds, ed.]

“I had a number of top ten finishes but remember the first time I went over – I was used to being one of the top guys in the UK but over there you had somewhere between 10 and 20 guys at your level or better – it was a shock to the system.

“We were on start money but can’t remember how much; it was all ferries back then – and if you paid all your expenses and still had a few quid left then it was a good trip.”

You raced against the best ever – Eric De Vlaeminck.

“I competed against him a number of times; one Christmas I went over with John Atkins and Daryl Brassington to ride five races in Belgium over the holiday period – we got to know him during that trip.

“He was an absolute superstar; I remember when the Worlds were at Crystal Palace in London in 1973 there was a section of adverse camber which no one could ride, we all had to run – he rode it every lap.

“His bike handling was in a class of it’s own.”

Eric Stone
Eric’s bike handling was first class too.

Who impressed in the UK?

“John Atkins was an unbelievable bike handler; to beat him was a big deal.

“Keith Mernickle was good and so was Chris Dodd.

“I remember once when Chris Wreghitt was on the way up I took him to one side and explained to him about how to present yourself, you have to be professional – nice fresh white socks to start every race and display your sponsor’s colours.

“When I rode for Andrews I had my wife and two daughters in matching Andrews tracksuit tops – that used to attract so much attention.”

Did you ever consider becoming a ‘Euro Pro?’

“I thought about it when I was with Tower Cycles but then Bill Dodds made me a really good offer which didn’t just involve the bike, I could work for his company, RBM too.

“That put an end to my Euro ambitions – none of us were really full time pros, we had to work too, semi-pros you’d say.”

Six top 20’s at the Worlds – and a top ten.

“That top six was some race; it was in Italy and the course was frozen solid – so the organiser got the local fire brigade to hose it to soften it. Then it thawed overnight!

“It was a virtual running race, you could only ride the road sections – I remember passing the German rider Klaus Peter Thaler (who won the Pro Worlds twice including in the snow and ice of Munich, ed.) stuck up to his knees in mud with a look of total bewilderment on his face, like; “what am I doing here?”

“He climbed off soon after that.”

Eric Stone
On the cover of Jock Wadley’s superb ‘International Cycle Sport’ magazine, December 1970.

I remember you were a man for the light bikes.

“When I rode for Ron Kitching I worked for him too so I had access to all the equipment he supplied. When I saw the first of the Speedwell Titanium frames I thought; “I’ll need to have one of those!”

“They were a bit ‘whippy’ but very light – I was only eight-and-a-half stones so it was fine. [The frames were made in Birmingham and used by Luis Ocana on key stages of his 1973 Tour de France win, ed.]

“I rode 24-spokers and whilst I never weighed the bike I think I had it down to about 16 lbs – and that’s at a time when not many bikes were below 18lbs in weight.

“And on the subject of equipment, I rode the Three Peaks 10 times and never punctured once.”

What did you do after you’d finished as a pro?

“If I’d stayed in the UK I’d probably still be racing as a vet – but I went to Australia to work with Bill Dodds, my sponsor from my RBM days.

“I took up the mountain bike and won the State Championships but it was six months ‘til the next race – so I turned to surfing and did that for about 10 years.

“Six years ago I took up the bike again; I’m 68 now but still weigh 10 stones, I’m very fit and mentally I’m around 45 years-old.”

Eric Stone
Eric’s still very fit and into good equipment.

Regrets?

“Not winning a National – I always got on with the press so I think I’d have got good headlines.

“And another is perhaps not going to Belgium to ride ‘cross full time?

“It was much harder back then with the language barrier and being isolated from your friends and family – but maybe I should have given it a try for three months?

“But saying it is much easier than actually doing it…”

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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