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Reg Barnett – 1970’s World Class Pro; “a sprinter’s speed in a road rider’s body”

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Reg Barnett
Reg Barnett.

The 70’s are the ‘decade that taste forgot’ according to the Media; which is strange because I remember the era as having the best cars, music, films – and bike riders.

On the continent the exploits of Sercu, Ocana, Merckx, Hoban, Gimondi, Verbeeck, Thevenet, De Vlaeminck and all the rest of a ‘Golden Generation’ of hard men made the disappointment of ‘The Comic’ being late once again all the harder to bear.

There was no internet and only the Daily Telegraph carried scant reports on cycling.

Cycling Weekly, ‘The Comic’ was our life line to the continental, time testing and British professional scenes.

Holdsworth, Bantel, Falcon, Raleigh – they all seemed so glamorous, the riders looked cool and tough and there were characters aplenty.

One of my personal favourites was Londoner, Reg Barnett who was one of the top ten track sprinters on the planet in the late 60’s but then turned his hand to the road where as well as the inevitable seafront criteriums he could win stages in the tough stage races of the day.

He’s a man I’ve long wanted to quiz and last week over the course of an hour long phone call, I got my wish.

Thanks for agreeing to speak to us, Reg – how did it all start?

“I used to play football for Crystal Palace FC under 15’s; I’d bike there and my dad would give me a lift home.

“It all started from there …”

And you won the White Hope Sprint at Herne Hill in 1965?

“That was my first big break and what started my career off even though I was originally a road rider and rode for GB as a junior on the road in Europe in 1963. I found I could sprint a bit and started to ride the track seriously from ’65 through to ’68.

“In the winter of ’65 I lived in The Netherlands and raced in Germany, I learned so much during that time.

“In ’67 I made the quarters of the Worlds, the first time a British rider had got that far since the day of Binch and Peacock. But match sprinting is so nerve racking, I’d sooner ride a 150 mile stage than a sprint tournament, any day!

“But I could win them, I won tournaments in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Germany – even though I didn’t really have a sprinter’s build, I was too light.

“I remember riding against Omar Pkhakadze of Russia, he was twice a medallist in the sprint at the Olympics, was World Champion and Russian National Sprint Champion 10 times – he was 6’ 2” and weighed 95 kilos, a giant of a man but I actually beat him in a tournament in Denmark. I remember him looking flabbergasted!

“In ’67 Tom Simpson said to me that he could get me a contract with Peugeot on the road.

“We were riding in Paris, he was riding an omnium and I was riding the Sprint Grand Prix where I came third behind Morelon. He could see I was fast but also light so I could get over the hills – but I didn’t take him up on the offer, I wanted to go to the Olympics, it meant so much to my family my going to Mexico.”

Reg Barnett
Reg would rather have ridden 150 miles on the road than a sprint series on the boards. Photo©Johnny van Zundert

How did Mexico go?

“I made the quarters but went with designs on a podium place, six of the last eight came straight through but the other two had to come back through the repechages – and that’s what I did.

“I was going OK, 10.1/10.2 up there at altitude but I just didn’t have the power of the bigger guys.

“The Italians took me under their wing, their coach was Guido Costa who was perhaps the best coach in the world at that time and Costa said that he could get me a ride with the Filotex team.

“He said that I had sprinter’s speed in a road rider’s body …”

But you turned pro in England in 1969?

“Yes, with Holdsworth – Les West, Bob Addy, Roger Newton, Dave Nie and Alan Bridges.

“I had six wins, including a stage in the Mackeson Isle of Wight Tour. It was an Easter stage race and I’d ridden an omnium at Herne Hill the day before it started, I was in good shape.

“I mean I could sprint like a bastard but I could climb too – but I didn’t have the grounding of the likes of West and Addy, they were really strong riders. It was a good team to be on – to leave was a mistake.”

To go to Clive Stuart; Clive and Stuart Biddulph who owned bike shops – those boys had a reputation…

“Yeah, we’ll not speak ill of the dead but they folded the team owing people a lot of money; including me.

“I had to visit them with a ‘firm’ to get my £1,200 – Paul Moriarty the actor and ex-boxer who played ‘Razors’ in the Long Good Friday and was ‘Hatchet Harry’ in ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ was a friend of mine and came round with me. We got the money – Paul and I still have a chuckle about that one.

“The team never really got going despite having guys like John Clarey and Geoff Wiles on board and my motivation wasn’t the best; but I did win the British Pro Sprint title that year.”

Then Falcon in ’71.

“Yeah, ’71 and ’72; I was riding with Albert Hitchen – they were his last years but he used to be so good at motivating me.

“In ’71 we had 28 wins; I won a lot of crits and a stage in the Tour of the North – and rode the Tour de Suisse where I was getting in the breaks and was climbing alongside guys like Bitossi.”

Reg Barnett
Reg (second left) lines up with his Falcon Teammates; (l to r) Mick Holmes, Dave mitchell, Keith Lambert and Jim Moore, with manager Albert Hitchen (l). Photo©FalconCycles

Raleigh in ’73?

“Yes, with Billy Bilsland, Brian Jolly, Dave Rollinson …

“The money wasn’t great; most of the lads had other jobs – I made as much money back when I was riding as an amateur on the track between my prizes and start money.

“I was working as a steel erector in the winter and making £200/week and I said to George Shaw at Raleigh that I needed another £40/week for ’74 but he replied that he couldn’t give me that, so I told him to forget my contract for ’74.”

Reg Barnett
Reg was with Raleigh for just one season. Photo©Didier Graczyk

You’re down as being with Falcon in ’75/’76?

“Yes that was a deal where I opened a shop under the Falcon banner. I had a bad accident in ’75 when I was run over by a car and nearly killed.

“But I raced in ’77 in the colours of the shop as Barnett Edwards Shimano – the team was me and Nigel Dean but I wasn’t training, really.

“I rode the ‘Eddy Merckx Meet’ at Eastway though that year – Thurau won from Sid Barras and Eddy.

“I only rode a few vets races after that; my mum was ill and wanted to see me race again and it was nice that she was there with the wife and kids. And it was good to see and be racing against guys like Dave Bedwell and Dennis Tarr.

“But work on the steel was taking up more and more time – I was working seven days and whilst it was good that my mum saw me race again that was an end of my racing days.”

Performances you’re most happy with?

“In 1971 when I was able to stay with the big hitters on the climbs in Switzerland, I’m proud of that.

“And that same year I was absolutely flying for the National Road Race Champs at Hull over 150 miles – I think I could have won it – but my team mate, the late Danny Horton went up the road and there was no way I was going to compromise him – and of course, he went on to win.

“In 1971 I was proud of the fact that I was selected to ride for GB in the sprint and the road race at the Worlds, as far as I know, no one has ever had those two nominations in the same year. I rode the road race but had a bad stomach after a long train journey to Mendrisio. The thing is that by then my legs were too skinny to take on pure track sprinters.

“It was good to win my first British sprint title in 1967; I had to beat Fred Booker to do that – he was a big lad – all told I took seven sprint titles between amateur and professional.

“And it was a great privilege to have lined up alongside riders like Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi, amazing men, powerhouses …

“They could ride it all – Grand Tours, the Classics, cobbles – anything.”

Reg Barnett
Reg’s pals sourced one of his old bikes on eBay as a surprise present. Photo©Andrew Green

Regrets?

“Not so much regrets as I wonder what might have happened if I’d taken up Tom Simpson’s or Guido Costa’s offers to go pro in Europe. I actually had three changes, when I was living in The Netherlands I got to know Theo Verschueren and he offered to get me a place on the Romeo Smit youth section.

“And when I raced in East Germany in ’67 you had a chaperone everywhere you went and one in four of these guys were in the Stasi, the secret police.

“Whilst they maybe didn’t ask me to defect outright they said that if spoke highly of the regime on my travels then I’d be rewarded – they said they’d make me one of the best road riders ever to come out of Britain and give me a nice house down on the Black Sea.

“The thing is my dad was a real Royalist, a right winger, the thought of Communism made him physically sick! But it’s a different world now, the lads on the track squad make decent money and whatever era you’re in, the cream always rises to the top.

“There are two local lads in our village, Daniel and Ben Tulett they’re very good, up and coming; I’m their motivation coach – it’s good to still be able to help young lads on the way up.”

VeloVeritas wonders if Jason Kenny would take a ‘firm’ round to Sir David’s house if his wages were late in the bank?

We don’t think so, somehow.

With thanks to another of those 70’s legends who never disappoint when you eventually get to interview them.

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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