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John McMillan – Reminiscing about the “Okolo Slovenska”

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okolo-slovenska-logoVeloVeritas interviewed Scottish Legend John McMillan, last year – doing some research into the ‘Peace Race’ recently we asked John if he’s ever ridden the Warsaw-Berlin-Prague. He said he hadn’t – but he had ridden the Okolo Slovenska, here’s what he had to say about it…

Now in it’s 60th year, the Okolo Slovenska is the seven day Tour of Slovakia, which in 1965 was part of Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia.

The aim of the race was to celebrate the liberation of Slovakia by the Red Army in 1945.

The Scottish Team received invites to ‘Iron Curtain’ countries because the President of the SCU, Arthur Campbell, was a committed Communist, and used the races to further his contacts within the various East European countries’ cycling bodies.

Arthur always had two suitcases; the second was full of duty-free whisky for his buddies.

The team comprised of mostly riders from the West of Scotland; Ian Thompson and Jim Leitch of the Glasgow Ivy, Sandy Gordon and Billy Bilsland of the Glasgow Wheelers – and me, the solitary ‘Easterner’ from Edinburgh’s Velo Sportiv.

Budgets for racing in the SCU were, at that time, pretty non-existent.

The race organisers provided plane tickets from London to Bratislava, the SCU had to get us to London, and we all flew from Glasgow to London, then spent the night sleeping on benches at Heathrow, which wasn’t the best start to a trip.

Arthur was Team Manager, and the ‘mechanic’ was the veteran race official from Musselburgh, Jimmy Drysdale, one of Arthur’s cronies.

He was a nice guy who did an awful lot for the sport – but knew nothing about fixing bikes and developed a peptic ulcer the day we arrived in Slovakia. Thus, throughout the race we looked after our own bikes.

We were housed in what looked like barracks accommodation, and soon found out that the plumbing was, to say the least – basic.

Billy put his foot in a washbasin, which promptly collapsed, narrowly missing him and the less said about the toilets, the better.

John McMillan
John raced for the East of Scotland club Velo Sportiv before turning pro. Photo©supplied

Day One

Day one was a split stage; a TTT in the morning, and a 120kms road race in the afternoon.

We were amazed by the crowds watching the race, and the reception we received when presented to the spectators.

The reception for the East German team was, to say the least – stony.

We surged away from the line, hammering down the road, only to realise that we were one short, Billy was missing – he had jammed his chain right on the line.

Frantic hooting from the team car slowed us up, and we waited for Billy to catch up.

The crowds along the route must have thought we were a really lazy lot but Billy rejoined, and we managed not to finish last; as I recall, it was the Hungarian team which won.

The afternoon stage started quite sedately, which was just as well, because I was feeling a little fragile after the TTT.

However, it was the lull before the storm.

The race emerged in open country, and a brisk side wind sprang up.
I had dropped down the bunch for a breather, and, when the bordures formed – I was lost.

A ‘gruppetto’ formed (very definitely NOT the ‘laughing group’) and we managed to catch the peloton at about 15kms to go (thanks to generous assistance from following motos).

One memory stands out; we passed a railway level crossing where a passenger train had been halted to allow the race to pass – I was most impressed.

Okolo Slovenska
Famous Slovak rider Karola Páteka won the final  stage of the Okolo. Photo©unknown

Day Two

Day two was a 150kms road stage, and we got a lot smarter this time, putting Billy into the first echelon, and most of us in the bunch, although I was a couple of minutes off the pace at the end.

Nothing much happened, but at the communal dinner in the evening, wiener schnitzel made a third appearance, and a light bulb in the hall exploded, showering people with shards of glass.

After this, I was never going to complain about British accommodation ever again.

Day Three

Day three was another 150kms road stage, but this time we were in the Tatra Mountains, and it was raining and cold.

I was not climbing well, and ended up chasing all day.

On a particularly steep and wet descent, I locked up first the rear wheel, followed by the front, followed by making intimate acquaintance with the tarmac – I was not alone.

I found another group of stragglers, and on we went towards the finish, the rain pouring down.

Getting out of the saddle to crest a small rise, both wheels went away, and I hit the deck for the second time, on the same side as before – Ouch!

The finish was at a football stadium in the town centre, and the run-in was peppered with tram tracks, especially four-way junctions, and I encountered many more bodies lying in the street.

I made it to the Stadium, where a race doctor was looking after me, when Arthur came beaming towards me – Billy had won Stage Three and taken the jersey.

While I was very happy for him, I was more concerned about the skin I had left out on the road.

Day Four

Day four was another day in the Tatras.

I had not eaten much dinner (yes, wiener schnitzel again) the previous evening, had not slept much, and had a huge bruise on my right hip.

Nevertheless, ‘never say die,’ I was going to start the stage.

But I should have known better, when I started to faint in the breakfast queue, Billy made me sit down and brought me some food.

My morale on the start line was lower than a snake’s belly, but I was determined to have a go.

I lasted about 30kms, in the hills and rain, and climbed into the sag wagon, already over 10 minutes down, I was not alone.

I transferred to the relative warmth of the team car, made especially warmer by our driver chain-smoking all the way.

Billy comfortably retained the Jersey, with Jim Leitch winning the stage; after all it was just like Scotland – cold, rainy and hilly…

Okolo Slovenska
Quiet roads and hard, hard racing in Slovakia. Photo©unknown

Day Five

Day five was the rest day, in the mountain resort of Banska Bystrica, a favourite with East German tourists, who did not appear to have noticed that World War Two was over or that they had lost.

We avoided the official meal, and had some pasta at a normal restaurant.

Sandy Gordon decided that he had enough, and decided not to start the next day.

Come the evening, Sandy, a Dutch guy and I were taken to Poprad railway station, with our bikes and bags, and given tickets for the train and plane but no food or money.

We traveled through the night on a freezing train, arriving at Prague on a rainy morning, with no means of travel to the Airport.

We were in the process of having a whip round to see if we had taxi fare, when the Dutch Guy, who spoke German, chatted up a truck driver to take us to the Airport for the equivalent of two pounds Sterling – a bargain!

And that, for me, was the end of the Okolo Slovenska.

Day Six

Billy also won Stage Six and held on to the jersey until the final stage seven (won by Karola Páteka) when he only had Ian and Jim left as teammates and a concerted effort by all the Czech and Slovak teams finally took it off his shoulders, the Czech rider Jiří Háva running out overall winner.

It has one of Billy’s finest rides.

I also rode the Tour of Poland – but that’s another story…

Check out the Okolo Slovenska website.

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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