The 70’s; great music, great cars and great riders – Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Gimondi, Thevenet, Raas, Knetemann…
And the biggest rivalry British cycle sport has ever seen – Kirkby versus Mercury.
Liverpool was the hotbed of the nation’s sport back then with the likes of Dave Lloyd, Doug Dailey, John Clewarth, Kevin Apter, Dave Vose, Pete Matthews and Phil Thomas all in the Cycling Weekly headlines every edition.
The two big clubs were the Kirkby (formerly Melling Wheelers) and the Liverpool Mercury – their rivalry was anything but friendly.
I once stayed at the home of Kirkby’s founder and head honcho, the late Ken Matthews; the club colours were red, black and yellow and everything – and I mean everything – from the curtains to the wall paper to rubbish bins was red, yellow, black or a combination thereof.
And yes, it was as horrible as it sounds.
In conversation I mentioned Phil Thomas who had left the Kirkby to join the Mercury; the room went quiet, Matthews fixed me with a stare; ‘we don’t talk about him in this house’. I nodded and changed the subject, quickly.
Recently we had a chat with a man who was at the centre of it all, tells a good tale and still rides his bike at 77 years-of-age, Ricardo, ‘Ricky’ Garcia.
How did you get into the bike, Ricky?
“I was into fishing as a kid and my mum thought I should get more exercise so she bought me a bike.
“We’d get the ferry across the River Mersey and ride up into the hills – on one of our first runs I discovered I could climb quite well, attacked the others on a climb and dropped them.
“Over the top we had a cup of tea then headed home but on the way back my exertions on the hill caught up with me, I ‘blew up’ and didn’t get home ‘til 9:00 pm.
“My mum was not happy; ‘I’ve had the ambulance and police out looking for you!’
“So, that was how my career started, with a good hammering off me mum!”
Why The Mercury and not Kirkby?
“I was originally an East Liverpool Wheeler (the same club as British Champion and Tour de France TTT stage winner, Bill Nickson, ed.)
“My club mates Roger Gray, Harry Middleton and Billy Perkins – who won a stage in the Tour of Poland – all left and joined the Melling Wheelers; I stayed on and won the club championships but I knew I was on the verge getting to be a good rider and left at the end of the season to join The Mercury.
“In didn’t have a good start though, on the New Year’s Day ‘63/’64 my team mate Pete Maxwell and I decided to start training – I hit black ice on a decent, fractured my skull and was ‘out’ cold for eight days.
“When I came too in hospital I said the nurse; ‘that was a bad crash I had yesterday’ – she replied, ‘it wasn’t yesterday, it was eight days ago!’
“My mum had the priest in for the last rites and everything – initially I was calling people by the wrong name, I was in a state.
“My first rides after it I had thumping headaches but in the spring I rode up to Coventry and rode the Coventry Grand Prix, Star Trophy race where I finished sixth; Hughie Porter (perhaps the greatest pursuiter the world has ever seen, ed.) was fifth and Bill Painter (a prolific presence at the top of finish sheets on the British race scene in the 60’s and 70’s, ed.) won it; I was so knackered I had to use my prize money to get the train home.
“I remember that around that time I did an inter-club 50 mile time trial and caught the entire field, including Dave Rollinson (Rollinson went on to win two British amateur road race titles and a pro career, ed.)
“Then in the Isle of Man there was a race called the Four Peaks, we were away in the break with a Ernie Lightfoot who was a champion hill climber when my team mate who was in the break with me began to cramp – so I pushed him on the big climb and we still went away from the rest.
“Over the top of Snaefell I said to him; ‘you won’t be sprinting after me doing that, will you?’
“He replied; ‘oh ! I don’t know about that!’
“As is happened I beat him by about five lengths in the sprint but he said to me that I could have let him have the win.
“I replied; ‘how the hell could I do that after I pushed you up the climb!’”
Was the Kirkby v. Mercury rivalry as bad as we’ve heard?
“It was very intense; once I was in the break with my club mates Pete Matthews and Pete Maxwell – one of them went away but we kept working in the break to keep clear of the field.
“John Clewarth (Welsh Millk Race stage winner, British Hill Climb Champion and a prolific winner of amateur road races through the 70’s, ed.) was there for Kirkby but wouldn’t work with us – so at the finish we put him through a gap in the hedge and into a potato field!
“Another time I’d missed our run – there used to be about 60 guys going out – I tried to catch them but spotted another group and tacked on, it was the Kirkby.
“Doug Dailey (British Amateur and Veterans Road Race Champion and another prolific Kirkby race winner and ‘the man’ in the club, ed.) was at the front and word got to him that I was there; they used to call me ‘Garce’ back then; Dailey said; ‘Garce on the back! Oh dear me!’
“Over one of the climbs I dropped them all and when the road went into the woods I jumped off and hid then started throwing sticks and sods of earth at them, scoring a direct hit on Dailey.
“‘Oh dear me! Garce! I should have known!’ Dailey said as he shook his head – some of the lads saw the funny side but a lot of them didn’t!
“In The Mercury we used to lark about much more than the Kirkby guys – they were all so serious.”
Why do you think ‘the ‘pool’ was the place for bike riders back then?
“The rivalry was intense and there were so many good lads – and we were just harder than most.
“For me, the Merseyside, Scottish and Newcastle lads were the cream of the crop.
“The southern guys were soft; we’d arrive at race down there – always late, signing on as we put our shoes on going to the line.
“The London guys wouldn’t want us to be allowed to start but the officials would just say; ‘it wouldn’t be a proper race without them !’ and that would be that.”
Why is Liverpool no longer ‘the place’ do you think?
“Lots of reasons but I think the lads are softer now, too much gets done for them – we had to do it all ourselves.
“Looking back we probably trained too much but most of the races were 100/120 miles – there are very few races now and you have to have a set number in the team.
“And of course there’s the ‘team leader thing’ where they’re all working for one guy – what if he’s not there?
“Back then we had three or four guys could win, if you had a lad up the road then you wouldn’t chase but you’d be half hoping he’d get brought back so your chance would come.”
There was a lot of chat at the time that the Liverpool lads were all on ‘the dole’ – full time on the bike.
“Not me, I was a carpenter in the shipyards with Cammell Laird – so was Paddy Ward, the great time trial rider.”
Give us a sample of your palmarès, Ricky.
“The Fred Roberts Trophy, The Sheffield RRC Anniversary GP, a stage in The Journal Two Day – Sid Barras was third (‘Super Sid’ perhaps the most successful home professional ever with a host of wins, ed.), the Derby Mercury Road Race, the Prestwich Phoenix Road Race…
“I had any number of top ten placings and used to finish well in the overall Star Trophy.” (equivalent of current Premier Calendar but with many more races and much harder fought, ed.)
And you never rode the Milk Race but did ride the Peace Race?
“Yes, in 1971, I was getting consistent top six placings in the best races of the day, right there with riders who were getting international rides – so I wrote to the selectors.
“Ken Matthews was pretty well connected so the Kirkby guys got the ride in the Milk Race; they thought they’d send me to the hardest race going – The Peace Race – and that I wouldn’t finish, but I did.
“They called it the ‘Eastern Bloc Tour de France’ and it was savage, the fastest, hardest thing I ever did on a bike.”
Did you ever have pro ambitions?
“I was born that little bit too late – the British pro scene was just starting to get moving when my career was closer to the end than the beginning – I was in my 30’s by then.
I had offers but it was too late; I was 29 when I rode the Peace Race.
“I’m from a Spanish family and I raced there quite a bit picking up king of the mountains prizes.
“I actually met Tom Simpson out training the day before he won the ’65 Worlds; ‘I’m just doing the six hours today,’ he said.
“He was a phenomenal rider, if he was around now with the sort of backing Sky would give him he’d win everything there was to win.
“They say he took drugs – but they all did in that era.”
Are you still on the bike?
“Yes, I still do 60/70 mile runs, I go out with Phil Thomas and his wife Vicki – they drop me on the big climbs but I claw my way back!
“And it’s only four years ago I won The League International National Champs road race for 70 to 75 year-olds.”
“Just that I was born that bit too late and that I had so many injuries – four fractured skulls and spinal problems, they all affected my career…”
They just don’t make them like that any more.
With thanks to Ricky and John Pierce for suggesting the interview.