July 1972, the outskirts of Ullapool in the North West Highlands of Scotland, top Scottish road man, Andy McGhee and his lovely wife, Rose are having a picnic on the grass overlooking the town and Loch Broom.
Remarkably, the weather is glorious.
Enter former Scottish Junior BAR, Colin Carmichael, Dave Chapman and yours truly having just ridden up from Dingwall on our bikes, where we’d competed in the ‘Brahan’ road race, the day before.
That nice roast chicken which Rose had bought for their picnic went down a treat, sorry, Mr. and Mrs. McGhee!
Fast forward 46 years and VeloVeritas is sitting down at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome with Mr. McGhee to apologise for pillaging the chicken and to reminisce about his career, over a coffee.
And on the subject of coffee, the lass behind the counter reckons that ‘the cyclists’ are the worst for nursing half an inch of cold coffee at the bottom of their cup rather than buy another – come on guys and girls, you’re spending five grand on bikes!
Were you a man who kept records of career wins and placings Andy?
[Not a good start then but we reckon his wins must be up into three figures, ed.]
We’ve looked back at your results and we make your biggest results:
- The Musselburgh Three Day
- The Dave Campbell Memorial
- A stage in the Journal Two Day
- The Crianlarich Circuit
- The Ayshire Grand Prix
- The National Road Race Championships
- The Tour of Scotland …
… have we missed anything?
“Well, you mention the Musselburgh Three Day, the Ayrshire Grand Prix and the National Champs, but in fact I won those three times each.
“And I won the Scottish Road Race BAR which was based on points for major Scottish road races across the year.
“There was also my win in the GB Selection Race at Barrow-in-Furness in the spring of 1967 where I was up against guys like John Bettison, Roy Cromack, Pete Matthews and Sid Barras.”
How did it all start?
“I was a village boy from Houston and a friend coaxed me into joining the Kinning Park Clarion.
“Kinning Park was on the Southside of Glasgow but the membership tended to be from Johnston, Kilwinning, Paisley, that sort of area.
“The membership at that time was largely made up of road racers who were coming to the end of their racing careers.
“I remember Jimmy McGinty asked me if I’d like to join the Regent but I stuck with the Kinning Park Clarion.
“We used to have a club pub night where I’d have a glass or two of shandy but some of the boys would have a bit more than that; by the end of one of these nights we had renamed the club to ‘VC Phoenix’!”
Three Scottish Road Race titles, which one do you remember most fondly?
“The first one, 1966 in Fife.
“They were all strong guys and I was thinking that it wasn’t going to be an easy day – but on the last of the three climbs of Cadgers Brae there was just Johnny left, I attacked and won on my own in Kennoway.”
Tell us about your 1966 Tour of Scotland win.
“I wasn’t originally in the Scottish team but Sandy Gordon had a bad crash in the Tour of Austria and I was promoted to the national team.
“There were five stages; the first stage was 68 miles, Glasgow to Largs, Graham Owen (Liverpool) won that one with me third.
“The second stage saw us all ferried over to Arran where there was a 91 mile stage which took in the very tough ‘String Road’ across the island – I was third again with Geoff Wiles (England) taking the stage and the jersey.
“Stage Three was Largs to Dunbar – that’s 140 miles!
“Billy Bilsland won that stage, I was fourth and took the overall lead.
“The next stage took us all the way back from Dunbar to Dumfries but that was only 110 miles… The Pole Czeslaw Polewiak won that one and we defended my jersey.
“Stage Five was 105 miles from Dumfries to Ayr with another Pole, Stanislaw Gazda taking the stage. Gazda was a strong rider, he won Peace Race stages and the GC in the Tour of Poland.”
On the subject of the Tour of Poland, you rode that in 1966.
“Yes, and the whole team finished – which was quite an achievement.
“It was the first time I’d ridden on such long stretches of wet cobbles like that – our bikes were all built to be responsive with a short wheelbases and forks with very little rake.
“For the cobbles you need a longer wheelbase and a decent rake on the forks.
“Josef Gawliczek won the GC, he was an excellent rider; he also won the Milk Race that year and was a stage winner in the Tour de l’Avenir, Tour of Slovakia and Poland.
“The race was very tough but the accommodation was OK which made life more bearable.”
The Tour of Scotland changed for 1967, didn’t it?
“Yes, the field was much stronger, in ’66 we had Scotland A and B plus East and West Scotland but in ’67 there were just the two Scotland teams but you had Poles, Czechs, Belgians and the Dutch team.
“The Dutchman Rene Pijnen won – he went on to become one of the most successful Six Day riders in history – from Joop Zoetemelk who went on to win the Tour de France and the World Championships.
“Racing against those guys was a shock to the system.”
And you rode the Peace race in ’68.
“Yes, I was notified by the BCF in January or February that I was riding; they sent me a pair of tracksuit bottoms and some under vests. They asked if I had a coach, I said; ‘no’ but they didn’t make any suggestion about getting one.
“I lined up for Stage One thinking that this will be great – and then in the neutralised zone of that first stage there three or four crashes.
“There were tram tracks in the middle with cobbles both sides and guys were trying to jump across but getting their wheels caught in the tram tracks – it was crazy.
“Alf Butler was our manager and Geoff Wiles our captain on the road – Geoff was a really good leader.
“On one of the final stages two of our riders had breakdowns, they were sitting on the kerb in tears and couldn’t go on.
“Geoff had us all turn round and go back for them; we nursed them in to the finish, we lost 15 minutes that day but it was a great demonstration of team spirit,
“One of the things I remember about the race was the wee boy who met you at the finish with a blanket to wrap round you and he had a couple of tea and sausage roll for you.
“Mind, it wasn’t like a nice fried Scottish sausage – it was one of those boiled things!”
And you rode the Tour of Morocco too, that year?
“Yes, in 1968; it was a good squad with Geoff Wiles, Pete Smith and Brian Jolly in the team – the first three or four stages were fine, albeit the stages were 120 miles and it was only March.
“Then on about the fourth or fifth stage we went into the Atlas Mountains – this climb was 10 or 12 kilometres and we were in the lead group at the top.
“But the descent was a bridle track – the Swedes had ridden it before so they knew what to expect with big knobbly Wolber tubulars on their bikes.
“We were on light tubulars like d’Allesandro Imperforables; I punctured five times on the descent.
“At the bottom of the climb our mechanic had managed to beg, steal or borrow Wolbers from the Swedes and we actually repaired some of the punctured tubulars beside the road.
“We then did a 40 mile team time trial to the line where we finished way down.”
In 1970 you had strong rides in the Tour of the Grampians and Tour of Scotland?
“The Grampians was a preparation race for the Commonwealth Games with some good guys in there, Brian Ruston (England) won that from Phil Bayton (England) and Dave Rollinson (England). I finished sixth.
“The Scottish Milk Race was very tough, Czechs, Poles, Dutch, Belgians – Wojcech Matusiak (Poland) who was a Tour of Poland winner and Peace Race stage winner ran out winner.
“The field was just so much stronger so ninth place wasn’t a bad result.”
The Commonwealth Games, you were ninth there too, I’ve heard that was a savage race?
“It was 33 laps of a 3.3 mile circuit around Arthur’s Seat in the heart of Edinburgh. It rained the whole race except for the last two laps.
“I went with an early break, I read it that the move was a good one and could succeed.
“I bridged across with Nigel Dean (Isle of Man) but with the benefit of hindsight it probably took us too long to get across – five or six laps.
“And when we got across Nigel and I looked at each other and realised we were the strongest there.
“When the winning move went I couldn’t follow, although we could see the leaders just up the road; Bruce Biddle of New Zealand won from Ray Bilney of Australia with his team mate, John Trevorrow third.
“Dave Rollinson of England was the favourite but he finished fourth; I was with the English rider Brian Ruston – who had won the Grampians – he asked me if I’d let him finish ninth but I told him he’d have to race me for it.”
Which of all your rides gives you most satisfaction?
“I suppose winning the Barrow-in-Furness BCF selection race was a good performance, I beat the course record and was up against guys like Dave Rollinson who became double British Amateur Champion, Sid Barras who became a prolific professional winner and John Bettison who was the local hero and a prolific winner.”
Did you ever have any continental ambitions?
“No, when I was a young man my father always instilled into me the importance of making good pension provision, I was with the Ministry of Defence on inspections so was well provided for – but as a full time cyclist, what sort of pension provision could you make?
“And I’m not sure if I would have ‘made it.’
“Look at how strong Billy Bilsland was and he had to ride as a domestique for Peugeot.
“Then there were the tales of lads going out to Brittany and having to dope just to win primes and get by.”
And you worked full time all through your career?
“I had to take ‘unpaid leave of absence’ once I’d used up my holiday allocations – although one of my managers eventually discovered there was a fund I could draw upon, so that was helpful.”
Tell us about your training.
“In the season I’d do Tuesday and Thursday with the chain gang but in the winter I wasn’t so much of a believer in ‘the big miles.’
“In the early days we’d go out and do 150 miles on a Sunday but it was taking me two days to recover and I figured out that wasn’t the thing for me.
“But I did do a lot of weights in the winter, I’d read that Gary Player the golfer had found it very beneficial and I thought that was interesting.
“There was a lad in Kilbarchan called Davie Caldwell who was a champion power lifter and he did schedules up for me, specific to cycling, not for ‘bulking up.’
“I found that was a great help.”
Who was your toughest opponent in Scottish cycling?
“Billy Bilsland; he was a great guy and we got on well – but put him on a bike and he’d cut your throat!
“And although he was before my time but I heard riders talk about the late Ian Steel with great reverence.”
Anything you’d have liked to win but didn’t?
“One I did miss was Inverness-Elgin, I’d have loved to won that – even with all the jersey pulling – but the best I achieved was a second and a third place.”
You quit in ’79 – why then?
“I’d had enough, I wasn’t performing at the level I had been and my performances were deteriorating.
“I think from 1966 to 1968 I was at my best.”
Tell us about your bicycle polo days.
“I played all my life from 17 to 50; it was never a big deal in Glasgow but we played tournaments in Dublin, Glasgow, Birmingham and Glasgow.
“It was on grass, on a 40” fixed gear, the bikes were very specialist with straight forks and curved seat tubes to keep them as short as possible.
“Bodily contact was allowed and the short, sharp efforts on the tiny gears did your sprinting and bike handling no harm.”
“No – but I could have done with more time for training!”
They don’t make them like Andy anymore; VeloVeritas would like to thank him for his time – and that delicious roast chicken back in 1972.