We’ve covered many of the recent editions of the Tour de Trossachs, and we’ll be attending this year too. For this week’s “VV Selects” we thought you’d like to read Al Hamilton’s piece from 12 years ago, in which he reminisces about the 1978 Tour de Trossachs, the first time he saw the race on the Duke’s Pass, a mere 41 years ago…
This Sunday is another edition of the famous Tour de Trossachs time trial based in Aberfoyle, with a scenic and testing course using national parkland and quiet lochside roads. One of the main features of race is the early climb of the Duke’s Pass, a seven mile section which connects Aberfoyle to Kilmahog.
This road was built in the 19th Century by the Duke of Montrose to improve access to his estate and was later upgraded to accommodate the Victorian tourists drawn to the area after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’ which celebrates the beauty of Loch Katrine, and the race includes a Hill Climb prize for the first rider to the top.
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When Ed Hood said he and VeloVeritas editor Martin Williamson were going out to watch the Tour de Trossachs it brought back my memories of watching the race for the first time in 1978.
When I started my reminiscences it was going to be all about the Trossachs but one thing led to another and now we are looking at the early career of Robert Millar and Scottish cycling in 1978.
The year 1978 was important for Scottish cycling, a certain Robert Millar, and me!
I had been riding a racing bike for a few years, mainly just to get about, go to work, see my then girlfriend etc. I had started to wear strange clothing and shoes that you couldn’t walk in and had been buying the cycling magazines for a while.
Bike rides at the weekend and the occasional mid-week ride were the norm, but as a 16 and 17 year old lad I had other things on my mind!
How Did It Start?
One day on my way to work on the bike I got talking to this cyclist who turned out to be Andy Donaldson.
He said you should come out with us on a club run, the Glasgow United CC. It seemed a good idea, that first ride it rained, I had a little jacket and no mudguards, I was wet and cold, but I loved it and that was me hooked.
The next thing was racing, it seemed to be the natural progression, I rode a Mercian frame with mudguard eyes, Wienmann brakes, wheels with Campagnolo large flange hubs and Wolber Junior tubs, I was 18 when I rode my first time trial and road race and it was great!
What About 1978?
I was 19 and was sort of racing and didn’t know my arse from my elbow but I had read about this guy called Robert Millar; he was in the Glasgow Wheelers and I had seen him at the joint clubs dinner and dance at the Esquire at Annisland Cross in the West of Glasgow, he didn’t say much and probably left early.
He was one month older than me, but he had ridden the Sealink International earlier in the year and had then won the British National Road Race Championships… I was struggling to get anywhere near the hour for a ’25’ down the coast!
The National Champs that year was in Carster, Lincolnshire over 117 miles split into 13 laps and it was a great day for the Scots, Robert won, Sandy Gilchrist was fourth and Jamie McGahan was fifth.
Millar rode away at the yellow flag from his old adversery, Steve Lawrence, who had beaten him nine days previously in the Manx International to take the Champs by five seconds; it was the first time a Scotsman had won the National Championships.
Pro Riders in Scotland
Next on the calendar was the Scottish Milk Race, it was Pro-Am and we had a Scottish team – unbelievable to think that these days we can’t field enough good riders for a Scottish squad.
That year we had an incredibly strong team and Robert Millar finished tenth equal with British Pro Phil Bayton and equal best placed British rider.
The winner was Gerry Verlinden from the Belgian Ijsboerke-Gios team, second was his team mate Rudy Pevenage (Mr. Ulrich’s friend and manager in the future); it was a class field of top amateurs and professionals and it was the first time I had seen anything like it.
I got tangled up with the race going up the hill into Strathaven, I felt like a star as I rode up that hill with the crowd either side of the road; they were there to watch the best riders to have ridden on Scottish roads, until later that year when the TI Raleigh Tour of Britain came to Greenock for the prologue and then the first stage from Motherwell to Whitley Bay.
We didn’t see riders of those standards until the Kellogg’s Tour brought the worlds best to Scotland in 1989 to Dundee and Glasgow. By that time I was team mechanic for Raleigh-Banana, then the Milk Race and the TI Raleigh Professional Tour of Britain was the biggest bike races I had ever seen.
What about Robert?
For the amateurs (apart from the Tour de Trossachs of course) there was the season-ending Tour of the Peaks in Derbyshire, one of the hilliest races on the domestic scene, perfect for the newly crowned National Champion, Robert Millar.
There was an early break away with another fast Scotsman, David Whitehall; he was small, fast and could climb.
At one time Davie was the fastest over 4,000 meters in Britain but was never given the accolade he deserved. This day he was off the front for most of the day until his group were caught and an on form national champion flew over the last climbs to a three minute solo win.
Whitehall finished in 15th after being one of the strongmen of the day.
And the 1978 Tour de Trossachs?
This was our chance to see a National champion race on home turf.
I rode out with the others of the Glasgow United, Andy Donaldson’s younger brother, Steven was a junior and was racing today and we wanted to see him do a good ride but we also wanted to witness the battle between Millar, Sandy Gilchrist, Dave Hannah, Alfie Fairweather and Moncrieff, who were the favourites for the day.
It was a warm October day, blue skies, and there were lots of cyclists heading for Aberfoyle and the Dukes Pass; most on bikes, but there were also spectators driving out to see the spectacle.
The bends of the Dukes were like L’Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France, the crowds were three deep, shouting either encouragement or giving a “slagging” to a mate.
This was cycle sport like I thought it should be and it was a brilliant day out.
Robert Millar won by a minute from Sandy Gilchrist, who in turn was five minutes faster than the rest.
Steven was well beaten by George Kermode for the junior prize – he was 12th fastest up the hill, but was last overall with a time of over 2 hours, due to snapping a bottom bracket using 52×13 going up through Brig O’turk – although he did get a prize from Hugh Donald of 12 cans of dog food and a lift home that night from Cycling Weekly journalist Ann Horn!
But that wasn’t important… we all went to the Baillie Nicole Jarvie at the bottom of the Dukes Pass for a few beers before riding home.
The “Baillie” is famous for the landlord chasing Rob Roy McGregor out the door with a red hot poker but the current landlord became even more famous with cyclists for throwing someone’s overshoes into the fire thinking they were rubbish.
On the return ride back to Glasgow there was a big bunch heading into the falling darkness and a few of us were the worse for wear with the drink.
One character I remember was Jim in the Glasgow United club, who would do a running commentary on the riding style of everyone, the attacks and the chases, especially on the Devil’s Elbow before dropping down to Mugdock and Milngavie for the sprint. We couldn’t ride hard for laughing so much… ah, those were the days!
My racing never got much better, but I did come in contact with Mr. Millar again at some races in France, the Kellogg’s Tour, the Nissan, and when I was his mechanic at the World Road Race Championships, then later when he retired from the road and raced MTB with the Helly Hansen/Giant team.
I’ll never forget that Sunday in October 1978, that year of seeing Pro riders in Scotland and a Scottish Team that could hold its own in top class fields.
At the moment that just can’t happen – are those days gone for ever?