A cold Friday night during the winter of 1971/72.
My Kirkcaldy & District CC club mate, Rab Speirs and I are walking up the A93 near the infamous ‘Devil’s Elbow’ hairpin en route the Braemar youth hostel.
We’re pushing our machines, the gradient is too tough for our teenage legs, our 63” fixed gears just too high.
Behind us we hear the sound of bike tyre on tarmac, two figures totting enormous saddle bags heave past us; ‘all right lads?’ says the one nearest to us before they vanish into the darkness.
Mr. George Berwick, who was reigning Scottish 12 Hour Champion at the time.
Kirkcaldy & District CC is no more, ‘the Elbow’ has long been ‘by–passed’, I haven’t seen Rab in years and I doubt I could walk even the straightened-out ‘Elbow.’
But one thing remains constant; George Berwick. The word, ‘Legend’ is over-used these days but when talking about this man it is wholly appropriate.
VeloVeritas caught up with him recently at his home near historic and beautiful Balmerino in Fife.
You’re retired now, George – and living in the Kingdom of Fife?
“Yes, long retired, in ’81 or ’82; I’m 79 years-old now, I worked in various places – Woolworths, shops, warehouses and my last job was delivering books.
“At that last job they wouldn’t let me bring my bike inside during the winter, so I said; ‘that’s it, I’m off!’
“We were looking for a house in Perthshire but the prices were daft, Fife prices were much more sensible – although that’s changed now.
“The house we’re in now is an estate house, formerly the home of the MP Barry Henderson.”
Can you remember your first race?
“It would have been a ‘10’ starting at Hyndford Bridge, Lanark then heading out the Biggar road.
“We’d have a drum-up before then another one somewhere else after it.”
What about your first 24 hour time trial, was it the one held in Scotland in 1967?
“No, I did a 24 hour ride that year before the race, straight out from Gretna Green to John o’Groats with a leg stuck on to take it up to 24 hours.”
You did 448.70 miles in that 1967 Scottish race – still the longest distance achieved on Scottish roads – what are your memories of that day?
“It started at Bridge of Allan then went up to Callander, Loch Lomond, Aberfoyle with the circuit on the roads west of Stirling – I remember that it was nice weather and it was a great experience.”
Is that mileage your personal best?
“No, I did 464 miles in the Mersey Roads event back in the 70’s – the route for that has changed so much over the years though, it’s pretty compact now around Wrexham, Shrewsbury and Telford.
“Last year the chap that won it, Graham Kemp did 544.32 miles.
“But these lads aren’t cyclists as we used to know them, they’re athletes – no drum-ups or clubby meets for those boys.
“I remember riding a ’25’ on the ‘horseshoe’ course at Stirling then going for a run round by Crieff with a drum-up.”
How many 24 hour races have you ridden?
“I think 60 but there are folks telling me it’s actually 59; latterly I’ve been riding the Mersey event on the tandem with Phil Jurczyk, who you’d know better as Phil Templeton who won the Scottish BAR back in 1971.
“Coronavirus allowing I hope to ride it again on a solo this year.”
You were twice Scottish 12 hour champion, 1970 and 1971 when you did 256 miles, a nice mileage at that time.
“Then Jimmy Linden came back!”
[Linden ‘came back’ to win the 12 hour championship in 1972 with 260.5 miles; he’d won it previously in 1958 with 260 miles and in 1960 with 264 miles, ed.]
“But I wasn’t really a ‘racer’ I just liked riding my bike, admiring the scenery.”
There are no 12 hours in Scotland now.
“There haven’t been for a few years, folks want to ride short distance now, 10 and 25 mile races.
“But the sportive scene is booming, there was an Audax at Galashiels the other week with 160 participants.
“And a 100 kilometre Audax coming up at Kirriemuir has 100 entries.
“It’s amazing how popular the Audax scene is.”
I remember you making a couple of attempts on the Land’s End to John o’Groats record in the 70’s?
“I couldn’t keep awake for two days; I don’t know how guys do it – but that said I didn’t have an experienced support team and my attempts were unsuccessful.
“I was inexperienced but I think if I’d had proper support that may have made a difference; I look at attempts now where they have a mobile home following vehicle – I had nothing like that.”
But you had several successful road record rides?
“I still have Edinburgh-Glasgow-Edinburgh with a 3 hour 50 minute ride but that would be hard to go for now with all the traffic lights and volume of vehicles on the road.
“I also had Dundee-Braemar and Glasgow-Aberdeen-Glasgow as well as holding the Scottish ‘end to end’ record twice.
“I also had tandem place to place records with John Murdoch; Edinburgh-York and Edinburgh-London.
“Sadly, John doesn’t enjoy the best of health now.”
I’m guessing you’d be an ‘Audax man’ too
“Yes, in 1979 I did the Paris-Brest-Paris [that’s a mere 1.200 kilometres, 750 miles, ed.] it was well organised but my French isn’t the best and a lot of the French guys didn’t really know where they were going and kept getting us lost!
“I’ve also done London-Cardiff-Edinburgh-London and Dover-Land’s End-Cape Wrath-John o’Groats-Dover.
“But 10 years ago I was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat and the doctor said I had to stop the ultra-distance rides.”
[Audax is a series of non-competitive cycling rides, participants attempt to cycle long distances within set time limits, with success measured by completion rather than speed. The classic distances for Audax UK events are 200, 300, 400 and 600km, and each rider carries a “brevet”, a card on which stamps are collected at control points to prove that the ride has been completed, ed.]
What’s the attraction with distance for you?
“I just like riding the bike and seeing the country; one of my hobbies is trying to ride every road in Scotland – I’ve ridden every road in Fife and Central Scotland but Aberdeenshire is a challenge, there are so many wee back roads up there.”
Are you still on the bike most days?
“In 1990, when I was 50 years-old I decided I was going to ride a minimum of 50 miles every day for the whole of that year – I subsequently amended that to 50 kilometre each day but still managed 18,000 miles that year.
“Since then I’ve only missed three days off my bike – I was working on a bothy but had a bad crash on the way; I was laying in my bed in the bothy directing the work!”
“None at all.
“I was never fast enough to worry about results.
“I just love riding the bike; this weekend we were meant to be heading up to Cape Wrath but that won’t happen now.
“I like to go up the coast from Sandwood Bay, not across on the wee ferry – there are bothies on the way up, I like to stay in bothies.
“I like visiting caves too – some nice ones in Fife like the Wemyss Caves and the ones in Dura Den.”
I did say the man was a legend; and did I mention the recumbent tandem trike and the motorised trike?