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Joe Waugh – Tyneside Climbing Legend of the ’70s and ’80s

"I loved Team Time Trials – there’s something special about the four of you cruising at 30 plus miles per hour with the Clement Silk Threes singing."

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Who’s that bastard with the long hair who make my legs hurt on the climbs?

The poser of this question was none other than Poland’s Ryszard Szurkowski, one of the best amateur riders the world has ever seen.

The subject of his profanity?

Tyneside climbing legend and winner of everything from 10 mile time trials to Hill Climb Championships to international stage races in Europe, Mr. Joe Waugh. 

We should have caught up with Joe before now but better late than never.

Joe Waugh and Bob Downs on a Milk Race climb look more comfortable than the Russian rider.

The big question first, Joe – what about the long hair?

“Ironically, my father was a barber.

“I guess it was just part laziness to get it cut and because I liked it that way – it wasn’t rebellious or a ‘statement.’”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh in the 1969 Caterick 25 mile TT Campagnolo Trophy. Photo©supplied

Your formative years were with Tyne Road Club; that North East scene had some hardy guys – Paul Blackett, Ray Wetherall to name but two.

“Tyne RC was my first club and I’m still a member, I go to the regular club reunions.

“It was a pure time trial club but yes, the local scene was strong, as well as Paul and Ray who you mentioned there were riders like Eddie McGourley and Pete Chisman, all quality guys.

In the Tyne RC you had the Clayton brothers, Wes was as hard as nails, I used to go on 100 mile Sunday runs with the club on 69” fixed with wired-ons [that’s ‘clinchers’ or ‘high pressures’ to young uns, ed.] – Wes would give me hell on those rides.

“John Sutcliffe was another demon on those runs – it was a tough upbringing.”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh with Des Fretwell and Rob Robinson in a criterium in Hartlepool. Photo©Stan Hilton

You were a Best British All Rounder contender early in your career?

“Yes, 1973, I’d never raced outside of the North East before that.

“I rode the Milk Race that year, Ray Wetherall put a word in to the selectors that I was worth giving a chance to.

“I was in the GB Regions team and had never even ridden a Star Trophy race at that time.

“I got second on Stage Four, Aberystwyth to Great Malvern which went over five third cat. climbs; the Swede Sven-Ake Nilsson who went on to win the Tour de l’Avenir and was to 10 in the Tour de France won it.

“I came out of it with good form, entered the National ‘50’ Champs which was on the Catterick course in a fortnight and finished third behind the late Ian White and Martyn Roach with a 1:54:40 to Ian’s 1:53:53.

“I rode a ‘100’ and did a 3:54 so of course, with those times I had to ride a ‘12’ and got great support from the Tyne, they were 24 hour time trial specialists so knew the score.

“I did 258 miles in my first and last ‘12’ and made the top 12 in the BBAR competition.”

Joe Waugh
Wonderful study of Joe Waugh climbing Winatts in 1977. Photo©Bill Smith

France in 1974?

“Yes, with Colin Davison and Peter Watson, we were with VC Metz.

“I had a couple of wins but with the benefit of hindsight I was too young and naïve for a venture like that and was homesick.

“I rode the Tour de l’Avenir that year and suffered badly, there were three days in the Pyrenees and on the stage that went over the Tourmalet I was fourth over the top, but it was a very hard race.”

That year saw you win your first National Hill Climb Championship.

“Granville Sydney had won it in ’73 with Jack Kershaw second but sadly Granville had died before the ’74 race so Jack was the man to beat.

“I stayed at Jack’s place, we rode out to the start on Holme Moss on an absolutely foul day.

“I did my ride and to my surprise, someone said to me; ‘you’ve won it!’ I’d beaten Colin Berry by four seconds with a 10:41 ride.

“I went on to win again in ’76 and was third in ’75.”

Joe Waugh, KoM in the 1975 Milk Race. Photo©supplied

You were always so skinny, I remember seeing a picture where your ribs were just about poking through your skinsuit.

“I was always slim, 11 stone at 5’ 11” – except in France where I ate too many baguettes!”

The ’76 Milk Race, Bill Nickson wins with you second at five seconds against tough opposition: Brzezny, Szurkowski, Jonansson, Prim…

“The same time difference as in the prologue time trial.

“Bill was fifth in ’75 and I was sixth but in ’76, we had a great team, a real team with Phil Griffiths, the late Paul Carbutt, Dudley Hayton and Bob Downs. 

“On the last stage a dangerous break went, I covered it and one of the guys in it said to me; ‘come on Joe, you can win the race!

“But that wasn’t ever going to happen.

“At the post race dinner Bill in his speech said that there were actually two winners, referring to me – that was a nice gesture.”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh (l) celebrates Bill Nickson’s win in the 1976 Milk Race. Photo©supplied

The Montreal Olympics ’76, you were in the winning break but crashed.

“There were only two races in my entire life where I shed tears and that was one of them.

“I learned later that I was the ‘danger man’ to the eventual winner the Swede, Bernt Johanson.

“Conditions were atrocious with the roads very slick, we’d just gone through the feed and my front wheel went from under me, it may have been a drain cover I slid on? 

“But ’76 was a good year for GB, as well as the Milk Race we went to the GP della Liberazione in Rome which Bill won and we performed strongly in the Giro delle Regioni.”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh in 1976 in hill climb action on the Horseshoe Pass. Photo©supplied

GS Strada and Phil Griffiths; and what about those Strada TTT’s – those pictures in Cycling Weekly looked savage?

“I joined just prior to the Olympic Games in 1976; Tyne was a great club but it was absolutely amateur with no sponsorship and whilst they gave me great moral support it was costing me a lot of money to race with travel and equipment.

“A local shop gave me a bike and then the late Dave Duffield organised a Raleigh for me but apart from that there was no support so to join a sponsored club which was well funded was a great step up.

“People either loved Phil or couldn’t stand him, we had our ups and downs but he’s a great character and has done so much for the sport.

“In ’77 I rode the TTT champs with Paul Carbutt, Dave Cummings and Phil – I blew on our way to a 2 hour 11 minute ride and had to put myself through hoops to finish that one.

“But I learned how to ride them and in ’79, ’80 and ’81 with Eddie Adkins and Ian Cammish; I loved them – there’s something special about the four of you cruising at 30 plus miles per hour with the Clement Silk Threes singing.

“Phil always used to say that whatever happened, we finished with four men – that’s the skill, riding to the strengths of all four riders, including the weakest.”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh (middle) with Bill Nickson (l) and Phil Griffiths in Mallorca in 1978.

You rode the Peace Race in ’77.

“I never really hit form in ’77, I rode a good Girvan and Manchester-Rhyl but the Peace Race didn’t go well, I needed a rest after it.

“It transpired I had Gilberts Syndrome which affects the way your liver functions; it doesn’t process properly when under stress.

“The ’78 season wasn’t great either but in ’79 I was flying with 32 wins.”

The ’79 season and second to Robert Millar in the British National Road Race Championship.

“You know I mentioned I cried after the Montreal race – this was the second race where I shed tears.

“If I’d gone into that race to do well then I’d have been happy with silver but I went in absolutely determined to win – another five yards and I’d have won it but Robert got his sprint tactics right that day.

“I’ve heard since that Philippa has asked the question; ‘do you think Joe has forgiven me yet?’” 

Robert Millar beat Joe Waugh to the 1979 British Amateur Road Title in Leeds.

A win in the GP Felix Melchior in Luxembourg in 1980.

“My best-ever win!

“It was a funny year, I had exams at college which coincided with the Nationals, which were on the Isle of Man.

“But when I got back into it I won the Benedictine Olympic Trial race and was second in the Lincoln GP to Steve Joughin.

“I loved racing in Luxembourg, we used to race there when I was with VC Metz and I’d been fifth in that race in 1974.

“There were five current or past world champions in the field; on the penultimate day I was in a breakaway and could have done enough to win it overall but I got worked over.

“But the last stage was a time trial, the opposition didn’t know that I’d been a ‘tester’ and my ride in that gave me the overall win.”

The Moscow Olympics 1980?

“After what happened at Montreal I was desperate to do a ride but it wasn’t my day, I felt terrible in the road race and was DNF.

“We were ninth with a 2:07 ride to the Russians 2:01 but Des Fretwell had problems with his saddle and couldn’t really contribute.

“I had a bit of a holiday after that then came back and got on the podium at the Tour of the Cotswolds – I was flying.”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh riding in M.Steel bike shop colours. Photo©Stan Hilton

A Milk Race stage win in ’81.

“That was on Great Orme where Bill Nickson built his overall win in ’76, we were managed by Len Willett who was very good at his job.

“Steve Lawrence led me into the climb and I beat the Norwegian Morten Saether and the ’78 Milk Race winner, Jan Brzezny to win.”

You won the Manx International twice.

“Yes, in ’81 and ’82, I was relaxed in those races, I’d won the Viking Trophy [two laps of the TT circuit, ed.] previously and was floating; I knew I was going to win but ’82 was on a foul day and I had a softening tyre, not handy in the rain!” 

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh (Milk Race KoM) followed by Vern Hanaray and Bill Nickson.

Commonwealth Games TTT gold in ’82.

“Possibly the pinnacle of my career and a ride which thrust us into the public eye, standing on the podium with our arms in the air.

“But we nearly lost that race, we were all jet lagged from the trip but Jim Hendry made us do a savagely hard training session just days before.

David Akam dropped out, Jeff Williams was meant to ride but in the event it was Malcolm Elliott who rode with Steve Lawrence, Bob Downs and me.

“Malcolm won it for us, we only took gold by six seconds, 2:09:27 to 2:09:33; he was in 53 x 12 for the last kilometre then pulled over with 400 to go leaving the three of us to sprint for the line. 

“I rode my last race in Australia, after the Games, The Commonwealth Bank Classic.”

Joe Waugh
Joe Waugh (l), with Steve Lawrence, Bob Downs and Malcolm Elliott, celebrate Gold in the Brisbane Commonwealth Games TTT. Photo©supplied

Why stop, I believe you were contemplating turning pro in 1983?

“I stopped because I was in involved in a really bad accident, I was riding home from a late night at work and a drunk taxi driver ran into me.

“My back was broken in three places, I had broken ribs and was in a bad way – I was in intensive care for a week and in hospital for seven or eight weeks.

“I was close to Bob Downs and he’d turned pro, so yes, I was thinking about it.

“But you know I was made the same offer by Raleigh that Bill Nickson was for 1977 but had my doubts about joining the European professional scene.”

But wasn’t there a bit of a ‘tester’ come back?

“Yeah, that was in the mid-90’s with Harry and Brian Walker in the GS Metro – and in 1997 I even got a championship medal, we won the team in the National 10 Championship.”

Joe Waugh

What would you do differently, Joe?

“I’d go back to France but with the knowledge that I have now; I don’t regret not taking up the Raleigh offer, I’m glad to say that I know that I did what I did 100% clean.

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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