Sunday, July 25, 2021
HomeInterviewsGerry Butterfill - Taking the Start with Eddy Merckx

Gerry Butterfill – Taking the Start with Eddy Merckx


Gerry Butterfill
Gerry Butterfill. Photo©supplied

Legend,’ it’s an over-used word these days.

One of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary is; ‘a story from ancient times about people and events, that may or may not be true.’

This one IS true, the subject exists and I suppose that to many of our readers the 70’s are ‘ancient times.’

Flanders in the 1970’s wasn’t like it is now; very few spoke English and it perhaps compared to 1950’s Britain; not a lot of money around and little sophistication, but it was bike racing Heartland, even more so then than it is now; Merckx, Maertens, De Vlaeminck, Verbeeck, Leman, Dierickx, Planckaert, Godefroot, De Wolf – I could go on, a Golden Time for Belgian Cycle Sport.

I read about it – there was very little cycling on TV back then – and some of my buddies, like VeloVeritas soothsayer Viktor, headed out there to try their hand as amateurs on the kermis circuit where you could race every day.

British professionals would venture over to get ‘hard yards’ preparation for the National Championship whilst pursuit legend, Hugh Porter would venture over as part of his preparation for the World Track Championships.

But only a very few based themselves on a long term basis and kept coming back year after year to this land of cobbles, cross winds, combines and bad sanitation.

Enter one Gerry Butterfill – and don’t bother to Google for his big results, there are none.

But year in, year out, the man from Guildford returned to pit himself against the very best in the world.

Whilst his palmarès in the UK were solid there were no ‘stand out’ results so we kicked off by asking Gerry how his contract with Alan Quinn Tailoring – not your average sponsor, it must be said – came about?

“I’d raced in England with some success then went over to France and raced in the Dordogne where I enjoyed success too but when I came back I decided that what I really wanted to do was to go Belgium and race against the best professional riders in the world, to see how I compared and so that I could say that I’d actually gone over there and done it. 

“I was speaking to my friend and club mate, Alan Quinn about it and he said; ‘if you turn pro then I’ll sponsor you.’

“I could have kissed him!

“My jersey was brown, the same colour as the suits Alan used to tailor.”

We asked Gerry where he set up camp, was he ever a ‘Mrs Deene’s Man?’ – the English lady who ran the famous guest house for Anglo riders, in Gent? 

“I had a place near Sint-Pietersplein in Gent, it was handy for the baker’s who used to keep me a loaf of yesterday’s bread – I didn’t like the warm stuff out of the oven.

“I stayed at Mrs. Deene’s when I was over as an amateur but never as a professional.”

VeloVeritas reader, Graham Robson visited Gerry’s ‘place’ in Gent; “I was surprised when he opened the door of an empty shop. There was a counter along one side and most of the floor was covered with piles of old newspapers. I went up the stairs to Gerry’s room and to say that the furniture and facilities were basic was an understatement; the whole place was awful. I couldn’t imagine that any of the other riders in that day’s race would have gone home to similar conditions and then be expected to race successfully the following day.

And how did Gerry sustain himself?

“I worked in the winter; I’m an engineer to trade and worked on heating and furnace control systems, saving my money for the summer when I would go over to Belgium.”

Was there much in the way of prize money coming in?

“There was no point in chasing a result at the finish, not with the standard of opposition you were up against but they’d pay first, second and third for primes and I’d chase those.

“But even that wasn’t easy, the Planckaert brothers were hungry prime hunters; they’d obviously contest the sprint at the end but put a lot of their energies into chasing the prime money too.”  

The story goes that a young Eddy Planckaert turned up at the World Junior Road Race Championships and immediately enquired of the bemused UCI officials about his ‘start money.’ When informed there was none, Eddy and his entourage jumped in the car and headed back to Belgium.

And what about the standard of opposition?

“Apart from the Planckaerts, I’d line up against Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Freddy Maertens, Patrick Sercu, Walter Godefroot, Frans Verbeeck…”

Gerry Butterfill didn’t, but we’re not sure many riders would have had much success racing these bears, Roger de Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx. Photo©unknown

And it wasn’t just for a couple of weeks each season?

“No, I went back year on year…

“When I raced in England against the likes of Sid Barras – who was very good and at the top for a long time in the UK – my results were respectable but never amazing.”

Bear in mind that Gerry was racing as a single sponsored rider against some very strong, well organised domestic teams like Bantel and Holdsworth.

“So when I went to Belgium to race a lot of people were jealous and said that I shouldn’t be doing it because I wasn’t good enough – but I wanted to match myself against the best in the world and that’s what I did.

“I stuck it out whilst you’d see others come and go.

“I remember two lads from Southampton coming over and staying in the same building where I was. They lasted 10 days.”

He must have loved Belgium?

“We’re lucky, Belgium is so close and such a great place with friendly, kind, considerate, helpful people.

“The staff at the Plum Vainqueur and Dossche Sport bike shops were always so good with me.”

And he rode three seasons there, unsponsored?

“Yes, that was in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

“I took money over with me and lived off that and my primes.

“I just wanted to be there, racing.” 

He was down as having raced for Xaveer Coffee in 1982?

“I was into my 40’s by then but that looked like a good set up.

“However, there were the usual broken promises and then I had a bad crash, ended up in hospital with a broken back and had to go home to England.”

Gerry Butterfill
Gerry Butterfill wouldn’t change a thing about his Belgian racing experiences. Photo©supplied

Anything he would do differently?

“Not really, Belgium is a great place with nice people and I did what I wanted to do, competing against the very best bike riders in the world.”

Now, you may ask yourself; “were all those kickings in all those kermises really worth it?” But did you ever take the start with Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck? No, me neither.

With thanks to Gerry and our friend, Terry Lewis Batsford for connecting us with the man.

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.

Related Articles

Mark Christian – Raleigh’s Young Manxman Enjoys a Good Season Start

A nice result we spotted recently was Raleigh’s Mark Christian taking a top ten on stage two of the tough Tour du Haut Var. We decided to have a word with yet another product of that sea air on the Isle of Man.

Evan Oliphant – Looking forward to Ghent-Wevelgem

We caught up with Scottish professional Evan Oliphant shortly after he returned from a winter spent racing in Australia, and just prior to his new DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed team's official launch in Holland.

Dan Patten Blog: The Run-In is Approaching…

Well we've hit September and so the final month or so of the season for the Dan Patten Blog. The good news is I'm still feeling motivated to race and race hard to finish off the year. The bad news is the last few weeks I've been caught out with a bit of illness that seems to be going round these parts at the moment, and which has proved hard to shake off.

James Cambridge – One of Cycling’s Unsung Heroes

"Do you remember the James Cambridge boy we were talking to at that kermesse in Sersekamp, four or five years ago?" says Viktor. "Red Specialized, great tan, pro's legs and a cool Craft under vest?" I reply.

Rik Van Linden – One of the 70’s Fastest Men

The word ‘legend’ is over used these days; but today we bring you an interview with a man who firmly deserves the title – Mr. Rik Van Linden of Belgium.

Please Welcome Our Newest Blogger: Josh Cunningham

Hello. I suppose I had better start with an introduction! My name is Josh Cunningham, I am 20 year old, and for two years I have committed myself to the formidable task of "making it", in the world of professional cycling, or at least get as far as I can possibly go in realising these utopian dreams.

At Random

Nikolai Razouvaev on Why Riders Crash So Much

There have been an AWFUL lot of crashes in the mere couple of weeks since racing resumed – Kruijkswijk out of the Tour, Roglic out of the Dauphine, Jakobsen pole axed in a Polska finale, Remco over a bridge – and we could go on. When we saw this piece on the website of our amigo, ex-World Junior Team Time Trial Champion, Nikolai Razouvaev aka ‘The Russian Crank’ we thought he made some interesting points.

Stuart Balfour – “For 2018, I’m focused on trying to pull in some big results”

Time for VeloVeritas to catch up with Scottish, David Rayner funded rider, Stuart Balfour. It's been a year since last we spoke to Stuart so a wee bit to catch up on.

Liquigas in pink: First Gasparotto, then Di Luca, then Gasparotto again

The "Green Machine" took first place in last Saturday's team time trial that opened the 90th edition of the pink race. The first to cross the finish line in La Maddalena was the ex-Italian National Champion Enrico Gasparotto who took an unexpected pink jersey.

Ronie Keisse – “I watched what went wrong with a lot of the promising young riders – their parents”

If there’s a rider more closely associated with a city than Iljo Keisse is with Gent then I can’t think of it. Born and bred in the capital of East Flanders, raised on the boards of the Blaarmeersen velodrome, the Gentenaars love him and he loves them. Iljo's dad, Ronie Keisse owns the legendary Café de Karper, a favourite student haunt in Gent, just a five minute walk from the Kuipke and the only place to be on a November Sunday evening when the Six Day finishes, so we sat down with Ronie on the Monday morning after the Six to discuss the life and times of his boy, one of the very last real ‘vedettes’ – star Six Day men.

Kenta Gallagher – the New Scottish Cyclocross Champion, at 17!

We didn't make the Scottish cyclo cross champs, this year; new house for Martin; major drive to accumulate Brownie points for me - those pictures of Big Wendy from Gent make it hard to plead; 'it was hell out there!' Anyway, congratulations to new champion, 17 year-old junior, Kenta Gallagher (Scott UK) who took the senior title; we thought the man deserved to be interviewed.

British RR Championships 2016 – Adam Blyth and the Barnes sisters steal the show

Adam Blythe produced the big result and relegating Mark Cavendish to second step of the podium for the second year in succession. With the Tinkoff team folding at the end of the year this result will make his chances of a quality contract for 2017 all the more likely.