‘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…”
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.
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.”
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.