John Kennedy, Scottish racer in Belgium, 14th at Fleche Wallone

In previous articles I charted the story of a talented Scottish racer about whom not much is known. After winning in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, in around 1955 or ’56 John Kennedy went over to Kortrijk in Belguim aged 24 or 25 to further his racing career.

He may have turned pro in 1957 after succeeding as an amateur, and connoisseurs of the Belgian scene have noted that he rode for some decent teams in what was a tough arena. As Ed Hood noted on Veloveritas in 2007, he would have been competing for a pro contract with hundreds of keen young Belgians, all of whom were striving to avoid work in the fields, mines or steelworks. Back then as it is now, it was the toughest amateur racing in the world.

John Kennedy, Tour de France, 1960.

Back then, when you got paid to ride it was more of a profession. The idea of riders as ‘pedalling workers’ is a concept that runs through the early era of cycling. The phrase ‘convicts of the road’ was coined in 1924 by journalist Albert Londres who likened professional bike racing to forced labour.

The results I found for Kennedy weren’t stellar, but suffice to say he must have been a really good rider to achieve what he did in a hostile environment in late 50s, early 60s Belgium. Back then, contact back home was minimal to non-existent and you were virtually on your own.

Brian Robinson was an English pioneer who Kennedy would go on to ride with in the GB Tour team, who “epitomised that spirit of ‘living the dream’. Equipped with a hard-as-nails mentality and a penchant for suffering, it was all he needed to negotiate his way through the shenanigans of the professional peloton.” – (Guy Andrews, Rapha website)

In the early 80s, Robert Millar complained of loneliness and isolation when he went to Paris to ride for the famous amateur club the ACBB (Athletic Club de Boulogne Billancourt). As a foreign rider in France he found his first accommodation in a gym, before being put in an apartment. “For the first two or three months I got very depressed” he told The Face magazine in 1985. “There were a lot who could not take it, living in a strange country, and just went home. Your life came down to the last ten or fifteen seconds of a race, when you either won or lost and either had something to live on or not.” (Richard Moore, In Search of Robert Millar)

Another Scottish rider, Norrie Drummond also went over to Belgium in 1957 and rode the amateur Gent-Wevelgem, while Brian Robinson and Kennedy rode the pro event. Drummond placed 19th in the amateur Kuurne-Brussels-Kurne that year- no mean feat in itself. In 1958 Norrie was called up to National Service and that put an end to his racing career – a theme that I have heard from many who raced in the 50s.

I haven’t found details of Kennedy’s pro team for ’57, but in ’58 and ’59 he rode for Bertin-d’Alessandro-The Dura and Bertin-The Dura-Milremo, presumably the same squad with different sponsors. Below the team lines up at the Tour du Nord in France in 1958.

John Kennedy, Bertin, Tour du Nord 58

John Kennedy, centre Bertin team, Tour du Nord 58

Results are hard to come by but he rode some big races at the end of 1958, finishing 101st in Paris-Tours in a field that contained Van Looy, Darrigade and Anquetil, and 8th in a Belgian race at Anzegem, with top 10s also recorded in 1959 at  Moorsele and Izenberge in Belgium.

A Belgian adventure was a draw for other young Scottish racers though, as in 1960, Jim Robinson (a V.C. Stella rider, pictured below, second from left, riding the Oats Amateur Circuit of Britain in 1955 for Scotland) went out with Rab Dewar of the Glasgow Wheelers, and Bobby Finnie and spent a season racing there while living in Kortrai near John Kennedy.

1955 Oats Scotland 016

Although Kennedy’s ’58 and ’59 results seem obscure, by 1960 he was riding for Wiels/Flandria, managed former world champion and Tour of Flanders winner Alberic ‘Briek’ Schotte.

John is third team member from the left in the photo below. Briek Schotte, centre.John Kennedy, Wiels Flandria team, (3rd rider from left), Belgium, C1960

‘Briek’ Schotte was a Flandrian hardman in the classic mould. William Fotheringham writes, in his Cyclopedia miscellany, that he “was brought out of his first communion in 1930 and as an amateur would get up at 3:30am to go to work to ensure that he could start training at 1pm.” He rode the Tour of Flanders 20 times and won it twice, also winning the world championships twice and numerous other titles. There is more information about Briek Schotte at the Flandria Cycles website.

By 1960 he was riding some of the big races, posting 35th in Gent-Wevelgem before one of his best results on the Continent, 14th in the Fleche-Wallone on 5th May. He was ranked one of the top riders on the Wiels-Flandria squad, which was 60-strong.

The route of Fleche Wallone has frequently been changed and that year it was run over 208km from Liege to Charleroi. There is a little footage of the race here: Flèche Wallonne : petit rappel historique | SONUMA.

The 1960 edition of the race was won by Pino Cerami in nearly 6 hours. Kennedy finished at 3:52 in a group of 7 going for 10th place, with this sprint won by Emile Daems. He was in very good company, with greats Rik Van Looy and Tom Simpson in the top 10, as well as being amongst five riders who would go on to be stage winners in the Tour that year, and he beat Gaston Nencini, who took the yellow jersey.

The winner, Pino Cerami had a dream season in 1960, having won Paris-Roubaix and going on to get on the podium at the World Championships behind Rik Van Looy of Belgium and Frenchman André Darrigade. In 2018, he remains the oldest winner of Fleche Wallone at 38 years old. The next oldest winners were Alejandro Valverde and Davide Rebellin at 37.

The full result is still available, while I have copied the top 20 below.

  • 1. Pino CERAMI (Bel) en 5h41’35”
  • 2. Pierre Beuffeuil (Fra) à 27″
  • 3. Constant Goossens (Bel)
  • 4. Robert Cazala (Fra) 5. Jean Forestier (Fra)
  • 6. Alfons Hermans (Bel) à 35″
  • 7. Tom Simpson (Gbr) à 2’21”
  • 8. Rik Van Looy (Bel) à 2’53”
  • 9. René Vanderveken (Bel) à 3’12”
  • 10. Emile Daems (Bel) à 3’52”
  • 11. Francesco Miele (Ita)
  • 12. Germain Derijcke (Bel)
  • 13. Louis Proost (Bel)
  • 14. John Kennedy (Gbr)
  • 15. Eddy Pauwels (Bel)
  • 16. Daniel Denys (Bel)
  • 17. Elio Pizzoglio (Ita) à 4’07”
  • 18. Tino Sabbadini (Fra) à 5’43”
  • 19. Joseph Schils (Bel)
  • 20. Gastone Nencini (Ita)

The form that Kennedy was in is evident in this result, and it was to lead to a last-minute call-up to the Great Britain team for the Tour de France, in support of Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson.  To be continued…

John Kennedy second from right

Four of the Wiels-Flandria team 1960

Thanks to the following for assistance in this piece: John Gallacher, Stephen Flockhart, Jim Robinson, Jim Hay, Gino Goddard, Norrie Drummond and Ray Green.