John Kennedy: the Scottish cyclist who rode the 1960 Tour de France

I researched the historical context and background to the early career of John Kennedy in previous posts, looking first at the Belleisle Road Club and then at the first part of his racing career with the elite club that emerged from it, the Velo Club Stella. He was one of Scotland’s best riders, having been a National champion and winning stages and the mountains classification of one of the biggest stage races of the time, the ‘Oats’ amateur tour of Britain.

Kennedy was demobbed from national service in the RAF in around 1953, moved to Belgium and later turned pro. After a great season, the zenith of his career came with a ride for Great Britain in support of Brian Robinson in 1960. He was one of the first Scots to ride the Tour, a little-known achievement that deserves wider recognition. The first British team had entered only 5 years previously, in 1955, under the trade team banner of Hercules. Ian Steel was in that team, the first Scot to ride the Tour.

Kennedy’s pro career included seasons for former world champion Briek Schotte’s Flandria teams, and will have consisted of a Belgian kermesses – long, hard-fought races on several laps of a relatively short circuit on narrow country lanes.

Scotsman Jimmy Rae had also travelled to Kortrijk in 1960 to ride as a pro, with the expectation of riding for the GB team in France in July, but he didn’t get on with the selector and wasn’t picked. Kennedy eventually got a call just three days before the race started, after the team had problems filling the roster. Not ideal preparation but who would turn down a call-up to ride the greatest bike race in the world, something he had dreamed of since leaving school in Glasgow?

1960-06-27 - Miroir des Sports - 804 - 23B

The Great Britain team for the 1960 Tour de France was built around Tom Simpson (above, third from right) and Brian Robinson (fourth from left). Robinson had won the first ever stage by a British rider in 1958.

Kennedy’s last-minute call-up would certainly not have been ideal, especially since his preparation for a three week race with mountainous stages was a diet of Belgian circuit races and semi-classics.

However he had good form: he finished 14th in Fleche-Wallone on 9th May, beating Gastone Necini (who finished 20th that day but won the Yellow Jersey at the Tour that year. The Fleche-Wallone results also included Rik Van Looy and five stage winners from the Tour later that summer: Necini, Louis Proost and Pierre Beuffeuil (who won a single road stage each), Michel Van Aerde (who the 15th medium mountain ,stage) and Jean Graczyk (who won four stages and the points jersey for the second time in his career). This isn’t to say Kennedy was as good as the Tour winner, but it shows the level he was at.

Great Britain team for the Tour de France 1960

Great Britain team for the Tour de France 1960

Tour-racing.co.uk reproduces a piece by Rene Delatour from the Sporting Cyclist of September 1960 summing up that July’s Tour with some views for the British readers. Many big riders did not take the start line that year, but “stars or no stars, the pace was cracking – faster than it had ever been in the days of Koblet, Bobet, Kubler, Gaul – or even the great Fausto himself.”

1960-tdf-map

The route took in Northern France and Belgium, including cobbled sections. before heading west to Brittany and then south to Bordeaux, with six of the first nine stages over 200km.

From Cyclingpassions.eu, – these pages from French newspaper Miror des Sports showed were cobbles on stages 6 and 7. Terrain on which Kennedy excelled and was charged with keeping his team leaders safe.

During the first 9 stages of the 1960 Tour de France, John Kennedy finished well up the field, often in the top 20, and never much lower than the 30s.

Stage 1a, 108km Lille-Brussels: 47th @2:56
Stage 1b: 27.8km Brussels (ITT): 98th @5:16
Stage 2, 206km Brussels-Malo-les-Bains (Dunkerque): 17th @0:44
Stage 3, 209km Malo-les-Bains-Dieppe: 16th @3:07 in a group of favourites
Stage 4: 211km Dieppe-Caen: 28th @6:19 in a group of favourites, finishing on a cinder track on which Simpson crashed.
Stage 5: 189km Caen-St-Malo: 44th @3:35
Stage 6: 191km St. Malo – Lorient: 27th @14.40. 7 riders stayed away, including favourites Nencini and Riviere.
Stage 7: 244km Lorient – Angers: 32nd @3:45 with Nencini and Riviere
Stage 8: 240km Angers – Limoges: 34th @9:10. 27 riders stayed away.
Stage 9: 225km Limoges – Bordeaux: 32nd @4:32. 3 breakaway riders contested the win.
Stage 10: 228km Mont de Parsan – Pau (including Col d’Aubisque): 101st @26:34
Stage 11: 161km Pau – Luchon: (Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde): 87th @22:02 with groups all over the road.
Stage 12: 176km Luchon – Toulouse (col des Ares, col de Portet d’Aspet) retired after falling off the back

Kennedy posted great results before the mountains, given his job was to ride in support of Simpson and Robinson all day, carrying bottles, pacing them back on after punctures, and shepherding them through the bunch. I imagine his expertise on flat and punchy terrain will have seen him near the front in the finale of these stages, keeping the leaders out of trouble.

Writer Rene Delatour highlighted the inequality of 14-man French, Italian, Belgian and Spanish teams, while Great Britain and the others had only eight – even pacing his team leader Simpson back on, Kennedy was at something of a disadvantage. This is the type of riding Kennedy could do well with his experience in Britain and Belgium – he was built for these stages.

Assessing the British team, he praised Simpson and Robinson, the only two to finish, as well as Norman Sheil, but says ‘Kennedy and Andrews were at home on the long flat stages but couldn’t cope with the mountain stages.’

With this inequality in team sizes, the farther the race went, the tougher life became for the smaller teams. Crashes, retirals, or finishing outside time limit reduced the size of teams so that the domestiques in smaller teams would have been subjected to a brutal work load. Larger teams could send several riders to assist their leaders after punctures or crashes, whereas small teams  could only manage a couple of riders for this job, particularly in the later stages of the race.

John Kennedy Tour de France 1960

Dave Meek, a Scot who travelled out to Kortrijk to race in 1963, speaking to Veloveritas in 2007, recalled John telling him that during the tour Simpson and Robinson roomed together, and one evening he was in the room next to them and could hear them chatting through the wall. He had stopped to help Simpson after a puncture during that day. Simpson apparently said to Robinson – “Did you see Kennedy today? He was flying! Got me on after that puncture, when I thought we would never make it.”

With Kennedy’s riding experience, it looks on paper as though he gave out after the first two major mountain stages in the Pyrenees: day 10 over 228km from Mont de Parsan to Pau, with stage 11 a brutal, classic Pyreneen stage of 161km from Pau to Luchon, which saw Norman Shiell and John Andrews both finish outside the time limit by 5 minutes.

He had ridden well on the 11th stage, and the 12th stage was won by Jean Graczyk, who won two Tour points classifications in his career but was not viewed a climber. Also on stage 12 the mountain prime on the Portet d’Aspet was won by Jos Planckaert – followers of 1960s assure me was no climber either. So surely the pace uphill wouldn’t have been ferocious? “So modest were the hills” of stage 12, wrote The Sporting Cyclist, “that Darrigade won a bunch sprint up the top of the Col des Ares” (a prolific road sprinter).

Although some Jean Graczyk a ‘non climber’, he also won a mountain stage (17) from Briancon to Aix-les-Bains in the Alps, as well as three other stages en route to the points classification. He was on a flyer that year and my gut feel is that many of the British team domestiques must have been a level below the Belgians, French, Spaniards and Italians.

The story of the from Sporting Cyclist magazine, however, of the “comparatively easy” 12th stage from Luchon to Toulouse is of one that put paid to the hopes of two more of Tom Simpson and Brian Robinson’s lieutenants.

“We had seen him going off the back on the Ares climb.”. Harry Reynolds crashed out descending the Portet d’Aspet and a litle later there was another news flash on Radio Tour that John Kennedy had retired.”

The only rest day of 1960 came after stage 13.

Sporting Cyclist September 1958 - article about British riders in 1960 Tour de France

These stats certainly suggest that the going got too tough when the Tour hit the high mountains. But behind all the bare statistics there is a story for every rider in every stage. Each guy has his own version of the race, and the statistics only scratch the surface and are a snapshot.

Jim Hay, a commenter on this site who started riding with the Glasgow Nightingale in 1946/7 offered to enlisted the help of a John “Gino” Goddard of the Kenton Road Club, who was in touch with surviving members of the 1960 Great Britain team at the Pedal Club lunch, to see if we could gain any long- lost insight.

In addition to John, three of the team have passed away – Tom Simpson of course, Jock Andrews and Vic Sutton. Brian Robinson, now in his 80s, didn’t remember Kennedy, but this is unsurprising as the late call-up meant they wouldn’t have ridden together. Norman now apparently lives in Australia and was not contactable, leaving only Stan Brittain and Harry Reynolds to ask.

Reynolds recalled John as being super-strong on the flat. “He seemed to be one of the strongest team members – quite comfortable in the front part of peloton but seemed to lack confidence in the mountains. He retired after the first day in Pyrenees as did Norman Sheil. This lack of confidence in the mountains comes as a surprise to anyone who knew John from his time in the UK. He was known as a strong all-rounder who was an excellent climber. (KoM in 1955 Tour of Britain) Perhaps 5 or six years racing in Belgium contributed to his lack of confidence in the mountains?”

Meanwhile, Stan Brittain who roomed with John told a darker story.  John told him he had been feeling depressed for some time due to the widespread drug use in Belgium, making it very difficult to compete on even terms without getting involved in doping as well.

This isn’t controversial – Tom Simpson’s use of amphetamines are well documented and were a contributing factor to his death in 1967. Roger Riviere, a favourite for the 1960 Tour, crashed on a descent trying to follow Gastone Nencini, and the injuries ended his career. Painkillers were found on his body and had admitted taking drugs for his hour record in 1958.

Stan Brittain also recalled some marital problems that were contributing to this low morale. Another rider who knew John from his days in the Velo Club Stella reckoned that he received a letter via the Tour’s internal mail system informing of the end of his marriage during the Tour. I have never been able to corroborate this, but it is known that he returned to Britain and resettled, marrying again in Wales.

 

Thanks to John Gallacher for supplying the initial photos that led to this piece, and to Steven Flockhart for help sourcing historical details and context.

Acknowledgements are also due to Jim Hay, Gino Goddard, Norrie Drummond, Ray Green and Russell Galbraith.