Memories of Belgium, summer 1960

A recent interview on Veloveritas with Craig Wallace highlighted how important the Belgian scene is for serious riders who may be looking for a career in bike racing and need to push themselves on. Although Jim Robinson, whose shares memories of the 1960 season below, wasn’t necessarily looking to go pro, there were plenty at that time who were.

1955 Oats Scotland 016

It was spring of 1960 and we were sitting in an early-morning commuter train heading from Ostend to Kortrijk. I sat listening to the chatter around us thinking how much it reminded me of the blue trains going into Queen St. Low-level every morning full of Glasgow office-workers. Flemish shares a lot of vocabulary with old Scots and as my ears got a little more attuned to the accent I almost felt at home. Also, I had spent my National Service with the RAF in Schleswig-Holstein, a part of Germany where Plattdeutsch was still commonly spoken. Plattdeutsch, Frisian and Flemish, all Low Germanic languages, are still spoken up and down the North Sea coast from Denmark to northern France.

Myself, Jim Robinson of the Glasgow Nightingale CC, and Bobby Finnie of the Glasgow Suburban CC had hitched down from Scotland, with our bikes, to the Channel ferry with the intention of spending the summer racing in Belgium. It wasn’t entirely a leap in the dark because others had gone before us. John Kennedy, then racing as a pro for the Belgian team, Flandria, lived there with his Belgian wife. Hector Thomson and Rab Dewar of the Glasgow Wheelers had gone out a few weeks before us. George Connel of the Ivy CC joined us there and Jimmy Rae, then making his living as a pro on the Continent.

Our digs in Kortrijk were in the Veemarkt, a wide square which had, at one time, been the cattle market. Our landlady and her husband ran a combined pension and fish shop, who fed us well, but when we weren’t racing or training we spent time across the square where John lived with his wife, Ricquette, and her parents at his café. That’s when we weren’t in the Café Doolhof sinking ‘brunjes mit grenadine’ (brown beer with a dash of grenadine, a popular local tipple).

Our staple diet was mussels, chips and horsemeat (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it), and very good it was too. Our landlady and her husband worked long hours during which the coffee pot was never off the stove. I don’t think it was ever emptied, they just kept adding coffee and water during the day. It was the kind of stuff that put hair on your chest, with a vengeance.

Hector, Rab and John kept us straight and made sure we got to our first few races. John, by that time, spoke fluent Flemish and was obviously a big help in guiding us. John had been a member of my own club, Glasgow Nightingale, for a time in the late 1940’s and I knew him well. I had last raced with him when we were both members of the Scottish team in the 1955 Quaker Oats Tour of Britain where John had been particularly successful, winning the King of the Mountains trophy, and had used his winnings to part-fund his new life in Belgium.

The Belgians, our hosts in particular, were somewhat uncomprehending regarding our presence. To them, bike-racing was a serious business; their aim was to be good enough to be able to turn professional and make a lot of money. I was there because I was at a bit of a loose end after finishing National Service and couldn’t settle. Not, at that point, having any kind of career made it easy for me to go off and do what any racing cyclist in Scotland would have loved to do.

Belgian racing reflected their attitude. It was a brutal business and favoured heavily-built riders who were more like boxers than cyclists. However, John and Jimmy were of chunkier build, which was just as well, trying to earn their living as pros. In any case, I always felt that I was at a disadvantage to the locals, I just wasn’t tough enough.

The road surfaces were as varied as you might expect, from acceptable to diabolical. Kermesses (kermis in Flemish), which were basically what we were riding, were based on circuits round towns or villages and would leave a perfectly good road surface and dive up a side-road, up and down pavements and along farm-tracks.

My first event was instructive. First of all, sign on, usually in a local public building or a hostelry. As we discovered at later events, because we were foreigners, organisers were wont to give us some start money as it gave the commentator a little point of interest for his spiel. Again, being foreigners, we got our prize-money, if any, paid immediately whereas the local ‘amateurs’ had to wait for their quarterly pay-out. This, of course, was in the days when being an ‘amateur’ meant something.

Fields were very variable as every one started on the line. You didn’t know until the day and hour of the race who was going to turn up. Prize-money never seemed to go down to anything less than 20th place so we found it quite easy to fund our dig money. I left home in Scotland with, if I remember correctly, £60, and returned home with a fiver.

We raced several times a week in Belgium, occasionally visiting northern France. Closed roads for events were a welcome novelty for us, Also a novelty, was the ease with which you would get changing accommodation; just ‘chap’ a door and you were in. When your hosts found out you were Scottish they were particularly welcoming. Older people, in particular, had vivid memories of kilted Scottish soldiers in the first and second world wars.

That was the easy part. The racing was very different from at home; full speed from the start, your teeth were dug into the handlebars after fifty yards. It was even faster at the finish but, as we found out, there was a reason for that. I can’t say that I had any first-hand information about the amount of drugs being taken but always felt it significant how many ‘dying’ riders would spring into life in the last few kilometres of an event. We weren’t entirely innocent, of course, we knew what was available and where it could be obtained (mainly, at that time, amphetamines, which were available over the counter in France where they entirely legal). However, thankfully, we weren’t under the pressures to achieve that the local riders were under.

That first race? I was placed fifth, although my friends at the finish reckoned I actually finished further up. I was quite pleased and thought to myself “I can handle this”. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there and, although getting into the prize-list was usually possible, it was in a lowly 10th or 12th place.

My last race was in Brussel-Marke, a local semi-classic, one of the few point to point events, from the Belgian capital to Marke, a suburb of Kortrijk. We were taken by lorry to Brussel for the start and enjoyed the hairiest of exits from the city. With a field of well over a hundred, on pavements with tree-roots growing out of them, short echelons were the order of the day. If I hadn’t had a season of Belgian racing behind me I would have been a danger to myself and everyone around me. My reflexes were as sharp as only constant racing in big bunches could make them. Those few kilometres were like riding through a tunnel, with total concentration on the wheels in front of you waiting for the sounds of carnage from somewhere ahead. Thankfully, nothing of that kind happened and I finished some hours later, creeping into the back end of the prize-list as usual.

At the end of September the racing season was coming to an end and it was time to return home. Our landlady’s husband replenished the shop’s stock daily at the fish-market in Ostend, leaving around four in the morning, so we took advantage of his good nature to get a lift to the ferry.

That was my last year of what could be called serious racing. The necessity to earn some money and get a career took over.

There is a postscript. For many years, on holiday, driving back through the north of France and Belgium heading for the ferry at Zeebrugge my wife would say to me “We pass Kortrijk on the way, why don’t we make a detour to this place you’re always talking about?”. We were always in a hurry to catch the ferry and it never happened.

However, a couple of years ago we made it. Driving into the Veemarkt I couldn’t recognise anything. The whole square had been elegantly re-developed with an underground carpark and posh restaurants and bars. John’s café, the Café Doolhof, all gone or unrecognisable. They say you can never go back!