The Velo Club Stella and John Kennedy

In part 1 of this historical research project I looked into the Belleisle Road Club, based in the East end of Glasgow.

The story continues with the establishment of the Velo Club Stella in 1953, as a team concentrating on road racing, as opposed to the touring and time trialling that clubs tended to focus on.

Jimmy Rae recalled: The Stella Maris was around when I was a lad and was one of the first Road Racing clubs with the old SCU/BLRC, it had Hugo Koblet as its Patron. It changed its name to the VC Stella in ’53, amongst its members were John Burrows, John Kennedy, Bobby Dykes, Ronnie Park, Joe Linden, Archie Fitzgerald, Brenden Roberts, John McLaren, John Fraser, the Downes brothers. They were among the trail blazers for road racing at that time who faced a ban by the NCU/RTTC for taking part.

1955 Isle of Man018
“Velo Club Stella L to R: John Fraser, John Burrowes, Ronnie Park, Archie Fitsgerald, David Ross, James Kelly (all founder members) and Gordon Watson of Belleisle R.C.”

The Stella Maris was formed as a road racing club from the St Christopher’s CC, which itself was a Catholic club, former member Joe Linden told me. While the Stella Maris wasn’t deliberately closed to non-Catholics, the membership was predominantly Catholic, and he remembered some dubiety about the acceptance of non-Catholics. The VC Stella seems to have been established as a club that was specifically available to all, with it’s main objective being competitive road racing in the continental style.

VC Stella

John Burrowes, one of the founder members, wrote to Swiss rider Hugo Koblet, winner of the Tour de France in 1951 and the Giro d’Italia in 1950, to ask him to be honorary president of the new Velo Club Stella, and he agreed.

La Perle - Hugo Koblet - Le Pedaleur de Charme - lui-meme 1951

The background to this is the restrictive ethos of the NCU/RTTC federation, who were against racing on the open roads and wanted to keep the status quo of the past 50 years, where only time trialling took place. The BLRC was a breakaway federation which, since 1942, held controversial road races and wished to emulate and ultimately compete against their continental heroes of the Spring Classics and the Grand Tours.

Required reading on this topic is William Fotheringham’s book Roule Britannia. British Road racing began in the ’50s when riders boldly followed their ambition to race on the open road. Up to that point, racing on the open roads was banned by law, and only time trialling took place, on codenamed courses, at very early hours of the morning. The British tradition of racing against the clock exists to this day as a result.

As Jimmy told Ed Hood in 2007 for Veloveritas, Ian Steel had won the Peace Race in 1952 – a boon for British and Scottish road racing. In 1953 (sic*) the Scottish Cyclists Union was formed, which brought to an end the struggles between rival cycling bodies and a new generation of riders came into being.
(*SCU actually formed in 1952)

Ian Steel Viking 1952

I spoke some more to Jimmy to find out what club riding was like in those days: the VC Stella and other BLRC clubs wanted to break away from the old way of club riding – of the fixed wheel and saddlebag runs, and the social drum-ups from which this blog takes its name. Their more continental aspirations meant that training was serious and the best equipment was required.

A drum-up involved stopping to light a fire, make some soup and tea, before packing up to ride back to town in early evening, with a bit of a habble on the way home. Carrying tin cans in your saddle bag- an all-day touring type of ride.

The old style of club run came from the power the bike gave people to get away from the tenements. A memory of Joe Linden’s that illustrates this is of the Tour de Trossachs, the hilly time trial that is still raced today. In the 50’s it was traditionally the last race of the season and they would ride up to Aberfoyle, compete in the race, and then enjoy a game of football for a couple of hours and a few pints in the local howff (a spit-and-sawdust pub).

The new continental type of training runs that Jimmy Rae remembers were out to places like Lochgoilhead/Hellsglen, Crianlarich, and places on the west coast like Largs, with cafe stops. The social and touring element of the cycling club ride had been cast off in favour of a much more serious training ride.

The VC Stella riders’ dedication to equipment matched their dedication to training, as they aimed to be immaculately turned out for races with white oppy caps, white gloves and a red jersey. Joe Linden remembers a comment at the Tour of the North in Newcastle made by a rival: that they looked ‘more Italian than the Italians’. Linden rode a Fiorelli frame with Kennedy on a Bianchi, while David Ross had a Milano, a legendary bike of the day. Along with Campagnolo derailleurs, which only hit the market in 1951 and were very hard to get hold of at the time, they would have been riding some of the best equipment available.

A focus on road racing, then, was what the VC Stella was all about, and getting race entries was another reason to establish a small, elite club of 12-14 riders. In those days, fields were small, maybe 40 riders, and each club was limited number of entrants.

Pictured below, I believe, is John Fraser of the VC Stella. (if any readers can confirm this or otherwise, please let me know).

The title written on the back of the picture is Cyclist leaves from Blythswood Square for story. This brings home a few stark differences to local racing today – not least the equipment, downtube shifters, toe clips and wool shorts – but also the fact that a time trial could even start in town from Blythswood Square.

One rider in particular, John Kennedy, has an interesting story that starts with humble beginnings, moves Belgium to turn pro and ultimately rode in the 1960 Tour de France.

Born on 23rd May 1931 in Denistoun, Glasgow, he is a rider about which not a great deal is known, apart from the people who knew him or rode with him. Ask the person next you on the club ride ‘who was the first Scot to ride the Tour?’ and I imagine they will have no idea.

By all accounts he was a class rider. One of my original aims with this blog was to learn a more about Scottish cycling history for myself, and in so doing, spread the word about little-known riders, events or stories. We have a rich cycling heritage that perhaps isn’t as celebrated as it could be, and riders like John Kennedy deserve more recognition.

Jim Hay, who started cycling with the Glasgow Nightingale in 1946/7, informed me that John Kennedy also started his first year on the bike with the Nightingale in 1947, before possibly moving to the Gilbertfield Wheelers then Belleisle Road Club. At this time he was employed as a frame builder with David Rattray in Murray Street.

The VC Stella was formidable, with Kennedy and Park winning the Scottish Road Race championship in the 50s and riders like Ian Thompson continuing the club’s success into the 60s, winning the national title in ’64.

1954.07 Highland Games
Above: Highland Games Road Race July 1954

Jimmy Rae again recalls John Kennedy’s prowess in the early 50s: John was a dedicated and stylish rider had many good results at home, but the best results I remember were in the “Oats” 8 day Circuit of Britain, sponsored by Quaker Oats. John won the first stages in ’54 and ’55 finishing 4th on GC in ’55. He was also King of the Mountains in 1954.

This result would have been for the Scottish Cyclists Union Team, who are pictured below on Glasgow Green at the start of the Glasgow-Carlisle stage in 1955. Four of the five riders pictured were VC Stella members. I am assuming that this is the entire team, although I am not sure how big the teams were.

1955 Oats Scotland 016

L-R John Kennedy (VC Stella), James Robinson (Nightingale CC), James Kelly (VC Stella), David Ross (VC Stella), John Fraser (VC Stella). image supplied by David Ross.

The Team Manager was Arthur Campbell, who went on to be the president of the SCU and British Cycling Federation (BCF), what is now British Cycling. He was also a UCI official. A road race in his name is run today by the Glasgow Wheelers.

The overall picture is that the Stella was by far and away the best racing club in Scotland at that time.

Joe Linden recalled that John Kennedy worked in the pits, possibly after the ‘beven boys’ who were conscripted from 1943 to 1948 to increase coal production, because so many miners were either conscripted or volunteered for service during WW2. Linden was called up for national service in Pakistan in 1953, for two years, with Kennedy serving in the RAF in Ballykelly in Northern Ireland. The exact date and timing of Kennedy’s National Service is not clear, but he may have been demobbed in early 1953 and he was certainly back racing in Scotland in that year.

By 1957 Kennedy had decided to move over to Belgium to pursue a professional cycling career and it is here that the next chapter of his story begins. To be continued….

Thanks to John Gallacher for supplying the initial photos that led to this piece.

[26 Feb 2014, edit paragraph 26 – Kennedy can’t have been a bevin boy due to dates – and improving accuracy of dates of national service]