Friday, 21 March 2008

#073 - 1963 - Tour of St Lawrence

A few hectic weeks after the Peace Race, Benny Foster wrote to ask if I would go to the ‘Tour of St Lawrence’ travelling  to Canada in late August - the invitation did not take much accepting. The team was to be

  1. Billy Holmes,
  2. Bill Bradley,
  3. John Woodburn
  4. John Geddes.
Routinely I sent out lists to riders to fill in details of their equipment, two were riding for Harry Quinn and two for Falcon, their machines had the same specification and for once I did not have to check wheels for interchanging. I adjusted my spare cycle to suit the other four. The lads brought their own tyres  and special parts with them and this took a worry off me.We met up at BCF Headquarters and I set to and removed front wheels etc. and got the bikes ready for the train and boat. We sailed in the afternoon to the Hook of Holland and there boarded a train to Amsterdam Station. We could not get any taxi to take us and our bicycles to Scheepol Airport, where we were boarding an ‘Air Canada’ flight to Montreal. Not to be outdone by the fastidious taxi drivers in Amsterdam, we put Benny in a taxi with all the luggage, we then fitted the front wheels in our bikes and rode off along the Zuider Zee to Scheepol Airport, this in blazer & flannels and ordinary shoes.

After custom formalities I bought my usual three bottles of whisky and two hundred cigarettes from the Duty Free. (I always bought same before each race to give away to anyone who gave us help). We then boarded “Air Canada” four engine piston aircraft  for a twelve hour flight to Montreal. We flew back over England and could plainly see the Lake District, then it was Scotland and Northern Ireland and so on over Iceland and Greenland then down through Northern Canada to land at Montreal. All the other European teams were on this flight and it passed quickly for me as I mingled with my fellow Peace Race personnel, especially the Poles and Russians and reminiscing with them. In those days it was necessary to have smallpox inoculations before you were allowed in Canada or USA, two jabs were required and a certificate to prove they had been administered. I had had my first  jab but, due to the pressure of work at the shop,  kept missing my second appointment.. After checking that the bikes and baggage had arrived O.K. I found myself at the back of the crowd which had just disembarked our aircraft. By the time I arrived at the table for examining smallpox jabs, thankfully the official must have been fed up because he just looked at the smallpox certificate  in my passport and said ‘O.K’.

In the airport the weather seemed quite mild but when we walked outside to get our coach the heat hit us, the insects also were a nuisance and quite large. We were some 100 miles from our hotel, or rather a  large  Catholic College, in Quebec, the students being on holiday we would stay in  their luxury accommodation. We had one stop for a light snack between Montreal and Quebec and on our arrival we were  dead beat but we had to attend a civic reception. After being  shown to our respective quarters, we were  then given a most marvellous meal of ‘T’ bone steak and blueberry pie, and as much as one could drink  of orange juice and milk. We could not help but notice how much food the Canadians threw away and thought this to be a disgraceful waste.

We were in Quebec a week before the race was due to start. We were taken down to be shown our team cars, and we were allocated  a Lincoln Continental Automatic, we then found out that I had to drive, the only credentials required was your current driving licence, unfortunately I and a Yugoslavian had left our licences at home. ‘No sweat, we will book you a driving test here in Quebec’ said the organiser. This they promptly did and the two of us were taken to the Driving Test Office where we had to sit in a mock car whilst they put us through various aptitude, eye sight, and reflex tests, quite an ordeal really. We were then ushered in to a classroom where we sat the theory test paper which involved answering about thirty questions on their type of Highway Code. We were then shown into a long estate car L.H. drive  automatic of   course! Where upon we set forth along the main streets of Quebec at the rush hour -  to our relief and amazement we were issued with driving licences.

That same evening we decided to go ten pin bowling, there being a rink close by. This bowling was new to us, I put my three fingers in a ball and went to bowl, my fingers stuck in the ball for a split second then went up in the air and I had a strike three ‘alley’s’ away on the right, the whole place exploded in mirth, we had a great time. One of the Canadian party who was looking after us suggested he take us to a special pub, we went along with him and the pub was set in sandstone which was quite unique. This Canadian had been to England, and when he knew I was from Nottingham area he blushed and said “Fancy me bringing you here when in Nottingham you have “The Trip To Jerusalem” (reputed to be the finest ‘pub’ built in sandstone in the world, I discovered). I did not tell I had not seen it ( I had lived in Nottingham 41 years and had never visited the ‘Trip’ as it was known locally  -  as soon as possible on my return to England I rectified this).

The Tour was sponsored by a leading cake manufacturer Vachon Cakes, the owner millionaire Monsieur Vachon had a  charming red haired daughter who was to be interpreter for all the foreign teams, (she eventually came over to England as interpreter for several teams in the Leicester World Championships).

We were becoming tourists instead of racing cyclists. We had been out training early one morning getting back for lunch, on our return, we found that a trip to the beautiful old city  of Quebec had been arranged especially to the “citadel” with its history. (Churchill and Roosevelt wrote the Atlantic Treaty here).We also visited the Heights of Abraham where General Wolf and his army had overwhelmed  the French to take the city, General Montcalm led the French. Our history books were coming to life. We crossed a bridge, similar to the Forth Railway bridge, I had read about this bridge in a “Wonder Book of Engineering”  that my dad had given me for Christmas 1934, and here it was right in front of me!. The builders had  a lot of trouble with the centre span, it had collapsed three times before they finally got it right. (The Jacques Cartier bridge we were to cross in Montreal was also  a subject of this book).

A guide took us round explaining the battles and how far the Americans came in their War of Independence , our guide was for French/Canadians, and so when an American party crossed our path we swapped parties, there was quite a few nice young women in this party and we had a happy time. The race eventually started  and we picked up quite a few high places. Stage towns as I recall were Trios Riveres, Montmargny a Criterium in Montreal, Drummondvile and Sherburne. I also remember passing through Thetford Mines, there was a prime there but you could hardly see for the dust created by the mining of asbestos. (I have wondered many times since how the people fared there when it became known of the dangers of exposure to asbestos). We stayed in very comfortable college hostels, the food throughout was excellent. We were mostly together in one big dormitory, it made for good comradeship and we had some laughs, John Geddes being a great comedian.

The tour finished in Quebec, Kees Haast of Holland won the event, Billy Holmes 4th, John Woodburn 10th, John Geddes 15th and Bill Bradley 19th, we also won 3rd team place from Holland with Belgium 2nd. The grand prize giving was held in an Ice Stadium with a super band and a lovely girl singer, John Geddes remarked what a beauty this girl was and before the night was out he met her and took her out. (We did not see John again for three days when we met up for our return flight at Montreal). The race organisers congratulated us on our skill in the race and also for being good ambassadors for England. As a reward they allowed  us the use of car with a credit card for petrol and all other expenses, we could go wherever we fancied. We had a quick meeting and decided to go to Niagara Falls which was 760 miles away, I worked all night before we departed getting the bikes ready for the flight and putting all the luggage with them. The Dutch team offered to load our stuff on a van to be transported to Montreal Airport  and we accepted gratefully (we would be miles away then).

We set off early in the morning, Mike Breckon who had helped us a lot during the tour, put us on the right road. We dropped Mike at Montreal where he lived and we carried on through Montreal on to the Trans Canadian Highway towards Hamilton, Benny Foster had arranged to see some  friends near Ottawa. All we heard from him for about 500 mile was his moaning that we would not make the cross roads in the time he had arranged with his friends, the car ran like a dream and found that we had driven 100 mile in a hour. Afterwards we were to find out there was a 60 mph speed restriction!. We arrived at the rendezvous for Benny and it was just starting to rain. He was still moaning so we left him to get wet.

We arrived at Niagara Falls in the early evening, they were floodlit and made a marvellous spectacle, unbelievable. What we had not realised was that the falls were in the middle of a large city, The American Falls opposite being in the country, we called at a motel to get accommodation but unfortunately it was full, luckily a Yorkshire girl was on the reception and she knew a French/Canadian lady from St Catherine’s who might be able to accommodate us -  she rang for us and everything was O.K. she could put the four of us up.  St Catherine’s was only 5 or 6 mile away, near to Lachine rapids and the St Lawrence Ship Canal, this canal allows ocean going ships to come right inland  to Montreal and in to Lake Ontario and Toronto and Chicago. We found the digs and they were super and the lady of the house really looked after us, she was amazed at our domesticity as we washed all the pots, made our beds and helped in quite a few ways, (for many years afterwards we exchanged Christmas cards) she said we were good ambassadors of England.

The following morning we had a lovely breakfast, washed the dishes, made our beds and then decided that as it was raining we would go to Buffalo City which is  just a few miles over the Rainbow Bridge from Niagara, we drove across the bridge going OK through the Canadian customs. On the far side of the bridge we came up against the USA customs men. All Canadian cars were normally given cursory glances then waved through, we however were stopped. Our passports were examined and it was quickly noticed that 3 of us had been to Eastern European countries, so we were passed on to another Customs Officer who told us to get out of the car and follow him in to an office. He then commenced to ask questions ‘why had we been to Poland, Czechoslavakia, East Germany and Soviet Union?’, I was answering him politely, when Bill Bradley who was standing at  the back of our group, shouted -
“Lets go back to Canada, we only came here because it’s raining” 

On hearing this, the Custom Officer banged our passports on his desk and informed us that entry was denied!. We got in our car and returned to Canada, the customs officer there welcomed us  saying that was the quickest trip anyone had made to the USA, he could not control his laughter. Instead we visited the rapids where the Niagara River narrows. (you can imagine how fast the river flows there, Captain Webb tried to swim across for a wager, but lost his life).

We did all the tourist spots, i.e. going to the back of the falls all of us in long black oilskin coats looking like penguins. After that we caught the small steamer very aptly called  “The Maid of the Mists”, which takes you up to the base of the falls, spray going everywhere. The time soon came to leave our French/Canadian ‘mother’  for our 400 odd mile journey to Montreal Airport and so fly to London and home.

Forty years later some memories of the first Tour of St Lawrence come flooding back. Whilst the race had first class independent and top amateur teams from Europe, the rest of the field was made up of individual Canadian and American USA riders, they had little or no back-up and every morning early, a queue formed near my toolkit area with these North American riders in trouble with their bikes. I was able to help them all. If any mechanic had a ‘big problem’ with a bike  then all the mechanics helped each other. John Woodburn was with me one evening discussing his bike and the next day’s course (we did this on the earlier Peace Race) and I introduced John to my great Russian mate Sevette (of the 1955 Peace Race vodka debacle). John exclaimed  
“ Ah, he’s your friend is he”  
“Yes - why!” I exclaimed,
“Well, I punctured in the Peace Race, and before I was off my bike your mate was there with a rear wheel and pushed me back in the small break I was in, I lost no time at all” said John. I explained to John that the Russian, French and Polish mechanics had an unwritten rule that if any of our riders were in trouble with neither of our cars there, we would help each other, this applied to all teams in any  event.

My brothers lad, Alan took this same sporting help to a “Once” rider who was in trouble on “Tour de France 2000”.  The rider had punctured, his team cars had gone on, somehow missing him. Alan tried to fit a US Postal Teck wheel but to no avail, so he loaned him a Teck bike. This gesture enabled  the “Once” rider to win the ‘youngest rider’ award in Paris. Although initially Alan was reprimanded for his actions, when a photograph appeared in the press of the young ‘Once’ rider finishing the stage on a US Postal bike, it was soon realised what good publicity this had been in this competitive world.

The thing enjoyed by me in this Canadian Tour was the driving, we had some hair raising moments especially one day when a big Canadian sightseer  decided to view the race from the convoy! and he had no chance of course but the ‘cutting up’ was a bit hectic for a while.   

A typical day in Canada –
  • Arise  and creep out of bed for a wash etc. then
  • Down to the bikes, check the tyres for any cuts or flints, fit new where required.
  • Blow up all tyres (on this race there were four bikes and and a spare plus 3 pair wheels.
  • Check over the car, i.e. oil, petrol, tyres etc.
  • Clean car inside and out.
  • Get a light breakfast.
  • Look at any amateur Canadian  bikes.
  • Then my team would come for their bikes. I would then ask them to try out their machines and carry out adjustments, if any required.
  • Drive down to the start with the team hanging on to the car door handles. Often, after a stage, I managed to give the riders a full body massage, then went on to maintain  the bikes, in a way acting  as a real continental ‘Soiogneur’, cleaning shoes, washing shirts, (getting them dry was the biggest problem, although in Canada the colleges had furnace rooms which  I was able to use  to  dry the riders kit).

Meanwhile Benny Foster was off to meetings with the foreign team managers, sorting out various problems we had, a tactics meeting was held daily too.

No comments: