Saturday, 4 February 2012

#089 - 1970 - Tour of Algeria

Early in February Bert and I had received invitations to take an English team to the “Tour of Algeria”, we had heard what a good tour this was from the Swedes in Morocco in 1968. The race was over sixteen days with one rest day, it was early too - March 7th –22nd 1970 Bert and I decided to accept, hoping the selectors would pick a good team, this proved to be so - the chosen riders were to be:

  1. Doug Dailey,
  2. Pete Matthews,
  3. Dave Rollinson,
  4. Graham Moore,
  5. Alan Mellor,
  6. Gary Crewe
  7. John Suttcliffe.
Going as masseur was my old mate from 1955 Peace Race Bill Shiliber, he was astounded when we produced “Siopel” cream and the powder from Morocco to treat diarrhoea.

A week before we were due to fly to Algiers, Bert and I went down to a race near Bristol where the three south western lads were riding. We met them and had a good chat - they had ridden well, the event being won by the Bristol rider Phil Edwards. Leaving Bristol about 12 noon Bert and I drove up to Liverpool where we had arranged to meet 4 other members of the team at Doug Dailey’s house. Alan Mellor turned up from Oldham, but no Pete or Dave. (I had met John Suttcliffe on the Peace Race). We had a good discussion at Doug Dailey’s but still no sign of Pete or Dave. Bert and I drove home quite pleased with the day, but mad with Dave and Pete for not turning up.

On Wednesday, 3 days later, we were due to leave for London Airport, imagine my surprise on Tuesday afternoon to receive a telephone call to say that Dave Rollinson wasn’t coming with us. I did not inform the BCF until I had made my own change to the team, I rang Phil Edwards to see if he was free to come with us, he jumped at the chance, even with only 14 hours notice. I then rang the BCF with a “fait acompli”.

Alan my nephew, took Bert and I down to London Airport with all our kit and spare bike, the weather was atrocious snowing heavily by the time we had reached the airport. All the team eventually arrived well in time for our Algiers flight, we got the bikes ready for the plane, checked these in together with our luggage at the Air France desk. Meanwhile the weather closed in. A charming French air hostess came to us in the departure lounge and informed us that, as the flight was cancelled and we were the English cycle team riding in the “Tour of Algeria”, we were to be the guests of Air France and stay overnight in the ‘Sky Way Hotel’ this of course would include dinner and breakfast. We had a very warm welcome there. (More about this when we return some few weeks later). Bill Shiliber living in South London decided to go back home, returning the next day to join us. The plane to Algiers was able to take-off next morning via Paris, where it picked up the Poles and French, East and West Germans, Belgians, Yugoslavians, Swiss and Italian Teams.

We arrived at Algiers to warm sunshine and were met by the Director General Ahmed Kabali and the Algerian Minister of Sport, M Kabali who had been a good bike rider in his youth was now a little plump and Pete Matthews, thinking that he wouldn’t be understood said “Oo look at little fatty there” whereupon M. Kabali turned round and said to Pete in perfect English - “why don’t you speak English like everybody else”.

I had not been away with Pete before, but his reputation went before him and was was not good. I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, this was shattered at London Airport. After we had checked in our bags and bikes we had to mount a staircase to the next floor, Pete produced a huge life-like spider attached to a length of cotton and kept dropping it on women’s shoulders below which obviously scared them to death, this went on two or three times and the check-in officials were clearly getting narked. I asked Pete to put the bloody thing away, which he did after some cheek, I made a mental note at the airport to try and control this idiot. I personally apologised to M. Kabali, giving him one of our much sort after Union Jack badges and a bottle of whiskey (Bert and I always took 200 cigs and two Bottles of whiskey and two of Brandy as presents).

We were soon whisked away from the airport in a coach and taken to a super holiday camp about ten miles west of Algiers to a place called Zeralda, the weather had turned quite cool but we had central heating in all the chalets, the place was brand new and we were its first occupants. Bert had a nice room for the bikes and Bill Shiliber being an old hand soon set up his massage room. There was a big well organised communal dining hall, where all the riders and officials met.

We found to our astonishment that there were fifteen teams and 112 riders in the tour. There were some class men in the field - Dick Baert, Georges Claes, Willy Terirlink and Willy Vvershuren from Belgium. Harry Hannus from Finland, Mario Martinez and John Daguillaume from France, Fedor den Hertog from Holland, El farouki from Morocco, Ampler, Mickein and Peschel of the DDR to name just a few. The entry was up to “Peace Race” standard. The day before the official start of the tour we rode down to Algiers and in to the big stadium, although mainly for football and athletics there was a concrete track round the outside.

A competition was being held and Trenton and Daniel Morelon, French Olympic tandem gold medallists in Tokyo, were the main attraction. Each team did a lap of the track and then had their photographs taken, and National anthems were played. It was really presented well for the large crowd who attended. We rode back to our hotel for a meal. By now we had collected our team car - a Renault type 5, a large ex-Army (British) radio was also provided, the ear phones going right inside your ear. As all instructions over the radio would be in French, Bill sat at the back in charge of the radio because he was fluent in the language. An amusing thing happened on the first stage, Doug Dailey punctured his front wheel in the neutral zone, for some reason Bill Shiliber jumped out of the back of the car still attached to his radio - Bert hastily got out of the front seat and – running to the rear of the car – tripped over the wireless headphone cable still attached to Bill and nearly pulling his ears off, with these two in a heap I changed the wheel almost collapsing laughter.

The first stage was split in to two parts, the first was from Algiers to Tizi Ouzou of 100km, signing on in Algiers was early at 0630hrs with the processional start at 0700hrs and the start proper just outside Algiers at 0730hrs, Alan Mellor doing a great ride was fourth in a sprint to the line, Peschel DDR won the stage. Our other six were in the next group, second part of this 110km stage from Tizi-Ouzou – Bedjaia, with a climb after 55km of 1200m, was won by a friend of ours from the Morocco tour, Tahar Zouf.

Our stay was at the lovely seaside resort of Bedjaia, facilities for bikes and masseurs were perfect food being good too. We all had a get together just after dinner to discuss tactics etc and then I helped Bert with the bikes as he had seven to do, Bill looked after the team. Considering the opposition, we were performing quite well, and even after one day I felt as though we had a first class set up.

Stage two took us from Bedjaia to Djidelli 95km, this passes the beautiful remains of a large Roman city of Djemila. Alan Mellor was again fourth in a small group won by Huster (DDR) from Kowalski (Poland) 2nd and Hanusik (Poland) 3rd, Huster lead overall.

Stage three was from Djidjelli to Constantine, the distance being 140km a climb of 4000ft coming after 95km. Our lads rode well on this stage Phil Edwards showing his worth on the mountain, they all finished inside the first twenty, another Polish friend (who in the future would be the winner of four Peace Races) was Szurkowski winning the stage from Huster (DDR), Huster was still leader overall. In Constantine - home of thousands of Arab women all dressed in their long black traditional dress - our accommodation and facilities were still OK (we had bought emergency rations in Algiers as we did in Morocco).

Stage four, Constantine to Batna 100km, another split event and another early start 0645hrs, the weather had changed once more the rain coming down in torrents, so much so that a bridge on the course had been washed away and routers had to find an alternative crossing eventually finding us quite a deep ford to negotiate to get to the other side. A photo in “Mirroir du Cyclisme” shows the riders going through water at least 6” deep. Terelink of Belgium won this first part, second part of stage four started after lunch at 1400hrs from Batna to Biskra 105km, Hausik (Poland) won this second part, Huster (DDR) holding on to his overall lead.

We are now right on the edge of the Sahara desert, the accommodation here being in Arab tents all among the palm trees, there was a swimming pool there too, food was OK but not plentiful, we supplemented with our emergency food. The Tunisian team (one of whom was a butcher by trade) appeared with a sheep which was duly slaughtered, and then roasted over a makeshift fire. In due course we were all treated to some of this served up with couscous. These split stages were hard on riders and officials too, the bikes have to be cleaned, light massages given between stages, race food to be sorted out and having to rise early as well.

Rest day was in Biskra, after we had done the bikes we all (including Bert and I) went for about a twenty mile ride, after about ten miles I looked round and found that Pete and Alan were not there, we retraced to find them against all the rules in a café, eating of all things in Africa - cream cakes! I spoke pretty sternly to them both but especially with Pete telling him a few home truths, they were both ill later with diarrhoea, but were able to continue. One good thing about Pete he holds no grudge.

Stage five Biskra to Bou-saada, a long one of 170km with a climb of 4000ft at 83km. This tough, wet stage was won by Verplanke (Belgium), Axel Peschel DDR now leading overall by only 42secs from Hanusik Poland.

The 6th stage was the toughest yet, a head wind and raining as the race climbed up to 5000ft, this 160km was from Sour-El Ghozane to El-Khemis Miliana. Doug was away with the three DDR riders Ampler, Peschell, Huster and Hanisik (Poland) they were caught just before the finish, this was hell of a stage with a second climb of 6000ft. The stage was won by Madjid of Algeria in 6hr 23m 37secs, that shows how hard the event was. We stayed at Bou-Hanifia for the night accommodation and food were OK, our lads were absolutely done in, but under Bill Shillibers hands they soon recovered especially with his banter.

The next stage was even harder than the day before with a continuing head wind, sleet and sub-zero temperature. Doug Dailey was away again in a group with the Belgians, Baert and Teurlick, but he dropped to the chasing bunch, we had tried to hand him a warm coat but he could not get it on without stopping, the next group contained Huster and Peschell DDR, and behind them chasing hard were the Poles, Hanusik and Szurkowski with the Dutchman Legierse and Knispal (DDR), the race climbed on to a plateau 2,500ft and it was now snowing. Doug and the Germans “packed”, we had Dailey in our car plying him with extra clothing and brandy, we passed the two Belgians on the side of the road and, with only 10 miles to go, refusing to get on their bikes. Loison Acou their manager, was doing his best to coax them but to no avail. 84 riders would pack in the cold conditions, we luckily had Gary Crewe, John Suttclife, Alan Mellor and Pete Matthews still in the race, Graham Moore and Phil Edwards had succumbed earlier to the apalling conditions. They were to take the overall Team Award as the officials terminated the event at Tlemcen due to the atrocious weather conditions and with still 6 stages to go. Alan Mellor and John Suttcliffe had finished 9th and 10th overall, with Gary Crewe taking 10th place on the ‘final’ stage. An excellent ride for our four considering the weather conditions and we were the only team to finish with a full compliment of 4 out of the original 15 teams. The race overall winner was Hanisik (Poland), Legiesre (Holland) 2nd, Knispel DDR 3r,d with the great Polish rider Szurkowski 4th. The changing rooms was a Turkish Bath and no one wanted to come out in to the cold, even Bert and I had one too it was sheer delight. The lads soon recovered and were taken by coach to our warm and comfortable hotel. The weather and retirements were similar to that experienced in the “Tour of Eire” in 1954.

The next day was a much wanted rest day and we had a nice restful, peaceful time in Tlemcen, Bert and I did the bikes together, at first we did the four who had finished, then after a Team managers meeting the officials decided to take the riders 40 mile down the mountain where the weather was kinder and start a separate race. Although the authorities decided to start the race at Ain Temouchent 65km off the plateau, several teams did not want to start again, among them the Dutch. Unfortunately for our team Den Hartog persuaded Phil Edwards not to ride (Phil was to ride in Holland for a Dutch pro team on our return to UK). This breach put me in a turmoil, but after a meeting with our team captain Doug Dailey, we decided to take no action. Doug was an excellent team member always immaculate, his bike perfect, all his kit clean and tidy, a good team captain on the road too he set an example for all to follow. Our remaining five riders were tougher thankfully, riding and finishing in that gruesome weather.

I cannot remember hardly anything regarding the next four stages except going past the massive French Foreign Legion headquarters at Sidi Bel Abbes, this brought memories of books I had read by ex-British Legionnaires. The shortened stage of only 70km finished in Oran, all down hill so there was a bunch sprint finish on the sea front. We heard more in Oran how the British had bombarded the city and the French Navy in 1940. All our facilities were good here (and if I keep mentioning this, I cannot stress too strongly how important it is after a long, hard day in the saddle to have good quality accommodation, food and amenities for the riders especially, but also for the masseur and mechanic).

Two split stages again next, the first of 75km starting at 0700hrs and from Oran to Mohammadia, following which we had a light meal, Bert and I cleaned the bikes, Bill giving the lads a light massage in preparation for a 1300hrs start for a 140km stage - Mohammadia to El-Asnam. I cannot remember anything of this day or the next, although from the start sheet I know the following day was also a split stage, the first part being a 50km Team Time Trial from El-Asnam to Tenes, we were so far down in classification that there was little point in using up our energy we therefore took our time. Same routine - clean the bikes, a meal followed by a light massage then we were off on 100km event from Tenes to Cherchell, through beautiful wooded scenery on our right, the lovely blue Mediterranean on the left.

The last day and a 100km event from Cherchell-Algiers, finishing in the Velodrome. What an eventful Tour it had been, considering who had ridden from Eastern Europe we had performed very well and we won a lot of money. We were again quartered at the holiday camp just outside Algiers at Zeralda, and we had two days before catching the plane home. The weather had turned warm and Bert and I did a bit of sunbathing, letting the lads train on their own.

At the finish of one stage in Algeria, the team stayed in a very pleasant villa with an inner courtyard and bedrooms on the second floor surrounding the square. On arrival at the “digs” Bert required water to wash the bikes, he turned on all the taps in sight but could not get a drop, he eventually managed to find a water pump outside and also commandeered a room to do the bikes. He was able to have dinner with us as meals were served on site, as a rule the mechanics worked a distance away from the dining area. After dinner I washed the vests and shorts, cleaned the shoes etc. To dry these vests I went across the road to a smart hotel, the staff allowed me to dry the clothes near to the central heating room. A Team managers meeting was held in the same hotel, which was the “Permanence” for the race. After the meeting I collected our beautiful dry vests etc and went across to see how Bert was getting on.

I had just heard the news that in England, ‘my’ team Derby County were playing Bert’s team Nottingham Forest, Derby had won 3-1, I was overjoyed and hurried to give Bert the news and no doubt exchange some friendly banter. When I got to our hotel I found him fast asleep fully clothed lying on his bed, the room was covered in 3 inches of steaming water, I roused Bert, he shot out of bed in bare feet and almost scolded his feet on the hot water. It appeared on the afternoon of our arrival he had turned on all the taps but had not turned them off, when the authorities turned on the rationed water the taps overflowed. I said to Bert “Goodnight I will see you in the morning”, “Come back you ‘b……’ and help me” he called, of course I was only joking, we used a sheepskin rug to mop up the water, good job these rooms were on a veranda with nothing underneath.

On another occasion the team and Bill Shilliber and I were quartered some ten miles away, Bert was to stay in town with the other mechanics. Unfortunately I had with me the key to his room. After taking dinner with the team, I leapt in to our Renault 5 Team Car and went in to the stage finish town to give Bert his key. On my arrival I saw this figure poking about in the open drain outside, it was Bert. I got the usual abuse for going off with his door key (Andre Chenal of the French National Team and who we both knew from the 1961 Tour de France, had let Bert use his room to get changed in to his overalls). In the mechanics room there was a long trough to be used mainly for washing, Bert had taken the opportunity to rinse his false teeth when he dropped them in trough. Before he could catch them they had slid down the drain hole and so into the sewer in the street. Bert had in his tool kit a special tool, which held nuts in place when fitting in unreachable spots; he managed after a while to retrieve his teeth, he then boiled them, I thought this a bit drastic and feared they would melt but they had some sort of metal finish. What a laugh Bill and the lads had on my return to our hotel, in fact Doug Dailey and I recently recalled this incident and after all these years it still has us in stitches!

This is a good opportunity to give an appreciative report about the late Bert Humphries taken in the prime of his life by the ‘Big C’; we were in our teens when we first met and had been close mates ever since. With a wicked sense of humour, he was well liked by all the teams – foreign as well as G.B. - and his workmates with Vic Hallam Ltd of Langley Mill. Nothing was to much trouble to him;, he was an excellent driver, especially in bike races where you need that extra skill, he was a good sound mechanic, and I cannot recall any incident other than pleasurable on any of the tours we were on together, moreover if any foreign team was in trouble on the road Bert was always there first to help... In all my Tours as team manager Bert was always my second in command and we were on the Tour de France, Morocco, Annaba, many times in Eire, Olympia Tour of Holland and the Tour de Nouvelle France; he also drove for Bobby Thom in the Tour de le Avenir in 1962. Bert gave confidence to the whole teams, I still miss him to this day 2001.

The following afternoon and the day after the Tour finished, Bert, Bill and I were sunbathing on the flat roof of our chalet when we were visited by our interpreter - a Swedish woman who was married to an Arab – accompanied by the British Ambassador. The Tour of Annaba organisers had requested him to invite us to ride in their race. Annaba (originally known as Bone during French rule) was about 300 miles east . We called a meeting with the rest of the team to discuss this development. Bill Shilliber was unable to stay as he had other commitments, Bert telephoned his boss and was able to get an extra two weeks off; the rest of the team, including Phil Edwards, took the plunge and agreed to stay for the event. I personally ought not take any more time away from the shop, but when you are in another country, surrounded by the best cyclists and personnel in Europe, well – what you want to do takes precedence. I stayed and managed the team and acted as masseur as well. 

At the end of the “Tour of Algerie” our French mate Andre introduced us to the French Minister of Sport Maurice Herzog. What we did not realise at the time, we were meeting the famous Mountaneer who had climbed Annapurna in 1950 , we could not understand at the time why he had no fingers, these had been frost bitten on the Himaylen peak. What a unknown honour we had to meet this famous man.

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