Friday 27 November 2015

1959- My bike-racing year

I recently got an email from a fellow former Eagle CRC member by the name of Rob Norton. He was writing to correct a mistake I made on another post. I had attributed the photos on this post to be from 1958. Rob is certain they're from 1959. And how is he so certain? Well, Rob features in one of the photos, and only raced for one year...1959.

While his racing career may have been short, it wasn't without distinction. Luckily for us Rob has written his memories of that year and is happy to share them. This is his story, exactly as he has written it.
Rob Norton riding that Navan Road TT in 1959!!

1959- My bike-racing year

My interest in bike racing was sown by my dad’s stories of his racing activities in the 1930’s with the “City and Suburban” Club and touring in UK and Ireland. He had a much sought-after machine, a Stenton Glider which had a stainless steel frame. He raced in time trials only, since mass start racing was illegal. They had to start their races at dawn and wear black tights. He and Joe Nash won the Irish 50 mile tandem time trial champs. Dad rode 216 miles in a 12 hour time trial- I don’t know what place that gave him. He kept going on cold sweet tea. His brother Willie played in the excellent Irish bicycle polo team in the 1940’s.

Rob's dad, Jimmy Norton (left) with an unnamed pal
on a touring trip to Yorkshire in the 1930's

In my teens while still at school, I bought “Cycling” magazine every week, which gave racing results mainly from the time trial scene in Britain, but also from the embryonic massed start scene there. It also covered leisure touring, which is largely ignored by today’s cycling press.

After a number of years hard bicycle touring in my teens and some seasons rowing with Neptune RC at Islandbridge, I bought a cheap  mass-produced  racing bike, a Hercules “Tour de France Equipe” in 1958, when I was twenty years old.  The firm of Hercules had a British professional team racing on the continent at that time, including Brian Robinson, who in 1958 won a stage of the Tour de France and had other notable successes.

My Hercules bike had eight gears including a front changer operated by a lever above the chain wheel! During the winter of 1958-1959 I used to go training alone on the Clontarf road in the evenings after work. This road had recently had sodium vapour lights installed, a great novelty at the time which gave very good illumination.

One evening (26-2-59) I was passed by a racing cyclist, also solo, and we got into conversation . We spent the rest of the evening, which probably involved going to Howth, over the summit and back, riding side by side and riding harder and harder the further we went; something of a “nudging” match having developed . He introduced himself as Sonny Cullen of Eagle Road Club, who I learned later was an Irish international. He asked if I had ever raced and when I replied “No”, he replied “You should give it a go”. Ever after, he used to call me “the nudger Norton”. He told me the first race of the season would be on shortly and how to go about entering. This involved going to the house of the race secretary of CRE (Cumann Rothaiochta na h-Eireann), Sean Fox in Drumcondra and paying ten shillings to join Eagle. I also paid 3 shillings for a racing licence. .  The internationally recognised controlling bodies were CRE and Northern Ireland Cycling Federation. The nationalist body NCA was strong throughout the country but was not recognised as they refused to accept the partition of Ireland. They were notorious for going to World Champs and Olympic races and strewing tacks on the road.

On the 1st March, I rode my first race; 100 kms massed start in Phoenix Park. Got into a lot of breaks and finished about 15th.

Second race , Eagle RC 70 mile MS, 8th March was from the Park to Dunshaughlin, Ratoath, Slane, Navan, and back to the Park. I missed the break which included Sonny and John Lackey. My group dropped to touring pace due to a fierce headwind and we finished 6 minutes down, in 3 hrs 17.

A few weeks afterwards, I went in the Norman Cycles Cup, a fifty mile handicap organised by Irish Road Club,from Santry Stadium to Drogheda and back. I went off with a group of about twelve young riders given eight minutes on the back-markers, including Sonny and others of his standard. My group included Sean Lally of Dublin Wheelers.  It did not take long for him and me to drop all the others in our group and we rode “bit and bit” together to the finish. We were never caught by the scratch men and I jumped away from Sean at a little hill at the Coachman’s Inn, a mile from the finish, and won. I was presented with the big silver cup at the annual dinner of CRE at the year’s end in front of my Dad and Mam. Unfortunately that cup subsequently went missing and is no longer raced for.
Jimmy Norton (centre) sharing a drink with Dick Comerford and Shay Elliott

My club, Eagle Road Club, is no longer in existence. We were a small club comprising three Irish internationals, Sonny Cullen, Jimmy Kennedy and J J McCormack, whose son Alan was racing professionally in USA until 1994. Other members that I recall were Dick Allen, Freddie Brew, Gerry Kinsella and Rory Harkin of Rory’s Fishing shop in Temple Bar. We trained several evenings a week - hard bit and bit sessions - and we also had club TTs and massed start races in the Park or round the Drumcree circuit. In one of the TTs I had my best 25 mile time of 1.2.22.
Sonny beating Jimmy in a RAS finish
Sonny Cullen died very young; I think in his fifties after coming home from a spin on the bike. He had a cousin in Rush who grew tomatoes and we called in one evening while out training and gorged on tomatoes.

Later that year I did the Irish 50 mile TT championship on the Navan Road. I don’t recall what place I finished in. It may have been seventh. My time was 2.11 and I recall a strong headwind on the return leg.

I was fifth in the 100 mile time trial championship on a course Ashtown, Navan, Slane, Black Bull, Slane, Navan, home. I started at Ashtown at 9 am in the pouring rain and caught six riders during the morning. About 10.30 I was overtaken by the eventual winner Magee(?) from Northern Ireland, who had a time of 4 hrs 17 mins. Since it was a flat course he used a single fixed gear. I had a 4.41. Sean Lally, who had started seven minutes ahead of me had a 4 hrs 48 mins. We crossed the finish line together.

The highlight of my year was the National 200 kms. Mass Start Championship. The course was Phoenix Park, Slane, Navan and back to finish by riding six times around the Knockmaroon hill circuit. A rider broke away on the Navan Road on the way back to Dublin - I jumped to join him and was joined by a succession of others until the breakaway group was up to twelve. This group, though dwindling in numbers, stayed away until the finish. At one stage I was out of food and Ian Gallagher of Orwell (RIP, alas) kindly gave me a big juicy pear which kept me going. Ian was involved with the sport for many years and was a race commissaire for the RAS.

Jim Maguire of NICF won. Christy Kimmage was second, Ian Moore, of Zeus RC, London was third, I think. Peter Dowling of Antlers C. C., a big red-head, beat me in the sprint for fourth place. I had been told he was not fit and hadn’t raced much that year and I did my best to get rid of him on the final climb of Knockmaroon without success. I had to be satisfied with fifth and our club, Eagle won the Team Prize, because Joe McCormack (RIP in 2010?) was eighth and Freddie Brew was 13th. I got a nice silver medal for the Team Prize which I still have. Many of my races that year were ridden on wheels with STEEL rims, but for the MS champs I had alloy “sprints”. I remember being so tired and stiff at the finish that I could hardly get off the bike.

I also rode the Coast to Coast mass start race, Dublin to Galway and back at the August Bank holiday. Won the Prime at Enfield but  finished well down the field in a bad headwind on day one, but came in third on the return leg with a gale at our backs. I broke away from the field on the hill at Lucan and finished alone in the Phoenix Park in front of a large crowd of spectators, with Jimmy Kennedy and Christy Kimmage, of Dublin Wheelers who had broken away earlier, some minutes ahead of me.

The last race I rode that year was the comically named “Tour de Wicklow”- Roundwood, Laragh, Sally Gap, Roundwood and another lap of the same. The heat was intense- the tar melted on the roads and ruined my new frame. I dropped out after the first lap. I remember the pain of trying vainly to stay on the wheel of Vinnie Higgins of Antlers on the climb up Glenmacnass. The frame was never quite the same. With a clean-up, it ended up being ridden by my brother Pat in his first few races. He of course far excelled me in his much longer racing career including a win in the Isle of Man “Mannin Veg” and a spell with a French club.

At the CRE annual dinner, I got a certificate for 6th place in the Time Trial BAR (Best All Rounders) Competition

That was the extent of my bike racing career. While I continued to tour by bike, I was bitten by the mountaineering bug and joined the Irish Mountaineering Club but that’s another story.

Rob Norton with his son, Graham, who rides for Orwell and
is the third generation of Nortons to take to the bike.

Rob Norton still turning the pedals, atop the Grossglockner in Austria, 2010

Rob's friend Michael Murphy of Westport accompanied him up in Austria, 2010

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Alpe d'Huez by Peter Cossins

Over time certain sporting venues become iconic. Sometimes because of the historic events that are held there, sometimes because of legendary performances, sometimes because of their own inate grandeur or beauty. Football has Wembley and the Maracana, tennis has Wimbledon, triathlon has Kona and Formula 1 has Monaco.

Cycling is lucky enough to have several such venues, from the bergs of Flanders to the cobbles of Roubaix to the high mountains of the Grand Tours. But one place stands out from them all in cycling folklore. To win there is to join an exclusive club, to just survive the time limit is a massive achievement and to spectate there is to participate in one of the great festivals of sport.

That place is of course the famous D211 road in the department of Isère, France which culminates at the ski resort by who's name it's better known, Alpe d'Huez.

Veteran British cycling journalist, Peter Cossins, has just published a "biography" of this amazing climb, "Cycling's Greatest Climb" according to the subtitle.

By interweaving factual detail with accounts of some of the most exciting and iconic Tour stages fought out there, Cossins brings the mountain alive for the reader. The passion, the pain, the intrigue and the excitement of the road are all captured on the pages as well as fascinating behind the scenes history of how this remote ski resort has managed to place itself centre stage in the story of France's premier sporting event.

2015 marks the eightieth anniversary of the building of the first paved road, with it's now famous 21 hairpins, up to a cluster of ski cabins and chalets. That decision, along with some very canny celebrity-endorsed marketing, inspired the rapid development of the resort into one of France's most popular pre-war ski destinations. Once hostilities were done it was hotelier George Rajon who saw the benefits that attracting the Tour might bring and who set about wooing organisers Jacques Goddet and Felix Levitan. As it happens, at the time they were looking for a way to break the stranglehold time-triallists were exerting on their race. The rest is history.

Surprisingly, given the almost mythological status now bestowed on the Alpe, it was to be another 25 years before the Tour visited again in 1977. That return, won in a spectacular race by defending Tour champion Lucien Van Impe, was to be the beginning of what's been called a love affair between the resort and the race, albeit a love affair driven by very unromantic financial considerations.

That's not to say there's been any love affair between the riders and the climb. Climbing legend Robert Miller "hated" it, while 87 Tour winner, Stephen Roche, famously said "Of all the climbs in the Alps, Alpe d'Huez is the one I fear the most". At just over 13km, it's neither the longest nor steepest climb faced by Tour De France participants, But Alpe d'Huez is special because it always comes at the end of a tough stage and because it's very hard to ride, especially since the steeper lower slopes are where the damage is often done, leaving all but the best climbers scrambling to get back on terms.

While it's the riders that make any race, and Cossins describes in detail the exploits of many who have made their name (by fair means or foul) on the Alpe, from Van Impe to Pantani to Armstrong, Alpe d'Huez has become just as renowned for the fans who line the roadside. Just like the famous "12th man" in football, the energy of the fans has been an integral factor in many exploits played out there as well as a few mishaps, as in the case of Guerrini and the camera toting German lad.

Often described as "Dutch" mountain the stories of how it became so associated with Holland are fascinating. Who knew the local parish priest for many years, now buried in the churchyard at Dutch Corner, was a Dutchman? Of course, in recent years some us are challenging that Orange dominance, hence the birth of Irish Corner 10. We have a way to go though!

Alpe d'Huez is an amazing place, with a still expanding legend being built around it. Cossins has captured that in this book. If you have going there for the Tour (at Irish Corner 10, of course) at least once on your bucket list, when you read this book you'll be adding it at the very top.

"Alpe d'Huez, Cycling's Greatest Climb" by Peter Cossins is published in hardback by Aurum Press and is available from Amazon (click here) or, in Ireland, from Easons and all good bookshops, RRP €25.50