You’ve heard of this guy, right?
Billy Bilsland. Maybe you saw him listed as ‘William Bilsland’? A Mexico 1968 British Olympian, stage winner in the Peace Race and Tour de l’Avenir. The Peugeot and Raleigh pro in the early 1970s? You probably read his name when it was linked as mentor and coach to fellow Glaswegian Robert Millar.
Well, the fact is that ‘Billy B’ is a character who looms large in Scottish cycling for over 40 years.
Has it rung a bell yet?
It’s not that common a name, is it? You think it would stick in your mind. Bilsland. He raced with Roger Pingeon and Walter Godefroot at Peugeot. Aye, that guy. Then he rode for Peter Post at Raleigh in 1974.
It’s still not ringing too many bells, is it?
Sitting in a Glasgow café in the shadow of the Market Cross, Bilsland is curious. “What do you want to speak to me for? It was about 50 years ago when I won the Scottish ‘25’ championship. I was 17.” He pauses and stirs his coffee reflectively. “It was very different back then.” And he laughs. “Bikes had a longer wheelbase!”
Google his name and the odds are that you’ll end up on a pigeon racing website (where it’s W. L. Bilsland) and, if you persevere, you might land on a shonky archive which barely lists his results as a professional rider.
As legacies go, it’s a travesty. Bilsland is part of the pre-internet generation. His achievements have remained tantalisingly off the back, never quite making it into the safety of a group of Google servers.
To fans and cycling historians – particularly in Scotland – Bilsland’s lack of recognition is bewildering, a borderline snub. As a Scot, getting selected to ride for Great Britain in the Peace Race might have been an honour, though back then you had to pay your own way to London. Equally, Team GB expected you to make your own way to represent Britain at the 1971 World Championships at Mendrisio (where he was 14th). Clearly, wheelbase length is not the only thing in cycling that’s changed.
However, suggest this to Bilsland, now retired from the Glasgow bike shop that bears his name, he shrugs and smiles, having made his peace with that world. Cycling politics, cycling headlines and magazine articles are no longer issues that the 68-year-old loses sleep over.
His racing focus is now on his pigeons, an interest that was fostered, almost inevitably, during his time in Belgium. “It was popular in Flanders and northern France, where there was a lot of mining. I reckon the guys came up from a shift and enjoyed the fresh air, doing something that wasn’t too taxing. It’s big in Lanarkshire as well – same thing, there was lots of steel and mining there.”
But it was cycling that made his name and helped set him up as a (pigeon) racer with results, getting recognition on forums for his birds’ performances. If he was miffed by being left out of British Cycling’s 50th anniversary Hall of Fame inductees in 2010, it passed quickly enough.
“They managed to honour a lot of officials, but I never made it,” chuckles Bilsland, who mischievously reckons that an issue with a Union Jack flag, Tommy Simpson’s memorial and a former editor of Cycling Weekly may have dented his profile in the days when it was easy to fall off the media radar.
And there’s the rub. While today’s gilded youth enjoy plane tickets, fast cars and personal managers, press officer-curated websites, instant mobile access to anyone, anywhere, no matter where they are in the world, Bilsland raced and earned a living in 1964 when a flight to Oostende from Abbotsinch (now renamed Glasgow) airport cost £26 and they flew in a Douglas Dakota twin prop plane.
What with email years from being invented, when 18-year-old Bilsland and his fellow travellers went from Glasgow to Gent they entered a twilight zone, living on prize money won in Ingelmunster, Roeselare and anywhere else they rode.
Bilsland turned pro with Peugeot in 1970 – three years after Tommy Simpson had died on Mont Ventoux – with a ‘carte de visite’ that was peppered with impressive British, French and international results.
In the mid to late 1960s, the Peace Race (Berlin-Warsaw-Prague) was in its glory years, before Cold War politics and state-sponsored steroid abuse torpedoed the race’s profile in the UK.
A famously brutal event which was the de facto ‘Tour de France’ for amateur riders, stage races didn’t get any tougher or more prestigious. The bitter intra-national rivalry between the Soviet Bloc countries added fuel to an already high level of competition.
Bilsland is one of only five British riders to win a stage in 59 editions of the race and, in spite of GB’s less than glorious track record there, he was always willing to have a go.
“The first time I rode I was 20 and the opening stage was around Prague. So, they announced a prime when we were all across the road, so I just took off and stayed clear to take it in this wee village, Lidice – I didn’t realise at the time, but it was a special prime in the village where the Germans had shot all the men and boys over 15 as reprisals for someone taking a pot-shot at one of them.
“But I won the first prime of the race that year. I sort of got my hopes up, but coming in to the finish of the stage I got rattled out the back,” says Bilsland with a smile, shaking his head as he recalls his youthful impetuosity.
Bilsland came back for more the following year. “I’d been struggling since the start, coming in with the Mongolian national team some days, finishing well down. One day I got in the break and we were clear – there were only seven of us and I thought ‘Seventh – great!’ Then we went up a hill and there were only three of us left and I thought ‘Third – even better!’
“I knew if I got onto the track first I had a good chance and I won the stage. Next day, the rest of the Brits started attacking, they obviously thought, ‘Well, if he can do it…’” laughs Bilsland, still broad-chested and bright-eyed 46 years after his 1967 win on the cinder track of Liberec stadium.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there weren’t too many Scottish riders making it into British national teams. The fact that Bilsland got to Mexico for the 1968 Olympic Games road race was a measure of his talent, at the age of 22.
“Five of us went but only four were going to ride the race. You know how they selected the final four? Three days before the race, we went out behind a motorbike – at altitude of course – and the first guy to get dropped wasn’t going to get selected.
“So we were riding up this hill just about flat-out, lined out behind the bike and I was tucked in right behind it, first in line. Suddenly I see Dave Rollinson’s front wheel coming up on my left and I knew if I let him push me out I would be off the back.
“But…you know that old adage? That a pedal in the front wheel is a good deterrent? Well, he got the message. In the end poor John Bettison got blown away and didn’t make the team. Funnily enough, in the official record, the fourth man is recorded as Bettison. Bettison never spoke to me again, which was a shame, because I got on well with him, but that’s the way they selected the team for the Games.
“To be honest, we never really saw Maurice Cumberworth who was meant to be managing the team: he was there with his girlfriend, so we never saw him – that’s true!” says Bilsland.
He was clearly a big talent and his career was helped by another key figure in Scottish cycling: administrator, sports politician, deal-maker and (pre-UCI) pro cycling FICP player Arthur Campbell, a man as well-connected to the European and Eastern Bloc seats of cycling power as anyone. Campbell was a good man to have on your side, as Bilsland found out and Robert Millar would later discover too.
With solid stage wins in the Milk Race as well as the Peace Race, a brace of stages in the Tour of Czechoslovakia (“I won the mountain time-trial and took the jersey before the East Germans got organised and I finished fifth”) and with Campbell’s French connections, Bilsland found a place at CSM Puteaux in 1969 where he ended up third in the season-long Mérite Veldor competition for the best amateur in France.
Bilsland had the heart, lungs, legs and the connections to make the grade. But more than that, he also had the psychological profile required to cope with life abroad.
For Anglo riders hoping to make the grade in Europe, mental toughness counted for a lot too: you weren’t going to go home to your mum after a race when you were a Brit, Irishman, Scandinavian or Australian riding for a European team.
Robert Millar was the rider Bilsland coached and mentored en route to his 1980 pro contract with Peugeot. “Oh you definitely needed someone who knew what was waiting for the newbie. You still do,” insists Millar today.
Back when it was time for Millar to quit Glasgow and head to France in 1978, he would find a berth at the Parisian ACBB club which by then had turned into the Peugeot team’s feeder club of choice. Millar had Campbell in his corner, as well as Bilsland, and Millar recognises the role that both played in his career.
“Billy played a different role to Arthur, but then the sum of that was I received the guidance needed on what was required. Billy advised on the toughness and training aspects, prepared me for what lay ahead and Arthur added some kind of control and limits to the required harshness that then developed.
“I know that it might seem strange, as I was a twat at times, but without the political and social awareness that Arthur managed to instil in me, I would have been so much more uncompromising,” recalls Millar.
“The respect I have for Billy is immense, in fact he’s probably the person that I respect the most from the home cycling little world. He’s a seriously underrated rider who, if he had been Belgian, would have had a long career.
“I might have been lucky to have had more basic talent, but Billy was way tougher.”
Extract from issue 47 of Rouleur magazine.