‘Without us you ain’t gotta race!’
BUT, we can’t all be big sprinting/hard climbing/glam winners who get our faces on the pages of Cycling Weekly and International Cycle Sport.
Enter Ged Dennis; 80’s professional racing cyclist with a tale of monkeys, IOU’s, unheated bedrooms, gifts from the Gods and … choreography.
How did you get into cycling, Ged?
“It was a long time ago!
“That would be when I was five or six year-old; but when I went to secondary school at 12 or 13 we were lucky because we had a national schoolboy champion to look up to – Jeff Shaw, he was the British schoolboy cyclo-cross champion, a protégé of the great ‘cross rider, Mick Stallard.
“Jeff gave us someone to idolise and try to emulate.”
You were a good junior in the late 60’s and progressed into being a good roadman in the 70’s.
“I stuck at it and was passionate, I used to read everything I could about the sport, devour all the magazines.
“I wasn’t a bad runner as well but used to cycle to school then cycle home for lunch and back so I was doing maybe 25/30 miles every day.
“Then on the weekends we’d do 100 mile runs – no problem.
“As a senior I won a lot of local races, I guess my best result was a stage win in the Tour of Ireland.”
“I’d been seduced by tales of Belgium from guys like John Aslin and had to experience it for myself.
“The first time was 1967, one of my buddies and I packed saddle bags pedalled to the ferry with just 30 or 40 quid between us.
“We rolled off the ferry, picked up the road to Ghent but couldn’t understand why people in the passing cars were tooting their horns and gesticulating at us.
“Then the police pulled us in and explained that we were on the motorway!
“We stayed at a well-known cyclist hotel but the guy who ran it, despite the hype around him – he’s no longer with us so we won’t name him and speak ill of the dead – wasn’t a nice person.
“And the racing was savage. I’d been a capable schoolboy and junior in England but when you went over there it was just so aggressive; and the road surfaces were terrible – cobbles and concrete section.”
How did the pro contract come about?
“As a senior I used to win local races but when I’d ride the Star Trophy events I’d be top 20 but not capable of winning them – but you were up against guys like Bob Downs, Steve Lawrence and John Clewarth.
“However, in 1981 I had a really good season with 16 wins, the Cycling Gods must have looked down and thought; ‘this boy’s been banging his head off a brick wall for 20 years, let’s give him a decent season!’
“Patrick Schils who was an equipment importer noticed me and it through him I got the contract with Xaveer Coffee-Viner-Regina-Tigra for 1982.
“The Viners were nice bikes, very popular with the East Europeans whilst Tigra was a London based equipment import company.”
Tell us about life with Xaveer Coffee…
“Best described as, ‘living on your wits!’
“The guy behind the team had figured out that whilst you perhaps couldn’t get teams into the very highest level races there were a lot of quality second string races which paid good start money – and that went straight into his bank account.
“He’d smooth talked his way into getting the equipment for the team supplied and he owned some houses in Belgium – one in Leuven and one in Aarschot so it didn’t cost him anything to accommodate us.
“And he owned a restaurant where we got fed, the grub was OK but the rooms were unheated; occasionally, very occasionally he’d actually give us some money.
“The thing is, you’re there and fighting to get some results so maybe you can move up to a better setup?
“The French used to call that sort of thing riding ‘a la musette’ – you got a jersey, a bike (if you were lucky), but no tyres.”
Any palmarès to speak of?
“I cracked the top 50 in Het Volk and top 30 in Fayt-le-Franc, now that’s better known as the ‘Memorial Samyn’ which Matteo Trentin won recently.
“Remember though that you were up against some of the finest riders of the era – Fons De Wolf, Marc Sergeant…
“I rode some famous races though – Paris-Camembert and the Tour du Midi Pyrenees in France, for instance
“But it was hard. The unheated room didn’t help, and it seemed to rain every day – you would look in the mirror and ask yourself; ‘why am I doing this to myself?’
“But you know, there were guys there with a worse lot – the Aussie and Kiwi guys were just so hard, they’d sleep in a garage or in the back of a van and fight for a few primes to make ends meet.
“The team folded and I came home, dispirited.”
But you were back on the British pro scene in ’83, ‘Ged Dennis Signs’ on the maillot?
“I organised some sponsors for myself and Poyner’s bike shop in Wolverhampton supplied me with equipment, they then became my title sponsor for the next two years.
“People saw me race on the Poyner frame and it brought trade in. I guess some of my other sponsors saw me banging away and took pity; ‘we’ll give this guys some help…
“I still get folks remembering me from my time on the British pro circuit.”
The British pro scene perhaps wasn’t at the strongest in that era?
“No, a lot of the guys on ‘big’ teams were on a pittance and sometimes the fields were so small, maybe two dozen of us might turn up for a crit.
“There was a little ‘choreography’ going on; we’d get our opportunities but we didn’t take liberties when it came to the finish though.
“Some of the guys who organised the races were monkeys. One chap – another who’s dead now so I won’t name and speak ill of him – used to get the prize money from the sponsors and use it to pay his bills.
“When you approached him to get your start money you’d get a brown paper envelope from him with a little bit of paper in it, ‘I.O.U. £25.’
“That happened all the time and you practically had to pin him to the wall and threaten him to get any money out of him.
“I quit before the ‘86 season.”
But at 69 years-of-age your still banging the miles in?
“I’m closing in on 70 now but it’s my passion, I still love it, I do about 200 miles each week but I’m not so keen to go out if it’s raining – getting soft!”
We heard you had a health scare a year or two ago?
“About 10 years I knocked on my mate’s door for us to go out for a ride and the next thing I remember I was waking up in hospital – I’d had a heart attack.
“I was lucky, a para-medic was passing and was with me in four minutes, he saved my life.
I’ve always kept my self quite trim so it wasn’t to with my life style, ‘congenital cholesterol’ caused it – I’m on all sorts of pills now.”
Looking back, anything you’d do differently?
“Not really, I’ve come to realise that basically, I was born with a crap body!
“Unless you’re born with the right ingredients you’ll never be a superstar; what got me through was my passion and the fact that I’m a fighter – I just kept going!”
It just goes to show, the best interviews don’t always come from the biggest stars – with thanks to Ged for an entertaining and informative telephone conversation.