Grass Track memories
Grass track racing was once very popular in Ireland, particularly in the counties of Cork, Kerry and Waterford. The OldVelos hope to run an event during their Festival of Cycling in Curraghmore House on the 28th August. This will be the first grass track event since 1986. In this post Liam Plante shares his memories of the Golden Days of grass track in Co Cork:-
Ever since I was a young boy I dreamed of owning my own bike. I was forever envious of my pals and their mounts, but I did manage on occasions to borrow one or get a crossbar to school. The most popular bicycles at the time included Raleigh, Rudge, Hercules, Triumph, Sun, Phillips and Elswick. Many other makes too, that I have long forgotten.
Sports days in Cork
My big moment came in 1959 when my older brother Tom got a job in the local textile factory, and I inherited his Rudge as he had just bought a Hercules Jack of Clubs sport bike. My god how I envied him. It was around this time that sports days started to become popular in the general Cork area, and they were very well received by the public. I had by now taken a keen interest in competitive cycling and yearned for the day that I would have a proper sports bike unlike my old trusty Rudge. Can you imagine my joy on that day in 1961 when I was informed by my late Mother that there was a small inheritance left to me by my Grandfather which amounted to £25.00.
A fantastic and magical journey
Yes you have guessed it, I headed straight to Colums shop in Youghal and lashed out £18.00 for a Hercules Kestrel road bike. Little did I know then that this would be the start of a fantastic and magical journey that would last me for many years on the tracks and roads of Ireland. As a sixteen year old earning £2.00 a week it was not easy to kit yourself out, and I had to hire a pair of cycling shoes from an ex-competitor at a cost of 2 shillings a day. I eventually purchased them for a pound! Similarly when it came to cycling shorts, I got a pair knitted by a local lady, believe me when I say that they were not known for their comfort .
My first grasstrack bike is born
One evening my father arrived back from work and looked in disbelief as I had my new Hercules stripped down in the yard. It took me a lot of convincing to explain to him that I wished to take part in track racing and that gears were not allowed. I eventually won the debate and thus my first track bike was born. By now my brother Tom had acquired a Carlton Clubman and was putting in some serious spins on it. I now came to realise that my improvised track machine was of little use, firstly because of the weight factor and secondly the 27×1¼” steel wheels. By now I had decided that if I were to progress, I would need a more appropriate bike.
The Carlton love affair begins
Hennessy’s in Youghal were Carlton agents and I purchased a Carlton Sprinter track bike which cost £41.00, this was savage money at the time, when men’s Raleigh’s were selling at £14.00. Two years later I upgraded to a Carlton Flyer at a cost of £60.00. By now the better cycles were showing dividends with my brother winning 2 county medals in 1963 and myself winning a county first and second that same year. A lot of the Youghal riders opted for Carlton cycles as they were relatively cheap to purchase, compared to the top models of the day, which included makes such as Claud Butler, Viking, Mercian and numerous other brands that were hand built in Great Britain. Even today, at 75 years I still ride a Carlton touring bike from the 1960s. [Ed note: Liam is still looking for a Carlton Flyer to replace his, if anyone has one please contact OldVelos!]
A mixed bag of tracks
The tracks that we raced on were a mixed bag. The usual fields were the local GAA pitches which were kindly donated for the day and were usually of a high standard. However contrary to that there were smaller communities who were given facilities by local farmers to hold their sports days, and they left a lot to be desired. We raced in fields that sloped, fields that had hills, and even a field that had boggy ground in one corner. However, at the end of the day it was the same for every rider.
Devil take the hindmost
Track racing was a great spectator sport, as the spectators were able to follow the whole race from start to finish. This was also a great boost to the competitors as the crowd shouted for their favorites. From a riders point of view races were short, and the furthest distance that I recall was a 5 mile race which took about twenty five minutes depending on the pace. Compare this with the road men who spent hours in the saddle. Another great race to watch was the Devil take the Hindmost where the riders were given the bell to sprint after every few laps and the last man past the line had to drop out. I cannot remember how the distances were calculated, but I can say that they were gruelling events, and a lot depended on how good a sprinter you were.
The ½ mile open championship
Another great race was the half mile open championship which was normally run over two laps. It was pure excitement to see the riders actually balancing on their mounts after the start, where they basically watched each other to see who would lose their nerve and make a break for it, then the rest of the field were down on them like a pack of hounds. Looking back on my own performance during races I had the nasty habit of leading the field to get my picture in the local paper which cost me dearly. I soon learned that it was best to lie in third or fourth place until the bell and then move out in order to sprint for the line.
We were never that fussy about gear ratios, but I do recall bringing a small bag of sprockets to meetings. I know there is a formula for calculating the correct gears, but I have long forgotten how to use it. Normally I would have 14 to 22 fixed wheel sprockets. After a few test runs of the track a suitable gear was decided.
Prizes varied from meeting to meeting, with the best prizes on offer at the open meetings where there were lot of perpetual trophies also on offer. I will never forget the amount of sets of drinking glasses and fruit bowls and sets of china that were put up in the novice events, and of course there were always a few clocks as well. I did see a bicycle tyre as a prize. Some of the open sports had better prizes on offer, and it was not unusual to see suit lengths on offer. Occasionally you would see envelopes which I am sure contained cash, however I never found out what was in them.!!!.
In those days a good few riders cycled long distances to meetings, raced and cycled home up to 30 miles each way. I recall an incident where I wanted to attend a meeting in Fermoy and had no way of getting there, and I did not want to cycle. So, I contacted a friend who borrowed a James motorcycle and ferried me and my bike to Fermoy. There I was on the back pillion with the frame over my shoulder and the wheels hanging on the bars. I did not get a result on the day, and I must also add that the motorcycle was borrowed without the owner’s consent, so how could I have had luck.
Clubs and Riders
Back in the early sixties most small communities and towns had a sports day, which was most likely the high point of their year. The bigger clubs at the time held the better sports days. I remember with great fondness such sport venues as Fermoy, Blarney, Youghal, St Finbarrs, Star Wheelers. These clubs also produced the finest trackmen as well, and I recall such names as Martin Maher, Barry Dorgan, Tom Pratt , Pat Reidy, Jerry Rea, Michael Stack, Mick Thomey, Mick Hegarty, Michael O Connor and of course the great Frank O Sullivan who retired virtually unbeaten from the sport. Needless to say there were other greats there, whose names evade me at this moment in time, but these were the ones that stand out in my memory. The official starters at the time were Jack Keniry for Novice events, and the open events were conducted by Bill Nestor
A beautiful girl from Bantry…
In conclusion I must say that I enjoyed my cycling time immensely. While I did not win a whole lot I was always there or thereabouts. The climax of my career was my County Championship wins. I always felt that I gave up when I was coming in to my best form. I suppose I can blame a beautiful girl from Bantry whom I met at a dance in Youghal in 1965. I realised straight away that it had to be the bike or her, she won, and we are now married for 52 years.
- Liam Plante