We take a spin with a club packed full of champions

Words by: Trevor Ward

Photos by: James Robertson

Based: Torrance, near Glasgow
Members: 92
Formed: 1925
Meets: Saturdays, 10am, Kirkhouse Inn, Strathblane, for members and friends; Sundays, 9.30am, Kirkhouse Inn, Strathblane, longer club run; Wednesdays April-October, 6.30pm, Torrance Community Centre, training rides, APRs, etc.

We are halfway up the climb to the Duke’s Pass in the Trossachs National Park when a passing rider shouts to me: “You’re on the wheel of an ex-Scottish champion!”

When the gradient finally slackens, I pull alongside Graham Smith and he confirms that he did indeed once hold the Scottish junior record for the 10-mile TT — but that was 34 years ago when he was 16.

“I was also the Scottish schoolboy road race champion at the age of 14,” he says.

“I beat Brian Smith into second place. But then ‘real life’ got in the way, I discovered girls, and I didn’t ride a bike for the next 10 years.”

Graham Smith: “I spent 10 years off the bike but racing has always been in my blood”

Smith resumed road cycling relatively recently, joined the Nightingale and is considering taking up racing again.

He’ll be in good company, as the ’Gales boast a hardcore of about a dozen serious roadmen.

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These range from 17-year-old Hamish Taylor, who had finished third in his first ever road race the previous day, to 52-year-old Graeme Cockburn who, after buying a bike for commuting to work at the age of 25, joined the Nightingale for some “structured training” when he was 40.

“They told me I had the engine, but that it needed some fine-tuning,” he laughs.

The racing theme is reflected in today’s route, which includes many of the climbs featured in the club’s popular Sam Robinson Memorial RR that usually features a summit finish on the Duke’s Pass.

One rider who has made short work of the two-mile climb up it today is 39-year-old Emily Palmer, who last year won the Scottish Women’s Hill-Climb Championships just three years after buying her first road bike.

Emily Palmer: “I turned up for my first club ride in trainers. Now i’m a hill climb champ!”

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“My spin class instructor was impressed by my power output and suggested I get a road bike,” she says.

“I’m naturally competitive anyway so decided to get straight into racing. I joined the ’Gales to get some experience of riding in a bunch.”

But there’s more to the club than racing. Chairman Ronnie Newton tells me it was originally all about touring.

“We still have regular touring weekends, up to the west coast or the Cairngorms,” he says.

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“It’s mainly older members, but some of the younger ones are starting to join us for a break from the pressures of competing and a chance to enjoy the scenery for a change!”

Gary O’Rourke echoes the sentiment, saying: “I used to race, but now it’s about having a cafe stop and enjoying the social side.”

“It’s Scotch broth of course”

Social secretary Lee Vernett called ahead to reserve tables at today’s cafe, but now shakes her head in despair at the lack of chivalry being shown by male members.

“Look, Emily and me are having to stand up while all the men are sitting,” she jokes. At least we think she’s joking.

The club does, however, recognise the important work put in behind the scenes. Last year’s recipient of its annual John Yates Award “for services off the bike” was Dougie Pender, who recruits marshals for the club’s races.

There was stiff competition from other volunteers, including 64-year-old Jim Smith, who regularly travels from the other side of Glasgow to officiate at club events.

The final climb of the day is up the Crow Road, and I find myself on the wheel of another rider with a claim to fame: Ali Fowler recently took the KoM for this segment from John Archibald, rising star of the Scottish race scene and brother of Katie.

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“I did have a favourable wind, though,” he concedes, before effortlessly accelerating away and leaving me to regret that second slice of coffee and walnut cake.

“I’m really not Belgian, honest!”

History

The club was formed in 1925 by a group of cyclists who regularly met in a Glasgow city centre bike shop that was owned by Malcolm Smith, who would become the club’s first president.

He let them use his basement for meetings and allowed the club to adopt the name of a frame he made and sold — the Nightingale, which was his mother’s maiden name.

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This didn’t go down too well with some, as taking the name of a commercial product was considered blasphemy in the golden age of amateurism, but almost 100 years later the ’Gales and their distinctive jerseys are now one of Scotland’s best known clubs. (The Belgian hoops were introduced after two members returned from military service in Belgium raving about how good the colours looked.)


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Following the sale of his business to David Rattray — who went on to produce the famous Flying Scotsman frame — Smith remained a constant on the Scottish cycling scene, holding various official positions within the Scottish Cycling Union and continuing as club president until his death in 1983 at the age of 97.

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His successor, Isabel Campbell, set Scottish competition records at 10, 25, 50 and 100 miles and broke the British women’s 12-hour record twice, in 1946 and 1948.

She rode her last competitive event at the age of 88, by which time she had already been awarded the Scottish Cycling Union’s gold medal and honoured with an MBE for services to cycling.

She continued as club president until her death in January of this year at the age of 103. Since then, Denis Mitchell has been appointed only the third president in the club’s 92-year history.

Thinking of the climbs that lay ahead

Achievements

  • Jim Cooper completed the Everest Challenge in 2016 by ascending the Bealach Na Ba more than 13 times, recording 255km and 8,904 metres in 15hr 38sec.
  • Mel Dickson and Paul Williams rode as a pair in the seven-day Trans Alp Event 2015.
  • David Dalziel won the West of Scotland Cycling Association road race in 2015.
  • Neill Kemp won bronze in the 10km scratch race at the World Masters Track Champs in 2015 (where he was repeatedly asked if he was Belgian because of the club’s colours).
  • Lee Vernett and Neill Kemp completed the 2013 ‘Tour de Force’, an event covering the full course of the 100th Anniversary Tour de France route — 3,800km in exactly 21 days.

The ‘Gales are one of Scotland’s best known clubs thanks to their distinctive Belgian hoops

Ride highlights

1 The Duke’s Pass

It’s tough but it’s an iconic climb for Glasgow cyclists, and it gets easier during its two and bit miles. It threads through glorious, forested countryside and the views on the descent are spectacular.

2 Loch Venachar

A fast, flattish section on the north side of a beautiful loch, this stretch is a welcome respite after the challenge of the Duke’s Pass and offers great views of the rolling countryside to the south.

3 Crow Road

Another toughie, though this is arguably the ‘easier’ side, the initial hairpins will still strain your quads. Try not to get too distracted by the wonderful views on the descent.

Favourite cafe

The early spring sunshine meant we could enjoy our soups, bacon rolls, coffees and home-made cakes at the outdoor tables of the fantastic Rhubarb Lime Delicatessen and Coffee Shop in the pretty village of Kippen. Main Street, Kippen, Stirling FK8 3DN.