The Third Scottish Cyclist the Two Johns did name

“If you can do this, you can do anything.”Ken Laidlaw on riding the 1961 Tour de france and becoming the first Scottish rider to complete the race.
By Tim A. Rutherford
Coastal Senior
 

Tim A. Rutherford photo
Ken Laidlaw can frequently be seen riding biking through his Windsor Forest neighborhood.

 

The cyclist, who has lived in Savannah for nearly 30 years, learned lessons during the race that have served him ever since.

The aging black-and-white photograph captures a significant slice of time. Frozen forever by the camera, the instant was a high point and a defining life moment for Ken Laidlaw.

In it, the wiry young Scotsman is leading Stage 16 of the 1961 Tour de France, without question the world’s most important cycling event. Three kilometers from the mountainous stage’s finale, Laidlaw lost his power, finishing 19th in the stage, and when the 21-day race ended in Paris, Laidlaw claimed 65th place. Only 72 of the 132 riders who had begin the grueling endurance test finished.

While he did not return to his native Hawick Cycling Club (believed to be the oldest club in continuous existence in Scotland) with the winner’s yellow jersey, he did stake claim to being the first Scot to complete the race – and claim his rightful place in that nations sport’s history. To even ride the Tour was amazing, to finish it almost mythic.

The 1961 course was nearly 800 miles longer than the modern day Tour de France being held July 3-25, but the lessons remain the same.

Ken Laidlaw leading Stage 16 of the 1961 Tour de France.

“In my tour, we averaged 139 miles a day – flat out,” Laidlaw recalled. “If you won a stage, it was your ticket to fame.”

Laidlaw earned a $450 bonus from his stage performance that day, money that “kept me living pretty well in France for another three months.”

But the real payday wasn’t the bonus, or the 45 francs a day he earned as member of Britain’s Tour team. The pay-off was a life lesson.

“You don’t know how deep you can dig,” Laidlaw said, remembering the physical beating given by such a ride. “If you can do this, you can do anything.”

Laidlaw, who also raced two events in the 1960 Olympics on behalf of the British team, went on to race the pro circuit throughout Europe.

Little did he know that the elevation from amateur to professional would be the beginning of the end of his cycling career.

Stephen McGinty photo
From left: Stephen McGinty as a young boy, his father, the late Jimmy McGinty and Ken Laidlaw at a professional road race on Isle of Mann. The photo, according to Laidlaw, was taken in late June 1961.

“Amateur racing was fun. You go off with a team and are catered to every step of the way,” Laidlaw said. “But when you turn pro, you become a one-man business. We’re not businessmen though, we’re athletes.

In the midst of that disillusionment, Laidlaw found himself commiserating with some U.S. cyclists after a Canadian stage race in 1962.

“They asked what I did when I wasn’t racing and I told ’em I was a carpenter,” Laidlaw said. “I was making about a dollar an hour back in Scotland and these guys told me I could make five times that in New York City. It didn’t take an accountant to figure that one out.”

Married and with one child, Laidlaw landed in New York 41 years ago and within two weeks had a job. Five months later, his wife Theresa and baby, Jacqueline, joined him.

Ken and his wife, Terry, are both avid cyclists – and Terry is a master gardener who spends her off-bike time tending her garden.

Prosperity, and two more children, Michelle and Kenneth, followed. But the construction business dipped in 1976, ending good jobs for many union carpenters, including Laidlaw.

“I was stopping off in Savannah to visit a Scottish friend on my way to a new job in Houston,” Laidlaw said. “I visited the local union, they sent me on a job and I never made it to Houston.”

He’s been here ever since, working around the area in various construction jobs, riding his bike – and getting to put that lesson learned in 1961 to the test.

March 31, 1996, Laidlaw rode a 30-mile loop around his Windsor Forest neighborhood, came home, showered and took a nap, “Something I’d done a hundred times.”

He awoke feeling odd, wondering to himself what was wrong until the next day, April Fool’s Day, when a friend called on the telephone, noticed Laidlaw was slurring and suggested he’d had a stroke.

Theresa, known to her friends and former American Red Cross co-workers as Terry, rushed Laidlaw to the hospital where the diagnosis was confirmed. Surgery was on tap to remove a clot from the carotid artery in his neck.

The dye injected for a catheterization procedure caused an allergic reaction, but the worst was right around the corner. The femoral artery, where the incision had been made for the catheterization, ruptured.

“The last thing I remember was seeing the ceiling, then hearing someone say, ‘I’ve got him, he’s back,’ then it was lights out for 10 days,” he said. Laidlaw has an extensive history of stroke in his family, and thought cycling was offsetting his three-pack-a-day Camel habit. Instead, he’d been buying time.

“Smoking was a motivation,” he said from his now smoke-free home. “My incentive to finish a century ride (100-mile recreational rides) was that I could smoke at the finish.”

But, just like in the ’61 Tour, just like in the 1957 Tour of Scotland (when he won despite riding the last mile on a flat tire), Laidlaw dug deeper, fought back and two months later was back on the bike. In what became the longest ride of his life, he spent the next year recovering.

“No. 1 Pine,” is Ken Laidlaw’s mostly wooden bicycle, a send-up to his love of cycling and his career ads a carpenter. He frequently rides and has even pedalbed it in some stages of the Kike Ride Across Georgia.

“My legs felt like they weren’t attached to my body, but I kept pedaling,” he says. “That (his determination) and my physical condition is why I believe I recovered from my stroke.

“It was a turning point in my life. I stopped smoking, retired when I was 62 instead of waiting until I was 65 – I did it by working hard, paying off the mortgage early, getting rid of debt.”

Now, at an age where many consider golf to be strenuous activity, Laidlaw is in the saddle of his bike most days. He’s still lean and wiry, with a stout carpenter’s handshake. He has a penchant for late night fried egg sandwiches and revels in swapping stories or poking good-natured fun at others.

He’s 68 this year, visits his children and four grandchildren, rides recreationally with the Coastal Bicycling Touring Club and travels with Terry – and their bikes. Terry, who says she finally taught Laidlaw to ride slow, is a Master Gardener who nurtures her own garden when not biking or practicing yoga.

The couple has a full life.

“I have an appointment book now – and it seems like it always full,” Laidlaw says. “I never had one until now.”

The couple’s full lives and happiness come as a result of the obstacles they overcame – many using the lessons Laidlaw learned as a young cyclist. But the memory of that day in 1961 remains clear – and his interest high as this year’s Tour de France gets underway.

French and Italian riders dominated the 1961 Tour, which had its own superstar – not unlike this month’s race. Jacques Anquetil took home his second yellow jersey in ’61 and went on to become its first five-time winner. On July 3, American Lance Armstrong will attack the 20-stage race in his bid for title No. 6 – and the new record for most wins.

And despite the technological leaps made in bike manufacturing, aerodynamic design, nutrition and sports medicine, Laidlaw says the Tour is still about one thing:

Money.

Ken Laidlaw’s bookcases are filled with photos, memorabilia and cycling awards. The photograph in the front is the 1960 British Olympic cycling team on which Laidlaw rode. From left are the late Bill Bradley, of South Port, England; Bill Holmes, Hull, England; Jim Hinds, London; and Laidlaw.

“It’s a sport, but the bottom line is money. The bikes are lighter, but not that much so,” Laidlaw said. “Sure, the training has been refined but there’s no substitute for doing the miles.”

Laidlaw calls it “flat out riding.”

“It’s about a whole lot of pain, it’s not fun.”

And whether it’s the training, the diet or the equipment – or the shorter course – Anquetil won the 1961 race averaging 23.5 miles per hour. Armstrong’s pace in 2003 would have beaten Anquetil by more than two hours. So would his payday, which combined with endorsements, propels the Texan into the elite levels of sports earnings.

Laidlaw would bet a few francs that Armstrong repeats.

“I believe Armstrong will win it,” he says, “If he can stay healthy for three weeks, he’s got the edge.”

Laidlaw will be watching the race this year from his sofa, the best way to see the event, he says. And he’ll be reliving the course, which follows many routes he has ridden himself.

Oh, and he’ll be reliving the pain too, but this time with the bittersweet knowledge that the lessons these young lions take away will last them a lifetime.


Ken Laidlaw’s Cycling CareerLaidlaw claimed his first title, a time trial, when he was 14 years old. Three years later he was Hawick Cycling Club champion – besting adult club members for average time over the season.

Title after title began to fall to the speeding young rider from the border town of Hawick and newspapers trumpeted his accomplishments: “Hawick Cyclist A Worthy Champion,” “Ken Runs Away with ‘120’.” Then National Service called and Laidlaw showed up for training in the Royal Tank Corps with his bike in tow.

“…whenever someone would tell me, ‘You can’t beat him,’ or ‘You can’t do that…,’ it would make me that much more determined to prove them wrong,”

“And the Army let me ride,” Laidlaw said. “I really had an advantage over other riders because I was training all the time.” Riding for the Army, he claimed record after record and, while on leave or between Army races, he continued to speed past competitors – and honed his skills as a tank driver.

During these years, it was not unusual for Laidlaw to log 300-mile plus weekends. He would bike to a race one day, ride the race, then bike home or back to base. “We didn’t think of it as distance, it was time,” Laidlaw recalled. I could leave the base and be home in six hours.”

Laidlaw toppled record after record and kept winning, earning a spot on Britain’s 1960 Olympic Cycling team and, ultimately, a ride in the Tour de France.

He turned pro not long after, leaving his young bride with friends in England and hop-scotching across Europe, racing wherever his agent could book a race – time trails, stage races, criteriums. But suddenly, racing wasn’t necessarily about condition or skill, it, according to Laidlaw, became more about politics and egos and saving face for once-prominent riders who had aged beyond their prime. The luster was gone, and Laidlaw gave up pro racing barely 11 years after he had won his first race.

The faded clippings read like a sports encyclopedia with one exception: These pages chronicle the story of an apparent underdog who prevailed time and time again – often to the bewilderment of his competitors and the media.

Why?

“I was a minority, I was racing out of anger,” Laidlaw remembers.

The historic denigration of Scots by the English continued even into cycling. And when Laidlaw landed on the shores of continental Europe, he found cyclists there, predominately Frenchmen and Italians, had little respect for riders from across the channel.

“But whenever someone would tell me, ‘You can’t beat him,’ or ‘You can’t do that…,’ it would make me that much more determined to prove them wrong,” he said

 

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2 Responses

  1. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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