Retro: Super-Sid Barras Gets PEZ’d!
“Merckx was buying the drinks and handing the cigarettes round.” So says Super-Sid as he regales our Al Hamilton with stories from his pro career that included 197 wins. This is a great read about pro cycling life in the 1970’s, so settle in for a treat…
After interviewing one of my heroes, Freddy Maertens, last month, I was lucky enough to be working on a training camp with one of my other heroes, a rider who won nearly as many races as Freddy. In 18 years Sid Barras had 197 Pro wins and has over 300 wins in all his years astride a bike.
After a ride around the mountains of Costa Blanca under blue Spanish skies with a group of cyclists on the Sports Tours training camp, I managed to have a few words with Super-Sid. Luckily his other love; Middlesbrough FC were not playing so we could talk.
Super Sid enjoying the Spanish sun.
PEZ: You beat Eddy Merckx, tell us about that day?
Sid: 1977, the Eastway Circuit, there was Merckx, Didi Thurau who was the new kid on the block; yellow jersey in the Tour and a hell of a good rider. Poulidor and Ocaсa came over; there must have been a dozen top continental riders. The race was 100 kilometres of 40 or 50 laps of a hard circuit with a climb every lap. I’d won the last seven races on the trot and I was determined to win, not just to beat Eddy Merckx, but to win. I made the mistake of showing my cards a bit early by winning a couple of big primes, then a break formed with Merckx, Thurau, Lambert, Bayton and I think young Steve Leek was there, we got clear and I remember Thurau had a lap out or even two and he came back in after a puncture and was just in front of the group but we never made contact, he had to ride hard to stay out there, Merckx didn’t contribute, but attacked on the last climb, I managed to get across to him, went straight round him and won the sprint. To be fair it was a criterium, it wasn’t Paris-Roubaix or anything and Eddy was past his best by then. It was good for me, I got a lot of publicity and he was very gracious.
In Yellow at the 1977 Scottish Milk Race.
That reminds me of another great memory, we were riding the Kellogg’s races and we were lined up in Manchester and I knew Merckx, who had retired, was there because he was coming to Ireland for the next race we were riding, anyway, the next thing there’s an arm goes round my shoulder and its Eddy Merckx! He remembered me from Eastway. He asked if we would be in Dublin and suggested we get together with some of the guys, he was, so after the race we were in the same hotel, got in a few taxi’s and went into town for a bit of a session. Pat McQuaid was in the team and he new some good places, Merckx was buying the drinks and handing the cigarettes round. I remember Shane Sutton collapsed on the table and Merckx picked his head up by his long hair and said “Shane, I think you are a dead man!” and dropped his head back onto the table with a bang. We drank a lot of beer that night, probably till 4 in the morning; trouble was we had to catch the ferry back to Fishguard to drive across England for another race. It’s not everyone can say they have been on the piss with Eddy Merckx! I asked him one question, “Eddy if you had been riding this circuit at your best”; I didn’t ask if he would have won, that would have been an insult, “how much would you have won it by?” Kelly was there and Roche. He looked up and said “two laps!” and he would have done! He was the “Cannibal” and a nice guy. I don’t do hero worship, but Merckx was the best! He wanted to win every race, in ’72 he rode a full season probably winning 50 races, he’d have had three weeks rest and bang! Taken the hour record, unbelievable and inspirational.
PEZ: In all your years as a Pro which of your many wins gave you the most pleasure?
Sid Barras: I’ve been racking my brains over this one, but I would say it has to be the British National Pro Champs of 1979 because it took me 10 years to win it! I also won the Crit Champs that year in its inaugural year. I was 31, but they didn’t have a Crit Champs when I was at my fastest in my 20’s! The road Champs gave me a lot of pleasure, it had a great field that year, all the top were there, all the riders from the continent; Barry Hoban, Graham Jones, Paul Sherwen, John Herety, it was pouring down with rain and I out-sprinted them, a group of five at the finish, that was in Telford in Shropshire. I remember Barry protested, he reconed I switched him, but he just didn’t have the legs! There were others, but that’s The One!
PEZ: Which win would you say was your biggest or most important?
That would have to be my stage win in the Tour of Switzerland; it gave me the yellow and the green jersey, so I wore the yellow the next day and green the day after. The following day was a road stage followed by a Mountain Time trial in the afternoon. Unfortunately I was pulled back by my jersey in the sprint by this Italian rider and was 4th in a sprint I would have won. I can’t remember if I rode the mountain TT in the yellow or green. We rode in a combined team of Bantel and Holdsworth and in that first stage there was a group of 29 away with two big climbs, my team mate, Colin Lewis (Holdsworth) helped me a lot, gave me a push when he could, it was a long uphill drag of a sprint to the finish. Yea, it was good for my profile.
Remember I went from Britain straight to Switzerland, which was difficult on the race calendar we had with a mixture of Crits and RR’s, so we didn’t have the preparation for a race like the Tour of Switzerland, which was a heavy race. Van Springel was second to me on that stage and the Spanish climber, Manuel Fuente won overall. Aye! Good memories!
PEZ: Which is your favourite memory of your cycling career?
I’ve got some great memories; it’s difficult to pick them out, and they’re not necessarily winning races! I would say riding a Crit on Morecambe Prom in 1973. We were warming up following this pipe band playing for pre-race publicity, I looked over to my left and there was a group of girls laughing at us and one was my future wife Linda. I was riding with Dave Rallinson (good bike rider); I said “I fancy her!” Of course him being a cheeky Scouser (someone from Liverpool-Ed) he went straight over (much to my embarrassment) and say’s “he fancies you and his name is Sid!” and that was it, we married and we’ve been together for 36 years, and I won the race as well!
PEZ: And the worst?
That has to be the death of my team mate Dave Broadbent in 1979, he crashed in a race and died, a bad memory that I’d rather not elaborate on it.
PEZ: You went to race for the Dutch based Raleigh team in 1974, but it didn’t work out, was Peter Post (Team Director) that bad?
It just didn’t work, it was a disaster really, Post basically wanted an all Dutch/Belgian team. I’ll give you one instance of what kind of manager Post was; in those days you used to go down to the south of France for the so-called training races in the sun, probably in the 3rd or 4th event, I won the bunch sprint for 4th place, it was a big bunch sprint and I was really pleased, I turned around and went to Post in the team car and I said “I was 4th Peter” he just shrugged and said “you didn’t win, uh!” Well, that was the start, all he had to say was “well done lad, next time you might win”. I gathered from then what was going on. We had been in the south of France for about three weeks training and racing, we had to get back up to Gent for the start of Het Volk, we had maybe 2 days to get back, the team was split maybe six Belgians and six Brits. Well, they flew back and we had to go in the van, when we got there we had nowhere to stay, so we slept in what I think was a brothel the night before Het Volk, one of the other riders cracked up pretty bad, that was the kind of treatment we got from Peter Post! At the big races the mechanic would put the best wheels in for the other riders and we would get the training wheels with flats in the rims.
I was talking to Billy Bilsland recently, he was in that team and he said “all Peter Post had to do was get you to the finish and you would probably have won!” But he got his way in the end; admittedly he had some good wins; the Tour and Classics with Zoetemelk, Kneteman, Raas and Kuiper. He didn’t want British riders, I came back, got married and picked myself up and started again and the rest of my career was good.
PEZ: Do you think Pro cycling is better or worse now than in your day?
Its different, better organised, dare I say it, more professional. But there are a lot of things I don’t like, race radios and some of the long Tour stages are boring. I grew up watching Anquetil and there was some kind of mystique with those riders, but not now it’s all too “professional”, I’d throw the earphones out, cut the teams down to six riders, it would make the racing more open. I watch the Tour, but certain stages, I can’t watch 5 hours, I’d rather watch English Premier League football (soccer).
PEZ: When you were a Pro which riders impressed you the most?
I was a Pro 1970 to ’87 and I rode against some great British Pro’s, the early days there was “King” Albert Hitchin, Les West, Colin Lewis and Arthur Metcalf (no longer with us) from the same neck of the woods as me, he also sold us both pensions I think Alastair? Brian Jolly he was an animal on a bike. Then we had Keith Lambert who was a great professional, Phil Bayton “The Engine” he didn’t win so many races, but by God he could race all day. Then a little later on we had Steve Joughin and Shane Sutton and Malcolm Elliot what a talent, Chris Walker was so stylish and what a talent! I don’t think he realised how good he was.
Chris Lilywhite, (Cell) an absolute talent, they were real talented riders. Of course Tim Harris who wasn’t the most talented rider, but he was so gutsy and made the most of what he had. Dave Rayner, yea what a loss and he hadn’t reached his full potential, big loss to cycling. Abroad there was Kelly, Van Springel, so many good riders, oh! and Freddy Maertens, the first time I met Freddy was in the Tour of Mallorca ’78 and I won a stage and beat his team mate Marc De Meyer and Freddy was 3rd, it looks like I beat him in the sprint but I didn’t I was just away, but he was a tremendous rider. He won 13 stages in that Tour of Spain and overall. He has to be one of the best roadman sprinters. Its was good times with a lot of good riders.
PEZ: And the Lance question?
I don’t really know, it’s not about the money. At first I thought he has it all to lose and nothing to gain, but then why not? So if he doesn’t win the Tour he has already won it seven times. He’s probably missing it, the regime, the camaraderie; he’s just that sort of guy isn’t he? Also it’s for cancer awareness which is great.
PEZ: Your son, Tom, raced in Belgium for quite a few years, did you give him advice? If so what was it?
He did 6 years in Belgium and we used to deals me and Tom, he was brought up with bike racing and he loved his bike, so I said if he didn’t do well at school he wouldn’t get any more bike gear! So he did well at school, got a good degree and went to Belgium. Before he went I told him what he would be up against, I painted a pretty black picture actually, there are a lot of things that go on, not all pro riders but a few of them do things and I told him what to expect. Off he went, the Dave Rayner fund supported him and give him all the credit he stuck it out for those six years and got some great life experience there, he met some great people and I think he enjoyed it. I said to him its not all about today, there is always tomorrow and the next day. We used to take the camper van over and park it in front of Tim Harris’s house and watch some races, I enjoyed it and I know Tom loved it.
PEZ: You’ve seen a lot of changes in British cycling over the years, is it better now? Is road racing on British roads becoming impossible?
There are a lot of problems on the roads in Britain, I was talking to my son Tom last night and he said they had to cancel the race last weekend because the cars were driving at the riders. British Cycling have enough money, they are well funded, they could get around the table with the police and sort out a certain amount of races that could be properly controlled to make it safe for the riders. They’ve got the money so there are no excuses. There are quite a few televised criteriums this summer, I’ll be watching them, they are great because the British public don’t really understand stage racing.
PEZ: What do you think about the British Cycling/Sky Pro team that’s being talked about?
It’s got to be good hasn’t it? Realistically they’ve got some fantastic young talent, Cav (Mark Cavendish) for a start, if they have the money, the right riders and the correct back-up team then the sky is the limit! It’ll take a few years, I wish when I was 23 some thing like that would have come my way, I wish them all the best.
PEZ: You are on the committee of the Dave Rayner fund that helps young riders, who have been the success stories?
This is the 14th year of the Dave Rayner fund and we all know the reason why we started it, because of the premature death of Dave and I think we have sponsored well over 100 riders and about 22 this year. If you look at the Tour of Britain last year; there was 14 riders racing that had been Rayner funded. There has been David Millar, Charley Wegelius, Jamie Burrow, so some very good riders. You have to remember that there are many you don’t hear so much about, I always say to them “none of you fail, you’ve gone over there and you have tried it, maybe you come back but you tried it!” It’s difficult getting into a Pro team, probably our big success last year was Matt Brammeier, he had four wins after coming back from a terrible accident and now he is with the Sean Kelly team (AN Post) and Nikki Harris, his girlfriend, she won about 40 races last year, people like that have done really well.
Sid is still in great shape.
PEZ: You are GB national road champion in the 60+ year olds and you were 3rd at the World championships last year. What keeps you motivated with over 300 wins under your belt?
I’ve always liked to be in shape, since Tom came back from Belgium we meet up about 2 or 3 times a week and we have a great group of guys and that’s good and like this weekend we can actually race in the same event, which is nice even if he is at the front and I’m at the back just trying to get round. I enjoy it, never act your age! A lot of my old school mates are dead now and can’t ride a bike.
PEZ: Any regrets?
No, none, I’d do it just the same, I was never in it for the money, I just loved the sport. You get pissed off with certain aspects of the sport. When I’ve made a mistake I’ve paid the price. I loved it; I met a lot of nice people, including you Alastair! I met my wife through cycling, my sons cycle, my dad was a cyclist; my granddad was a cyclist, so….
I like to ride my bike and watch the Premiership!