1960s Biographies - Ken Laidlaw
by Russell Galbraith
Most people would imagine that when August came last year these two would have had enough of mountaineering with bicycles. Apparently not.., For when they visited the 3,700 foot summit of Mount Vesuvius during a holiday trip to Naples, they took their bicycles with them.
Vesuvius is an active volcano and may erupt at any time. Which could explain why Bradley and Laidlaw took their bikes. Perhaps they thought that if lava began to pour from the giant crater they would reach the bottom quicker on their bikes than on foot.... As a free adaptation of the legend would suggest - see Naples and die, climb Vesuvius and fry!
Details of the British pair's "epic" on Vesuvius were given to me by Laidlaw. Like Bradley, he is a mountain specialist, one of the best amateur grimpeurs in Britain. He is also the most versatile rider racing in Scotland at the present time and one of the finest true all-rounders in all Britain.
Laidlaw is best known for his road racing performances, of course. Last year he was the highest placed British rider in the world's amateur road championship and a member of the four-man road team at the Olympic Games . . . the first Scot to gain this distinction for more than 20 years.
But whatever the race, Laidlaw is capable of winning - which supports his own belief that there should be no strict classification of coureurs. "I don't believe in bracketing people as roadmen, time trialists or even trackmen," he told me. "There are bike riders, and the best of them should be capable of shining in any sphere of competition they care to try.”
Laidlaw's own palmares provide sufficient support for this argument. He has been Scottish road race champion, 100 mile champion twice, record holder at this distance, twice runner-up in the Scottish B.A.R., cyclo-cross champion, and, last year, winner in Scotland of what is normally considered the most specialist of all time trial events, the hill climb championship.
On a wider plain, Laidlaw has raced with distinction in many road events throughout England and in several countries abroad, while he has been third in the Bath Road "100" and placed ninth in the British Best All-rounder competition.
Certainly, Laidlaw has enjoyed an outstanding career as an amateur. I fancy, however, that we may have seen the last of him in amateur competition in this country. He would like to race abroad and it is possible that he will join those Britons who are breaking the hearts of the Bretons in France.
Laidlaw's intention is a full professional career, but he would prefer to gain experience as an independent in France before turning professional. His ambition: the top, with a future Tour de France team place an obvious target.
Laidlaw, who is to be married this month (February), is frank about his hopes for a professional career on the continent. Twenty-five in March, he very sensibly argues that if he is to make any money from his cycling ability he must make a move now or he will be too late.
"I think two years in France would be enough to show me whether or not I could make the grade in professional racing," said Laidlaw. "If at the end of that time I had failed to do as well as I want, I could return to my trade in this country."
The first time I can recall seeing Laidlaw race was in 1957 when he emerged from obscurity to win the Scottish 100-mile championship in record time. I was surprised, therefore, when lie told me that he started racing in 1951 at 15. Racing snaps taken about this time show Laidlaw as a real scrubber - they look so bad, in fact. that he would not let me have them for reproduction! - although before going into the Army he had improved to a reasonable, if still modest, 1-2, 2-7, 4-27 standard, and had managed to win a Law Wheelers "25" in 1955 with a 1-3.
Once dressed in khaki, however, and given time to train properly, Laidlaw suddenly emerged as one of the most aggressive, courageous road-men in British sport.
His Service career started in February, 1957. Five months later he was third in the Richmond "50" won by Geoff Salter. Laidlaw's time was 2-1. A few days later he was fourth in the Army "100" championship with 4-19. Ray Booty won, wi h Bryan Wiltcher and Vin Denson in the other two places.
Thus, at Dundee. although Laidlaw's name was unknown to most people at the start of the Scottish "100" championship, word quickly spread that he had done 4-19 in an Army event during the week - an important pointer to form at a time when Ben Balneaves' Scottish record was 4-15.
Joe Christison, the former Viking independent, was everyone's favourite for the title; but it was Laidlaw, never among the leaders during the first 60 miles, but s.rong as a lion at the end, who won. His time: 4-13-14.
And if few people had heard of this pale, slight soldier before the "100," his name was on every Scottish clubman's lips before the season ended.
Laidlaw's progress was remarkable. In the space of a few weeks during that summer he improved so rapidly that he leaped from near-anonymity to a place among Britain's top amateur roadmen. It was the kind of transition to stardom about which most clubmen can only dream!
Following the "100" championship Laidlaw was selected to ride for the East of Scotland "B" team in the Tour of Scotland. It was too early for Scottish selection and, apparently, the Army felt they did not need him. Not a few people were staggered, therefore, when Laidlaw won the Tour. It was his first road race win. . . .
Next Laidlaw rode 256 miles to win the East of Scotland 12-hour championship. Then came his third place ride, behind Ray Booty and John Finch, in the Bath Road "100."
But it was in the Scottish road race championship that Laidlaw best demonstrated his incredible fighting streng.h and aggressive spirit. Twenty miles after the start, wi h 100 miles still to be ridden, Laidlaw simply rode away from the other competitors to win the championship with more than nine minu es to spare from the runners-up, John Fraser and Archie McPherson.
Nineteen fifty seven was the year of transition; 1958 the year of consolidation for Laidlaw. The Cardiff Empire Games, the Tour of Britain - his first multistage race - and the Manx International .. . these were the premier events in a crowded British calendar . . . and in all of them Laidlaw rode with distinction.
His form was so good that he earned selection for the British team in the Nine Provinces Tour, but the Army would not let him travel.
A year later, however, his progress maintained, Laidlaw earned double selection - for the Tour of Tunisia and the Tour of Sweden. He also took a racing holiday in Belgium and in five events he crashed in two and retired, and was third, eighth and eleventh in the others. Laidlaw enjoyed racing in Belgium but he does not believe it is the place for a British amateur to begin a professional career. "I think it would be too hard and too much of a scramble," he told me.
This year Laidlaw's amateur career probably reached its zenith. His Olympics selection was the culmination of determined and single-minded winter preparation. In addition to racing in hill climbs and cyclo-cross even's - in which he was unbeaten in Scotland! - Laidlaw rode about 300 miles a week - before he started training seriously!
During the season his home successes included the Scottish 100 mile championship for the second time, the West of Scotland road race championship, and excellent eighth and fifth places in the Tour of Britain and the Isle of Man.
Abroad, he was second in the King of the Mountains section of the Warsaw-Berlin-Prague - after winning two primes in one day, over the notorious Wall of Meerane, and at Hohens'ein on the world chamnionshin course, during a 50 kms. break - with Jacobs of Luxembourg and Schober of East Germany. Laidlaw - as 13th on general classification in the Peace Race, with a best stage placing of sixth.
His observations on his experiences at the world championships and Olympics are interesting. He insists that neither the rainbow nor the golden road race was as hard as any single stage in the Warsaw-Berlin-Prague.
"I also thought that the standard of riding at the worlds was much higher than in the Olympics," Laidlaw added. "You find more 'cowboys' in the Olympics than in the worlds, of course. They don't stay with the bunch very long, but while they are there, their inexperience makes them a menace."
Commenting on the road team's comparative failure in Rome, Laidlaw believes that the three week gap, between racing at the worlds championships and taking part in the Olympics, accounts for the team's loss of form. "It certainly took the edge from my fitness," he claimed.
"I had been racing continuously since the beginning of the year, remember," Laidlaw explained. Without serious competition for three weeks my form simply fell away. We had some good training runs. admittedly, and we were able to have a go at one another, but that's not the same as a real race."
Laidlaw has been described as a "wet weather" rider and he admits that he found the heat in Rome almost unbearable. He argues, however, that he has also raced well in hot conditions - instance Tunisia - and insists that it was lack of racing during the all-important period before the Games which possibly cost Britain a medal in the road race.
"Most of the other road teams managed to get in some sort of racing while in Italy," he said. "Some of them had to travel fair distances to do so, it is true, and possibly expense was the reason we didn't do likewise.
"It is a pity, however, for I am certain the British team would have been much better placed if we had done the same," he added.
So far as the team time-trial is concerned Laidlaw doesn't believe that a team of time trial specialists would have done any better in this event than the roadmen who were selected. "They certainly wouldn't have got a place," he told me. "Personally I don't even think they would have been able to work together properly."
Commenting on the team's final 14th placing at the finish, beaten even by the United States, Laidlaw admits that this should have been better. Probably the retirement of Bradley, and the ensuing confusion when Laidlaw returned to help him, believing he had punctured and not knowing about his eye trouble, cost us several places.
He is adamant, however, that even at their best, and without trouble, the British team could not have finished in the first three in this event. "The only reason we were second to Italy at the first turn, only ten seconds slower, was because we started much too fast," Laidlaw declared.
That, then, is a brief look at the career of Ken Laidlaw. To be a success on the continent one cannot afford to specialise, and that is why I am confident he will make the grade if he decides to leave the amateur ranks.
In the year following this article (1961) Ken Laidlaw became a pro in the Margnat-Rochet-Dunlop team and rode that year’s Tour de France. He was the first Scot to complete the race. He continued racing on the European pro circuit in 1962 for same team; then named Margnat-Paloma. However he was not happy with the pro racing conditions and moved to the USA in 1964.
If anyone can add any more then please get in touch