Billy Kerr - a cycling legend who went the extra mile

BILLY Kerr made a huge impact on the Irish cycling scene, particularly during a five season period between 1978 and 1982 when he won all the major honours in Ireland and had some notable international performances too, writes Ballymena Times cycling correspondent Richard Wilson.

These successes included winning the Tour of the North in 1978 and 1979, the Sealink International in 1979, the Tour of Ulster in 1980 and 1983, the National all Ireland road race championship in 1982 and the Tour of Ireland also in 1982.

He competed in two Commonwealth Games; Edmonton in 1978 and Brisbane in 1982 and also at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980.

However Billy’s successes didn’t come quickly and he had to apply much hard work and dedication before beginning to reap the rewards.

I first met Billy Kerr when I joined Ballymena Road Club in 1972 by which time he was beginning to make his mark in time trial events.

Eleven years earlier the first recording of Billy’s name had appeared in the Ballymena Road Club results book when, on 19th April 1961, as a 16 year old he recorded 26 minutes 29 seconds for a 10 miles time trial on the Broughshane Road course.

Billy enjoyed just three seasons as a junior when he was forced to give up the sport because of a bad back.

He was able to return after receiving treatment from the then Glentoran physiotherapist Bobby McGregor who, as Billy puts it, sorted the problem out.

That return came in 1970 after seven years away from cycling and after a couple of seasons, as an average club rider, he started to dominate his own club’s results and in 1973 won seven club events.

I recall one, fairly modest, result which really pleased Billy at the start of the 1973 season.

I traveled along with Billy and Jimmy Nesbitt in Jimmy’s red mini, bikes on the roof, front wheels and kit bags on the back seat, to the road racing league event at Annaclone.

This Annaclone event still opens the road racing season in Northern Ireland and on that memorable day, when the entry fee was 20 pence, Billy finished in a lofty sixth position. He was really made up and we were given a blow by blow account of the race as we made our way home – a journey which included running out of petrol!

1973 was a watershed for Billy as he finished eighth in the road man’s BAR and was second in the second category road man’s BAR. This earned him a first category licence for 1974.

In time trialing Billy won the NI 100 miles time trial championship (his brother Sammy took the bronze) and finished second in the 50 miles title race. This took him to second place in the NICF time trial’s BAR behind Joe Smyth.

The following season, 1974, he won more or less every Ballymena Road Club time trial he took part in.

His first open success came that same season when, as a 29 year old, and on a bike he borrowed from Morris Foster, he won the John Beggs memorial road race at Dromore.

Billy won the 50 and 100 miles NICF championships in 1974 and was third in the road race title race and was runner up, this time behind Aidan McKeown, in the time trial’s BAR.

In August 1974 Billy rode the Tour of Ireland and finished a lowly 60th.

In 1975 he improved his Tour of Ireland performance to finish 9th and people were starting to take notice.

1975 produced ten open time trial wins and his first Northern Ireland Cycling Federation time trial best all rounder Championship title.

Billy, and those around at the time, remember 1975 if only for one bizarre incident.

Billy was riding in the National (All Ireland) 25 miles time trial championship, on the Limavady road in Londonderry on 3rd May that year, and was speeding towards his first ever Irish 25 title when his dentures fell out of his mouth!

Now dentures are an expensive piece of kit and, being a Ballymena man, Billy didn’t want to have to buy replacements, so he pulled up, turned around and gathered up the discarded ivory and continued to race.

Amazingly he still managed the bronze medal finishing just 16 seconds slower than the winner, Dubliner Mick Toolan!.

1976 was even better and saw Billy win his first NICF road race championship and he finished the 1976 season as roadman’s best all rounder champion and successfully defended his time trial BAR championship.

In 1977 Billy started to race further a field and he finished 21st in the tour of Britain, 5th in the Manx International road race, which was held over three laps of the famous T.T. circuit on the Isle of Man.

He also rode the Pro-Am Scottish milk race in which he was 26th and at the end of the season notched up his best result to date with an excellent runner up placing in the tour of Ireland.

Billy again won the roadman’s BAR in 1978 and won the NICF 25, 50 and 100 miles time trial titles and was runner up, again to Aidan McKeown, in the time trial BAR championship.

Billy also famously won the Tour of the North stage race over the Easter weekend in 1978 and this was his biggest win up to that time.

In 1978 Billy was a member of the Ireland team for the World Road Race Championships in Nurburgring in Germany.

He recalls: “We flew into Düsseldorf on the Monday and when we landed our manager Phil O’Brien, after checking if we knew where we were going, instructed us to ride to our hotel which was 80 miles away. We had plenty of time as the race wasn’t until the Wednesday so off we went, all six riders including Stephen Roche and myself.

“This was a great idea, we all headed off, all clad in our green jerseys. The road had a great surface and was really smooth and we were enjoying the ride but every so often a car would beep its horn; we thought they were just being friendly.

“Then this car came along side and the driver instructed us to pull over. He was an off duty policeman who asked us what we were doing. We told him we were over for the World championships and were riding to the Nurburgring. He informed us that there were two things wrong. One was that we were on the Autobahn and the other was that we were going in the wrong direction! He was a great help though and turned us around and told us to follow him until we got on to the proper route.”

1979 was the year that Billy had what he considered was his greatest success, victory in the Sealink International stage race, which came immediately after his second Tour of the North victory.

“I shouldn’t even have ridden the 1979 Tour of the North as I had been picked to ride for the Irish team in the Sealink which was to start on the Wednesday in Manchester and the tour of the north only finished on Easter Tuesday. However John Snodden talked me into riding the tour that year.

“I had just won the Tour of Ards and they took me up to Downtown radio for an interview. Snodden was there and so was the Tour of the North’s main sponsor Franklin. They put me on the spot and asked me was I going to defend my Tour title and I said I would.”

“I won the Tour of the North, which finished on the Stranmillis embankment on the Tuesday afternoon and then it was straight to the airport and we flew to Manchester on the Tuesday night for the start of the Sealink the next day.

“The race started on Wednesday morning and I found myself in every move that was going and I finished second to a Danish rider. He won again the next day and then it was across to Dun Laoghaire for the Irish stage, around the Wicklow hills, where I took the jersey.”

“Then on Saturday it was back on the boat to Holyhead and the stage which I won at the top of the Great Orme. Then on the Sunday, during the final stage of the race, I broke my brake cable on the descent of the horse shoe pass.

Ollie McQuaid gave me his bike and I got going again. They replaced the cable and I switched back to my own bike for the rest of the stage. I had got away with it and won the race, that’s the way it goes sometimes, its just one of those things, sometimes everything just works out right.”

Billy announced that 1980 was to be his final season on the international circuit but he fairly packed in lots of foreign events that year.

He rode the five day circuit of the Ardennes and finished fifth, then was fifteenth in the Sealink and went to Chicago for short circuit racing in May, before tackling the Tour of Britain “milk race” where he was determined to win a stage. He took a second place in Wales, only being beaten by a Russian and finished 18th overall.

Next it was the NCA’s Ras Tailteann stage race where he took the lead with four days to go and held on to the end.

Billy then traveled to the Moscow Olympics where he represented Ireland and became the first ever cyclist from Northern Ireland to finish the Olympic Games road race. He was 41st from 115 starters.

In 1981 Billy won all six Northern Ireland and All Ireland time trial titles at 25, 50 and 100 miles.

He set a new NICF BAR average speed of 25.335 mph and had individual records of 21 minutes 43 seconds for 10 miles: 55 minutes 41 seconds for 25: 1 hour 56 minutes 25 seconds for 50: and 4 hours 8 minutes 37 seconds for the 100 miles distance.

The 100 was one record Billy had chased for some time and had never quite managed it until 1981. Morris Foster held the record with 4.8.47 since 1966 so it was quite an achievement when it was finally broken.

Remember Billy recorded those times on a standard road bike. After the Sealink win a journalist commented on the state of Billy’s bike. He explained that he just had the one bike and used it for training, racing, club runs riding to work and going messages!

The same bike was used for the specialist art of time trialing, the only thing Billy changed was to fit a pair of 28 spoked wheels and take off the bottle cage! There were no tri-bars or low profile bikes in those days, which makes his time trialing achievements even more remarkable.

In 1981 when Billy was asked to ride for Ireland in that Tour of Ireland he knew he would be losing his job in Antrim’s Enkalon factory in October.

He remembers telling Morris Foster that he would need the equivalent of a week’s pay if he was to take part as his day job would soon be over and the bills needed to be paid.

Morris said there would be little chance of that but six phone calls later Billy agreed to ride and set off for the start in Clonakilty. Billy did all right though, winning two stages and finished third overall to add to his previous brace of runner up placings.

Billy reconsidered his “retirement” before the start of the 1982 season. He had been unable to get regular work after the Enkalon factory closed and he said that he would ride that season if he still hadn’t got a job and so it was that he embarked on a “comeback” season. He was unemployed for all of 1982 and was able to concentrate on his racing and training.

At that time I rode from Ballymena to my work in Toomebridge several days each week and quite often Billy would catch me as I rode out the Toome road at 8 am. He was at the start of his five hour training ride.

He said: “When I was working I had to do 8 hours a day, this way I get up early and have my training done by 1 pm, that has to be better than working”

He was part of the winning NI team in the Girvan race that Easter and took 13th overall, that, despite losing 8 minutes because of a puncture on the opening stage. He was the only member of the Irish team to reach the Blackpool finish of the Milk Race where he was 17th overall.

In mid summer he twice took and lost the yellow jersey in the Ras Tailteann before eventually finishing fifth after having given way to a fellow Irish team member who took the honours.

Another win which Billy holds very dear came in the National all Ireland road race championship at Castlebar in August 1982 during that “comeback” season.

Billy explains “I had never finished in the first three in the Irish road race championship, my best was fourth or fifth and I reckoned this was my last chance to win it.”

“Coming to the finish I didn’t know what to do as I had been trying to win this race for years and there was just Davy Gardiner and me. We shook hands and we agreed to sprint it out side by side and may best man win.”

“The same year I finally won the tour of Ireland and Lennie was second and Davy third. That completed the set – Tour of the north (1978 and 1979), Sealink International (1979), Tour of Ulster (1981 and 1983) Ras Tailteann (1980), Tour of Ireland (1982) Northern Ireland Road Race, All Ireland Road Race (1982) and all the Irish time trial titles, North and South (1981)”

However Billy’s biggest regret came in the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane when, as part of the Northern Ireland team time trial squad, he missed the bronze medal by a mere 29 seconds.

He said the team had ridden the final leg of the race beautifully “I’m certain we would have got the bronze if I hadn’t cracked with 5 kilometres to go”

The 1982 Commonwealth Games road race was a disappointment for Kerr as well.

“When I started the road race I decided I wasn’t going to do anything until we had done at least 80 miles. Then I broke a spoke in my front wheel with about 40 miles done and had a bad wheel change. As soon as I stopped the Australians put the hammer down. I chased for a lap and a half but never got near them again.”

Billy later abandoned the race; I think this was his only “DNF” during International duty.

Billy had been disappointed too four years earlier in the 1978 Games in Edmonton. The winner of the road race that year was Australian Phil Anderson, whom Billy had beaten on the Donegal stage of the 1978 tour of Ireland a few weeks earlier.

Billy raced again in 1983 and he showed true grit in winning the Tour of Ulster that Easter.

That determination shown on a bitterly cold Easter Sunday was typical of the attitude he applied to all the events he took part in during a hugely successful career, “never give up” was his motto.

Cycling journalists always enjoyed interviewing Billy and he never disappointed them, always coming up with a witty answer or comment.

Once in the tour of Britain he delighted the press by stopping at a pub at the top of a major climb for a drink.

Legend has it that Billy swapped his race cap for a pint and then waited for the peloton to catch up.

Billy explained the reality of the occurrence “It was the 1980 tour of Britain. We were on a climb like Shane’s hill (at Larne) and the two Russians just cleared off and left us. Then I saw all the locals standing outside the pub and thought “we aren’t going anywhere with this break” so I jumped off and took a sip of somebody’s pint and then joined in again with the race. The next day the newspaper headline was “Kerr stops for a pint”

Billy raced locally until he was 45 and thoroughly enjoyed his twilight years and won many more championship medals and domestic road races, including the Red Hand Trophy, the night after falling off at a gala event around the Ballymena Showgrounds oval.

I acted as assistant Commissaire for a number of seasons on the Tour of the North and during some of those years Billy was, at times, my driver.

His knowledge of racing and his ability to read the race and spot the errors made by some of the top challengers was amazing. Even though he wasn’t racing himself you could still see the enthusiasm.

He showed me that to be successful one has to go the extra mile. Billy in reality went the extra mile on a regular basis. He would ride to events, ride the race and ride back home just for additional training benefits.

On club runs he would do more that the rest too. I remember completing a 90 miles club run from Ballymena to Portrush then around the coast to Ballycastle, Cushendall and Carnlough. We all then headed for home, all that is, except Billy, who would ride on around the coast road to Larne before completing his days training. He maintained that you needed to do big miles to be able to compete at the highest levels.

He certainly proved that his training methods brought success, nobody would argue with that.

* Extracts taken from ‘Recycled Memories’, published in 2010.