Obituary: Derek Stewart, cyclist and ROV pilot

Veteran cyclist Derek Stewart

Veteran cyclist Derek Stewart

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Derek (Dick) Stewart, top British veteran cyclist, ROV pilot and occasional star of TV, books and advertising. Born: 2 July, 1936, Torphins. Died: 10 September, 2016, Aberdeen, aged 80

Derek Stewart, who became the fastest veteran time trial cyclist in Britain at the age of 75, has died. In a career picked up after a 50-year hiatus, he broke times set when he was in his twenties and became known nationally for his uncatchable speeds on a bike. Since 2003 Derek, known to many as Dick, took part in races all over the country. Representing the Deeside Thistle Cycling Club, based near Aberdeen, Derek resumed cycling in earnest when semi-retired from the oil industry, in which he enjoyed an equally eventful career as an ROV (remote operated vehicle) pilot.

During his youth, he and friends had begun cycling with the club, Derek infuriating his contemporaries with a training approach that involved precisely no training, plenty of late nights, and the ability to get on a bike and leave others in the dust. It was a talent that he didn’t get the chance to take further, at the time.

Derek Vincent Stewart was born at Torphins, Aberdeenshire on 2 July, 1936, the youngest of four brothers. After war broke out his childhood was more or less split between his parents in Aberdeen and his aunt and uncle in Royal Deeside. Up till the age of ten Derek attended eight schools – including St Joseph’s RC School in Aberdeen, then St Peter’s School, before finishing at Robert Gordon’s College. 

His first job on leaving school in 1952 was as an office boy with Aberdeen Council’s information bureau, publicising the city as a holiday resort. His second job, as an apprentice mechanical engineer, set him on the path to his career in electronics. However, after two years this was diverted into National Service with the RAF. As a driver with the desert convoys, Derek served two years in Iraq.

After finishing service Derek began another apprenticeship as a radio and television engineer. He worked around Aberdeen servicing TVs for the next 17 years. When North Sea oil was struck in 1973, Derek saw the first black gold come ashore. He entered the diving industry as a technician on vessels that were to take him to the shores of 23 countries across six continents. When technology saw the replacement of divers with safer remote-controlled vehicles, Derek joined an elite group of operators. The work took him away from his wife Irene and family for months at a time.

There were moments of danger and excitement. Working in Norway, Derek was once loading equipment on to a vessel from the quayside. In the days before rigorous adherence to health and safety, the men would leap from shore to boat without a second thought. Derek slipped and found himself plunging deep into the icy waters. He reached the surface, but then had to swim out from under the bowed sides of the ship. It was only the chance presence of someone on the quayside that saved him from certain hypothermia.

Perhaps a more notable great escape was on BA flight 009, which departed Heathrow bound for Australia in June 1982. Over Indonesia, the aircraft flew into a volcanic dust cloud and its engines cut out. For 13 minutes, Derek and his fellow passengers looked at one another helplessly as the plane fell from the sky. The pilot managed to restart an engine, and land in Jakarta. Later Derek was one of a handful of passengers picked to be featured the book documenting the incident, whose title, All Four Engines Have Failed, was taken from the pilot’s unflinching announcement from the cockpit.

Sporting success began for him in the 1950s when he ranked 4th in Scotland with the Deeside Thistle Club. Competitive cycling was put aside for National Service, then superseded by work and family. But half marathons and 10K races throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties gave Derek his competitive outlet, along with years playing football in the amateur league.  

In 2003, he made his cycling comeback. Soon after returning to his first sporting love, Derek was achieving lifetime personal bests and age-related records in the 10, 25, 50 and 100-mile time trial races. Training took him out on the roads in and around Aberdeen for 200 miles a week. In 2011 he won the British 25-mile time trial veteran championship, becoming the fastest cyclist, in his class, in Britain. He continued to win Scottish championships right up until 2015.

Cycling led to the realisation of another dream. The young man who started out repairing TVs really wanted to be a face on the box. In the 1990s he was in the right place at the right time when the BBC commissioned the drama series Roughnecks. Derek won a role as a regular extra. In 2005 he competed on the Weakest Link quiz. Then in 2013 he was chosen to be a leading participant in the ITV gameshow Amazing Greys. Pitting people in their senior years against young challengers in a variety of sports, Derek went up against a 20-something cyclist, only losing (narrowly) because the younger man opted to take the head-start on offer. The second challenger in another episode was braver, setting off simultaneously with Derek, and took it on the chin when the veteran triumphed.

He was featured in the book The Oilmen: North Sea Tigers, made other TV appearances and worked as a model to market leisure activities for over-50s. Photos of a dapper Derek dancing on the beach made a Jack Vettriano-like portrait. It would have been the stuff of dreams for a council marketing department in the 1950s, where he began his career. Further fashion shoots for Highland wear and high street stores put Derek on the catwalk regularly. In his time away from bikes he also served as a community councillor in the Midstocket ward in Aberdeen.

He met his illness, pancreatic cancer, which arrived without warning in August. In the face of a disease rampaging like lightning through a supremely fit body, Derek reflected with courage and gratitude on a life filled with excitement and opportunity. Married to Irene for 55 years, he died at home.

Derek is survived by Irene, their children Kevin, Julie and Caroline, and granddaughters Tania, Lorna, Catriona and Ella.

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