Obituary: Sandy Williamson (Herd), cyclist, Scottish and British champion, ‘professional’ on the Highland Games circuit

Sandy Williamson (Herd), cyclist. Born: 17 April 1927 in Leven, Fife. Died: 14 July 2019, aged 92

Sandy Williamson in the lead

Sandy Williamson of Leven who has died aged 92 was one of the country’s best known and successful Highland Games grass track cyclists of the 1950s, competing as ‘Herd’, adopted to avoid confusion with another cyclist called Williamson. In the course of a long career he won countless races over a range of distances from half mile to five miles, with the highlights including Scottish and British championships over one, two and four miles, his strongest event probably the two miles.

After emigrating to Australia in 1961 aged 34 where he lived for about 30 years he continued competing successfully there in ‘hard track’ racing in velodromes as well as participating in some road racing till well into his 60’s and beyond. Once finished competitive cycling he continued riding recreationally till a ripe old age as life without cycling for him was as unimaginable as breathing without oxygen.

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Whenever he travelled abroad from Australia including trips back home, his beloved cycle went with him, sometimes via Zimbabwe where he visited sister Moira en route. Such was his love of and commitment to the sport that aged 73 he corresponded with an international coach requesting a ‘sprints training programme,’ omitting initially to mention the small detail of his age.

When this later became apparent, the coach became very concerned as he worried that the intensity of the programme might result in fatal consequences for Sandy for whom, clearly, age was merely a number. Grass track cycling was a difficult demanding sport with riders speeding round tight uneven tracks, often in farm fields, at about 20mph in close proximity to each other with the constant risk of collisions and falls. The bikes had no brakes, were fixed gear which meant they could not freewheel and cyclists were in effect ‘strapped’ on to the pedals, with consequences in the event of a fall.

Sandy often cycled to the Games, competed and cycled home afterwards. Steely determination was required to succeed, an attribute Sandy possessed in abundance. He and rivals, such as the Hendry brothers from Gartcosh, Bert Duff from Falkland, Jock Ward from High Valleyfield and others competed as professionals in the widespread Games then, mostly in Fife and Central Scotland. Although nominally professional, their winnings never provided a livelihood but were a welcome bonus to a working man’s weekly wage. Sandy also travelled south to compete in Lakeland Games at venues including Penrith, Keswick, Kendal, Ambleside as well as Knighton in Wales.

In a recent feature, Sandy was referred to as one of “the big guns” who came down from Scotland to compete, recording his first win at Keswick in the mile in 1952 followed by many successes at the various venues. He won his first Scottish titles in 1953, the one mile at Alva and the two miles at Coupar Angus, going on to win a further four Scottish two miles championships at Alva between 1957 and ’61, his best time of 5 minutes 21 seconds in 1959 equating to an average speed of c.22mph.

He also clinched the British mile title at Keswick in 1955 while other venues that yielded regular success included Ceres, Lochore, Cupar, Airth, Alloa, Crieff, Thornton and Blackford among others.

Alexander Williamson was born in Leven where he lived in Glebe Street and attended the local public school. Father Andrew initially worked as a lorry driver before operating a mobile fish and chip shop.

After Sandy left school he trained as a plasterer and while working on a house in Methil met Nancy Smith whom he later married and with whom he had three sons, Sandy, James and Ian, all resident in Australia. By this time he was competing for Kennoway Road Club which paved the way for his grass track career. In 1961 the family emigrated to Melbourne courtesy of the Assisted Passages Scheme where Sandy was soon employed in his trade and prospered by dint of hard work, building his own house after some years.

He became an enthusiastic member of Footscrays Cycling Club, competing in velodrome races enjoying local success till well into his 60s. Occasionally he did road racing and participated six times in the Melbourne-Warrnambool one day Classic, at 165 miles the world’s longest. After the death of Nancy in 1985 he returned home to visit a year later and although 59 raced at various Games including Inverkeithing where he was awarded ‘Athlete of the Day’ after clinching prizes in five different events.

Thereafter he returned to Australia via Colorado to watch the World Cycling Championships. In the course of another trip home he met an old school friend Stella Dury nee Laing, then a widow and the couple married in 1990, later making their home in Leven. He continued dabbling in Games and in 1996 and ’97 at Alva won the 1600ms. race, the latter when 70. Son Sandy, himself a champion cyclist in Victoria who his father coached, came over in 2002 and together they went to follow the Tour de France for a week during which Sandy Sr met Lance Armstrong’s mechanic whom he knew, giving them the opportunity to examine the American’s bike at close quarters and be photographed with it.

Apart from cycling, Sandy enjoyed holidays in Italy and was interested in languages, obtaining certificates in Italian and French. An occasional East Fife fan, he followed current affairs as a supporter of the Labour Party and held strong opinions. A friendly individual, he spoke to everyone, once memorably engaging ex-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in a restaurant in Harare and establishing excellent rapport.

A colourful character, he was one of the few remaining from a different era of cycling. Stella predeceased him in 2016 but he is survived by his sons, nine grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.