A Brief History Of Ballymena Road Club

BALLYMENA ROAD CLUB may only be in existance from 1954, but its cycling roots go back 118 years to be exact. It was in April, 1896 that one James Kyle, the grandfather of Sean Kyle and an official with Ballymena and Antrim Athletic Club, presided at the meeting. Officials elected were - Samuel Orr (secretary), James Gardiner (captain), James Taylor (treasurer) and H. O'Hara.

A month later the first club run was held, very close to the spot where, a few years ago, before Rex Bonar House was opened, the present club held their weekly club runs; the Pentagon Lamp. That was something special in the town in those days, although only 12 riders started, more than 300 spectators were present. The local newspaper also covered this event which included the following excerpt: "The riders bestrode their iron steeds and turned the horses heads towards Broughshane. A halt was made at the 'three trees' beyond Broughshane but prior to that several had come to grief on the road, without however, any injury being sustained by riders or machines."

In that particular era the Ballymena club had Ireland's only proper hard track in existance, within the confines of the present showgrounds and in the 1890's many important national meetings were promoted. Harry Reynolds, Ireland's only world cycling champion, raced there in the early 1900's where he established new records for 60 minutes behind a somewhat unreliable motorcycle which broke down so often that those present wondered if Reynolds would ever get an hour trouble free cycling.

The Road Clubs 'Red Hand Trophy' dates back to 1898 and it is quite possible that this was one of the pieces of silverware raced for in those early days on the Showgrounds track. The present club was formed in 1954 and at that time the only official club in the area was Old Bleach in Randalstown. It was from this that the Ballymena Road Club was formed by Ballymena men Carson Conway, Sammy Kerr, Joe McAuley, Stan Finlay, Fred Swan and Smyth Wallace. One evening returning from a race in Randalstown, they stopped off for a breather at Cromkill and someone suggested starting a club in Ballymena.

The Road Club owes its neighbouring Cullybackey as well as the legendary Paddy McNeilly, the driving force behind its formation. The village link with cycling goes back even further than 1954 because during the war, Harry Speers had a cycle shop in Cullybackey, and despite parts being scarce and dear, Harry was able to supply the local enthusiasts with their wants. In those early days the cyclists mainly took part in grass track meetings which were known as 'blade meetings'.

The first club meeting was on October 4, 1954 at the rear of Saunders Chemist Shop in Bridge Street. The 26 cyclists whiich turned up sat on wooden boxes as the first club officials were elected: President - Sam McQuigg, Chairman - Matt Eaton, Secretary - Stan Finlay, Race Secretary - Jim Trimble and Treasurer - Seamus Blaney. The first club 10 mi1es time trial was held in 1955, the Frank Gardiner Cup and is still the opening race of each club season.

The first team championship came the following year when they won the Andrews Cup 100 mile time trial. The team was Sammy Kerr, Joe Caldwell and Fred Wylie. That was the same year Sammy Kerr won his first individual medal, a silver, in the Northern Ireland 100 miles championship and the same trio again won the team medals. The following July was a superb month for the Ballymena men when Sammy Connor, Sammy Kerr and Alan Mark won the Sun Cycles Shield in the Chemco Cup Classic (25 miles time trial) in Dublin, and the following year Connor won his first and Kerr was Ireland's best finisher in the 1958 Tour of the North; a race won on two consecutive occasions by his brother Billy in later years.

In 1958 the club was greatly honoured when Sammy Kerr was selected to ride for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, honours which were also gained by Ronnie Grant in 1970 (Edinburgh) and Billy Kerr (Montreal and Brisbane). The first 12 years of the club brought N.I. team successes in 25 miles (six times), 50 miles (six times), and the 100 miles (six times). 12 hours (seven times) and the mass start road race (three times). Sammy Kerr was the Northern Ireland Best all rounder (four times) as well as being the record holder at 100 miles and also gained many international honours. These were also gained by Gordon Caldwell, Wallace Caldwell and John Beggs. Gordon won the all Ireland road race in 1964 and Wallace rode the 1300 miles Tour of Britain in 1960. The Caldwell brothers also experienced amateur racing in the Tour de France.

Tragedy struck the club in 1968 when Wallace was killed while racing at Burrow in Furness and his brother was also riding in the event. Gordon suffered a double tragedy when his 12 year old son, Sherdan, was killed near Broughshane while out training.

The brilliant Billy Kerr brought the club its greatest international success in the late seventies when he shot the town to the very top of the amateur cycling world. Billy won the Tour of the North in 1978 and 79 and immediately after his second victory won the Sealink International Stage Race in England. He then went on to win the Ras Tailteann, the Tour of Ireland, N.I. and All Ireland race championships. In one season he won all six time trial championships 25, 50 and 100 miles Northern Ireland and All Ireland competition.

Barry Fullerton was the other Road Club's main force in the eighties and was rarely out of the first six in the home based open races and represented Northern Ireland and All Ireland on several occassions.

Ballymena Road Club have certainly made their presence felt over the years, and they are still doing so in all categories. However, off the roads, the club are hard workers raising thousands of pounds for Multiple Sclerosis and the Ulster Cancer Foundation. In 1981-82 the club launched an appeal to buy tandems for the blind and several machines were aquired.