A History of Billy Kerr - Part 2

Tuesday, August 11, 2015
As part of the build up to the sportive on Sat 15 Aug, here is the second article on the late Billy Kerr

For more information - click this link Billy Kerr Sportive

This report was put together by Edward Smith before the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982 

Even the Russians have respect for ‘the King of the Mountain’ Billy
Thirty-seven year old Ballymena man Billy Kerr has been Northern Ireland’s number one racing cyclist for many years. A competitor at the 1978 

Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, he won the Tour of the North in 1978 and 1979, the Sealink International 1979 and the King of the Mountain Milk Race 1980. He was a competitor at the Moscow Olympics and is the current Irish record holder over 10, 25 and 50 mile time trails. He talked to EDWARD SMITH...
At 37, Billy Kerr should be over the hill but he can still show a clean pair of heels to the best on the steepest climbs around. 

‘Billy’s the one they all look up to’, confides a teammate. ‘He’s one of the toughest men in Europe- and that’s quite a reputation to have as an amateur.’
‘He’s like Frank Sinatra,’ says another, ‘he keeps on coming back.’

Reputations go a long way in this sport. On the starting line at this year’s prestigious Tour of Britain Milk Race, the Russians, favourites for the race, wanted to know where Billy Kerr was. 

They hadn’t forgotten that two years ago Kerr took the much-prized vivid red jersey as ‘King of the Mountain’ on a Milk Race stage. 

This time, the Russians wouldn’t give him the light of day, as Kerr was second Briton home and the only Irishman the finish the grueling 14-day, 1200 mile race. 

For the source of the incredible energy he is able to generate into cycling you have to look back over a decade to a five-year spell when he literally gave it all up at a time when he should have been at his peak.

In the twilight, he has been making up for lost time with a vengeance, in his own race against time. 

It is the supreme paradox that now Ireland’s number one amateur cyclist has too much time on his hands. 

Nearly a year ago, that Ballymena man was made redundant from the ailing British Enkalon factory.

 Today, he relies on £800-worth of shiny red, feather light racing bike and 70 miles of roadwork to give him his daily routine and fill the substantial gap in a job vacuum. 

In conversation it’s easy to see why he’s one of the most popular riders on the circuit. 

‘When you get ambitious,’ he says. ‘It takes over your whole life. I got a second chance at the bike game. There was that much that I wanted to do. It’s a very selfish, time-consuming sport and I wanted to cram ten years into six.’

However, he is determined to hang up his bicycle clips at the end of this year, certainly at international level. 

‘This is the last year’, he says with finality. ‘Brisbane is the last big one...
‘Of course, I’ll miss it,’ he adds with a pause. ‘But you can’t go on and on forever. My first priority when I get back from Australia must be to get a job. And, you can’t come and go as you please from your work’.

But there are other goals still to be sought on the way to Brisbane- the elusive Tour of Ireland that, with two seconds and a third last year, has so narrowly evaded him; and the will to finish the World Championships being held at Goodwood this year. 

William Ian Kerr didn’t go to Guy’s Primary school or the old Model or even the Intermediate on a bike- he didn’t even own one. But there was cycling in the family blood; brother Sammy represented Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, in ’58.

A series of part-time jobs gave him the money to buy a bike, which he paid off at the rate of 10 shillings a week. 

At 16 he started work in a Ballymena shoe factory and joined the Ballymena Road Club. He’s been with the club, now sponsored by Scott Rood Tiles, ever since. 

But just as he made the step up to senior it all went wrong, and he was hit by the cyclist’s nightmare, a back injury. 

For two years, he battled with disc trouble that sent shooting pains down to his toes every time he got on a bike. 

The skill of physio, the late Bobby McGregor, fixed the trouble but it was too late. 
A dispirited Kerr turned away from the sport to which he would later give so much. He was 20, and on the threshold of a cyclist’s best years. At least, that was what the training manual said. 

For five years he put cycling completely out of his mind. 

‘I lost interest,’ he says. ‘Just sold everything. I hardly even went near a race... But what’s the point of looking back now and regretting it. ‘

Would he have made the big time? Would he have turned professional like fellow Irish competitors Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly would later do with great success? Would he have secured a crock of gold on the professional circuit? 
Those questions still probably lurk somewhere between the hedgerows around the Ballymena roads where bicycle wheels are pumped relentlessly round, but- with hindsight- Kerr partially gives the answer. 

‘When I came back I was too old to turn professional. But I’ve seen the lifestyle. Sure, there’s big money to be made; but I don’t think I’d like to have been tied down like that.

‘I like to be able to come and go as I please and I never think about the money. I’ve got a lot out of cycling. I’ve seen a great part of the world- what more could I ask for?’

Today, cycling probably cost Billy Kerr about £500 a year.

After five years out in the cold, on a bleak Boxing Day afternoon in 1969, he put on his coat and went out to watch a 10-mile time trial. The next day he went out and bought a bike. The candle was flickering again.

His return coincided with a new job as a process operator and the start of 12 happy years at British Enkalon.

For two years he never won a race. Then he took part in the Northern Ireland Road Race Championship at Tandragee. 

He was in the leading bunch heading for home when the other made a decisive break and Kerr wad left trailing in their wake. 

‘I thought long and hard about that race,’ he recalls. ‘Perhaps if I had trained a bit more I might have made it with them to the finish’. 

Overnight, his whole attitude to the sport changed. He became dedicated, more ambitious. He became a winner.

He narrowly missed selection to the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. But people were sitting up and taking notice. 

By the mid-Seventies Kerr was an Irish International and finding that extra ounce of energy and big-hearted grit to take him away from the pack. While others rested weary legs, Kerr kept a phenomenal work-rate going that was to make him Ireland’s number one rider. 

Towards the end of the Seventies he hit a purple patch. He won the four-day Tour of the North, got straight on a plane and started the next morning, won the five-day 500-mile Sealink International against some of the best in Europe.
He won 11 stage jerseys that weekend and sat at the end of the Sealink Race slumped over the handlebars in Holyhead completely drained.

On one occasion he was involved in a pile-up. He got back on the bike and made it to the top of the incline before he collapsed and was rushed to hospital with a punctured lung.

He was ninth in the Milk Race, his best-ever place, in ’78, and went to the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. He was only 90 seconds behind the winner there, Australian Phil Anderson (now one of the world’s top pros), but that meant a gap of 20 places. Still, he beat Anderson on his own patch in the Donegal Hills. 

He repeated his success in the Tour of the North in ’79- after that the race was sadly abandoned for lack of a sponsor.

1980 was Olympic year and Kerr went to Moscow with the Irish team, finishing 41st in the 118-mile road race.

Because of that experience, he says, he would never go back to a communist country again. 

‘The whole thing was so depressing’, he says. ‘It was just so drab and dreary and the security nearly drove me round the twist’.

Training out on the Minsk highway Kerr counted a soldier every hundred yards for an incredible 30 kilometres. 

Kerr took 1981 off from the international arena, simply to recharge the batteries for an assault on the Commonwealth Games this year. ‘I wanted to keep a low profile’, he says. 

Beside him on the settee sit a neat pile of winner’s jerseys, never worn, a rainbow of colour, that seldom see the light of day- a reminder of the triumphs. 
They call him a veteran cyclist, but he continues to belie the years providing a telling lesson in perseverance.

‘I started out with an inferiority complex. Now I realise we have to go to Brisbane with a positive outlook. A whole lot depends on our attitude- perhaps some of the younger riders are not as ambitious as they should be.

‘You learn that the best are just as human as the rest of us. We all go through the same agonies.’ (In marathon running they call it ‘the wall’ in cycling it’s known as ‘the knock’).

But the end of his international career will by no means be the end of Billy Kerr in cycling. ‘I’d hate to think I’d drift away and ignore it. I hope I can try and put something back. Whether I’m capable of it, that’s another question.’

And, a phrase to sum up his success in cycling? 

‘The ability to go further than most’. He says- a smile creasing that well-travelled face.

The other members of the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Cycling team are: Seamus Downey, David Gardner, Leonard Kirk, Alister Irvine, Gordon Scott and Morris Foster (team official).