KILDARE cycling in the 1960s was in a very healthy state. The late, great Paddy Flanagan was the king of the Rás, Murt Logan was at the top of his game and Kilcullen native Liam Baxter burst on to the scene, writes Ruth Chambers.
In 1957 Baxter took up cycling. By chance really. He was strolling down the town in Kilcullen on a Saturday evening when he came across a gentleman standing at The Hideout. That gentleman was accompanied by two bicycles and was looking for someone to go cycling with him. Baxter duly obliged and as the old saying goes, the rest is history.
“A couple of weeks after that we got an invitation to a race in Brownstown, which was the big club then. The two of us took part, promptly fell off the bikes but I was hooked from then on,” Liam told the Leinster Leader this week.
Baxter had the bug.
Indeed he went on to ride in five Rás Tailteanns. In 1962 he finished sixth overall, while the following year he was the fourth Irish man home. The same year he witnessed the first ever foreign team to enter the event, while in the 1960 and 1964 events he watched his fellow county man Paddy Flanagan cross the line first.
“In ‘64 Paddy Flanagan was in top form and we had to ride for him. One day he lost the (leader’s) jersey, there was a big skuffle going on with Kildare and Dublin as usual, and Ben McKenna, a Meath man, took it over.
“So the next morning I said I was going to have a go because I knew that I was going well. Four of us jumped away on the line in Galway, we went all across Connemara and built up a lead of four minutes. I won the sprint going in to Castlebar but the next day I was back on duty for Paddy. We had to keep the bunch at a steady pace to keep him fairly fresh for the last day.
“On the last day there would be a race against the clock, which was his (Flanagan’s) specialty and he knew he could gain back the time on the fella that had the jersey that morning. It all came down to the Sunday morning in a 25 mile race from Navan to Ashtown and he did it in 54 minutes. He was actually only second, Seamus O’Hanlon beat him by a few seconds but he got back the jersey with a half a minute to spare on the very last Sunday morning,” remembers Baxter.
“We had a great team and we had to ride for Paddy (Flanagan) most of the time. It did annoy me sometimes. You’d be shattered at times. There was one guy who rode in the very first Rás with us and on the second last day we rode from Castleisland to Kilkenny, it was a long stage, and on the road with 20 miles to go he had lost the jersey after holding it all week and we had to hammer ourselves to get back the time. One fella actually broke the saddle of his bike and he rode without a saddle from Callen in to Kilkenny. We were flat out trying to pull back time and we did it and did enough to hold on to the jersey,” he added.
The modern day Rás doesn’t hold Liam’s attention like it used to in the old days. The inclusion of professional riders, he says, has ruined it somewhat but back when he was in the saddle the event was one of the biggest on the Irish sporting calender.
“It has changed so much since then. In my opinion it’s wrong the way the FBD Rás is now all professionals and the pure amateurs don’t have a chance. It really is two races within one and I don’t think it works. They have prizes for best county rider but the top half of the race, the first 40, are all pros,” explained Liam.
Liam rode in his last ever Rás Tailteann in 1964 at the age of just 24. At the time he had rejoined the Brownstown club and was a club mate of Paddy Flanagan’s and they dominated events the length and breath of the country.
However, even the lure of success couldn’t persuade him to continue. He stopped riding when he met and married Kay Moran. The couple had one daughter, Martina, in 1968 and the gruelling cycling schedule didn’t fit in with family life.
His training regime used to start on St Stephen’s Day and by St Patrick’s Day Liam would have racked up 3,500 miles on the bike, that was, of course, until he took a 35 year sabbatical.
Sadly Kay suddenly passed away in 2008 and a year later Liam returned to the sport that gave him so much joy in his younger days. He’s back in the proverbial saddle since, and despite a current injury, he remains heavily involved in the sport.
“After Kay died in 2008 I got involved with Newbridge Cycling Club. For a year or so I didn’t know what to do with myself and then I decided I’d get the bike down and I started going for spins. I hadn’t sat on a bike for 35 years. It was hard to get going on it again but it was great to take my mind off things. It was great therapy,” said Liam.
“I was doing a good bit up to two months ago. I took a fall off the bike and fractured a bone in my thigh. I was doing over 100 kilometres on a Sunday and was over in Ballymore Eustace at the back of six lads coming down from Poulaphouca and coming round a corner I tipped a fellas’ back wheel. Down I went and I knew I was in trouble straight away because when I got up I couldn’t put my foot to the ground. Some of the guys brought me home here and I put ice packs on it and when the adrenaline was up I was able to move around but I had to go to the doctor the following evening because I couldn’t get out of bed,” he added.
Baxter joined Newbridge Cycle Club on his return to the sport and is now president of the club, while he is also giving back to the sport that gave him so much joy.
He is heavily involved in the Conway Baxter Academy, named after himself and the late Hal Conway, an ex Kildare cyclists from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The academy caters for children aged between seven and 16 and teaches them skills such as bike handling, road safety, orienteering, map reading and compass tracking. It’s thriving and Baxter is delighted to pass on his knowledge.
“We have nearly 80 members now. About 38 to 40 kids would turn up on any given Saturday. We meet on a Sunday morning at Lumville House and the fast lads go one way and the rest of them, depending on how good they are, go in different directions for the day.
“It’s great to be involved with kids in the club and it’s great to see the improvement in them. Frank Roddy and John Malone are two of the fellas heavily involved and John made up traffic signs with batteries in them with red, green and orange and we mark out junctions on the Curragh and get the kids out there and teach them all the rules of the road. We show them how to clean their bikes, how to mend punctures and during the summer we do orienteering on the bikes on the Curragh. The kids love it,” he admitted.
It’s quite clear that Liam Baxter loves it too. Even after all these years.
When one mentions cycling in Kildare the name Paddy Flanagan comes to mind but Liam Baxter was was one of the greats too and perhaps without him Flanagan wouldn’t have been as decorated.