Over 4O years on and Olympian Billy is still loving life in the saddle
LIKE millions of viewers across the UK, Ayton resident Billy Bisland cheered Team GB’s cyclists on to victory at the London 2012 Games but unlike most armchair supporters, he had something major in common with them. He too can call himself an Olympian.
Whether it was willing the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Lizzie Armistead to do the business on the roads or Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and co in the veledrome, it’s not an understatement to say that Billy Bilsland was completely gripped by Olympic fever, taking him back over 40 years to when he pulled on a Great Britain vest and took part in the world’s most famous sporting event.
Bill proudly wore the nation’s colours at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, having previously competed at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica two years earlier.
And speaking to ‘Life’ from his home in Berwickshire where he spends his time when he’s not in his native Glasgow, Bill remembered his time in the Olympic spotlight like it was yesterday.
“I was absolutely thrilled that the cyclists did so well in London,” he enthused.
“I think I watched nearly every race and the excitement and support their success generated has to be good for the sport.
“There certainly wasn’t the same level of support when I was in the Olympics. We flew to Mexico from London and I remember we had to pay our own way down to get the flight; I don’t think that would happen these days!
“I was over the moon to be riding for Great Britain in the Olympics; it was a fantastic experience. Unfortunately I didn’t get a medal due to getting punctures in both my events.
“I punctured in the 100km time trial and eventually finished eighth and in the road race I was in the leading break away group only to get another puncture.
“I was disappointed but I was only 21 at the time and to even be part of something like that was incredible. My family were really proud of me but with it being in Mexico they didn’t get to see me in action and the TV coverage wasn’t anything like it was now.”
Coming from a cycling family, Billy’s path to having a very keen interest in the sport at the very least was pretty much mapped out for him but it didn’t take too long for he and his parents to realise that he was destined to compete with the cream of the cycling crop.
“My parents were cyclists and my brothers all raced so I didn’t have much choice,” he reminisced.
“My first racing bike was a Raleigh and I won my first senior event- a 25 mile open race in Stirling- when I was 17. I still remember it to this day because at the time people were saying it was a complete fluke.
“Bobby Kinnear was the guy everyone expected to win and when he finished everyone thought he had it sewn up but then I appeared and posted a quicker time.
“The best thing was I retained my title the following year to prove that I wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
“I won a few more races in Scotland after that: the Spring Grand Prix and the Drummond Trophy when I was 18.
“I think it was who I was beating that really got me noticed. I was picked to race for Scotland and won a race in Belgium and I guess that’s why I got selected for the Commonwealths and then the Olympics.”
Belgium obviously made quite an impression on Billy as he did it, as after returning from Mexico he moved over the Channel to race professionally, France being his first calling point before setting up home in Ghent.
“I rode for Raleigh for a good few years, starting in France and one of my the most memorable things from that time was when a won a race in Paris.
“The prize was my weight in wine; I stood on the scales and they loaded the wine up next to me.
“My team manager at the time said it wasn’t very good stuff but I think it was pretty decent. I didn’t drink at all though; I gave it away to people.
“I’ve got fond memories of my time living in Ghent. I was being paid to do something I loved doing and I was getting to travel all over Europe. I went to some interesting places and met some very interesting people.”
Whilst cycling remains Bill’s main hobby, “I do a couple of hundred miles a week,” he said modestly, he has developed quite a passion for a sport he first got into whilst in Belgium.
“Pigeon racing is another hobby of mine; I keep my own pigeons in my garden down here,” he continued.
“It was a big sport when I was in Belgium and there are some really good fanciers about here.
“I’m a member of the Eye Valley Homing Club and I’m doing OK.
“After retiring from cycling professionally I opened a cycle shop ‘Billy Bilsland Cycles’. At one time I had three in Glasgow and the business has been going for 30 years; my son’s taken it over now.”
Speaking to ‘Life’ just after hopping off his bike from covering more miles in the saddle , Billy said that it was the area’s landscape and wealth of potential cycling routes that led to his move here.
“For a start the weather’s a lot better here,” he joked.
“And there’s not nearly as much traffic. Cycling around Glasgow can get a bit hairy sometimes whereas here it’s a lot quieter. I’ve had a house down here for about a year now and there are so many different places to ride.”
Citing the same model of bike used by one Bradley Wiggins as his current favourite mode of transport, it was plain to see that Billy has no desire to hang up his helmet anytime soon and at the age of 67 his passion for cycling is greater than ever.
And visitors to the Scottish Museum of Transport and Travel in Glasgow can share in his proud Olympic moment as his Great Britain jersey is currently on display there.
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