The Big Event - The Tour of the Alps and the Job that Tom Organised!
Cycling remained a medium priority as the summer of 1989 rolled on. First year of university was successfully behind me and I’d started a summer job at DC Thomson publishers in the big warehouse at Guthrie Street from which all the Beano, Dandy and other well known winter annuals were dispatched. Tom Robertson - to whom this website is dedicated - had worked at DC Thomson for nigh on 50 years and he put in a word for me that would guarantee me a tough to get place, just like he did for my mate Andy Brewster one year earlier when I’d been too young to take a position.
Old Tom was still working in his late 60s, staying on beyond retirement in order to help with computerization of the company. I’m not sure what Tom meant because he was on night dispatch since the second world war and was unlikely to recognize a computer unless it was tiny and on his handlebars. But anyway Tom got me the job and for that I was extremely grateful.
About 10 students were employed to help with moving the hundreds of tons of comic drivel out of Dundee and across the land. I was a first summer student and the youngest. The others - mostly lawyers and accountants to be - had done up to 5 summers there and with the job’s laid back nature I soon understood why.
I started early along with two other guys and we honestly did about 3 hours work those first two weeks. This was good because it saved energy for training in the evenings - lugging heavy boxes around is not necessarily advantageous to a cyclist. Anyway the gaffers were also not exactly sweating it and the lucky four or five old guys who got to work the summer in the store and ‘manage’ us were happier than we were. This I all found kind of farcical given DC Thomson’s love of critising the local council for waste...
So for two weeks the three of us played a card game called ‘Pox’. This has been invented when DK and his sister had been young and had chicken pox. They’d been off school a week and had made up what at the time I considered the greatest card game ever. Unfortunately I’ve now forgotten how it goes but I did still remember in September 1989 when Colin Douglas, Andy Brewster and I did our world tour of the Alps with our bikes ... more later.
DK was studying accounting at Dundee University and of course new my girlfriend’s father who lectured in that department. DK’s sister - and co-inventor of Pox - was also now expecting a baby and it was “Due any day” and this went on for what seemed like weeks. The other students had turned up by the time the baby was born and DK was re-christened Uncle DK, rather predictably. The other students often had rather less predictable names including “Pen-killer”, “Tubby” (well he was rather), “Omar” (Sherrif), and “Shit-the-bed”. The guys informed me that the previous year there was a chap there who also cycled. They called him “Miami Steve” and he was in the Dundee Wheelers. They pronounced his name “Miamieeeee!” for some reason. I can no longer remember Steve’s surname or meeting him, though I do remember a story about him turning up at a Carnoustie CC 10 mile time trial and discovering he’d forgotten his cycling shoes. This was still in the days of toe straps so he rode in his trainers and still won the race, so I guess he was pretty useful on the bike.
Anyway when not working at DC Thomson - i.e. most of the time - we had to sit out of sight in the warehouse behind a giant goods elevator shaft. There was about 2 metres between the shaft and the windows. To make the place even more hidden, the windows were all painted vomit green in which dozens of students had scratched stuff including their names and the year. So I put “Nick 89”. I hoped that the next year there would be a Joe.
On the wall of the lift shaft were hundreds of newspaper cuttings. Anything anyone found funny or could make funny was stuck up there using the unlimited supply of glue paste that was around for putting labels on boxes. Sometimes this really bordered on the surreal - one guy trawled through DC Thomson’s own harmless if daft publications while another pasted up defaced porn. Sometimes but not often there was a request from the gaffers to clean up in there but mostly no real managers ever went behind the lift shaft or perhaps did not even know we were there.
Every day there was an important game called RTL - Right then lads. This was the shout from the gaffers’ cabin that would alert us to the start of the day’s work. This could be anywhere between 8:10 and 9:15 or later and we each guessed a time and put in 20p a day into the sweepee. Until the RTL yell we’d drink tea - a student would get tea duty and make a ‘Nairobi Brew’ in a giant pot, read newspapers, sleep, talk, paste up porn, vandalise windows, hang out window and watch the one or two sad folk wandering around, sunbathe on top of a huge pile of boxes, etc. When RTL was yelled we’d grab the RTL Watch - which was a cheap digital job that was the official time keeper of RTL. Sometimes it took a week or so before someone got it right then there would be a big yell as some lucky bugger got the jackpot. The gaffers would scream back at us to keep it down through there.
To get this column back into a cycling related theme I’ll add that the 1989 Tour de France was the best ever in my opinion and along with good weather, good job, great workmates, lovely girlfriend (who’d unfortunately fallen off the grass hill at nearby Dudhope Castle one lunch time and fractured her leg), great exam results(straight As!) and the best holiday ever planned for September, life was good! In fact it’s probably been downhill ever since (or uphill depending how much of a cyclist you are).
Lying one sunny lunch time at the grass outside the city churches we would meet the other students from another DV Thomson warehouse. These guys packed the odds and sods orders for comic annuals. Whereas John Menzies Glasgow may order 300 boxes of Beano, 250 of Dandy etc, Mrs McTavish’s newsagent in Benbecula would order something like 4 Beano, 2 Dandy, etc. This was of little interest to us big order guys and was dealt with by the Ward Road guys. My cycling mate Andy Brewster had worked here the previous summer but this year was working with British Gas. They - the Ward Road guys not British Gas - had the hard job of wrapping bizarre orders of odd sized books and keeping the whole thing neat. We occasionally saw the fruits of their labours if for example WH Smith decided that instead of 300 boxes of Beanos (i.e. 9000 annuals) they wanted 9005. We’d then have a parcel of 5 Beanos lying around magically waiting to be placed on top of the 300 boxes. Not sure how the logistics worked because there were no computers in use (which is probably why it worked) and the gaffers were all pushing 65. Anyway some of the specials from Ward Road were laughably packed - “If all the air disappears out of this warehouse at least there will be some left over in this parcel...”
Getting an order together was quite an art with the students split into teams each with a gaffer. John Peacock was the chief gaffer but luckily I was on Jim’s team (they were all John, Jim or Willie). He hated the sight of sweat and if you looked like you may break out in sweat you were sent to the toilet for a breather. He’d push a table on wheels around with a prehistoric paste machine on it. You’d pour the gloop (nicknamed ‘Jizzum’) into the tray under the roller and the wind one little label through it completely saturating the thing. This sticky mass was then transferred via your hand to a box.
Back to the lunch times at the city churches in the centre, one day I nipped off to Dixons and bought some cheap video tapes for recording the Tour. One student asked on my return what I’d bought. I said, “Some cheap blank video tapes.” He nodded: “They’ll be fine.” Indeed they were - 17 years later Phil Morris, Jeroen Westerink and I sat in Delft and watched the 1989 Tour again from these tapes. Ah, those were the days. No EPO just a bit of harmless steroids, testosterone and masking agents. In comparison to EPO I guess they did not do much.
The British Channel 4 coverage was a half hour summary program at 18:30 with Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen and though these guys are still around and not a day older and there is now live all day coverage it is never as good as it was then. Half hour highlights are enough lets face it and after almost lapsing into a coma the other month during the 2008 race I am more than convinced that Channel 4 had it right all along. The music was also great, no idea how Brian Venner and his colleagues put it all together so quickly after every day’s stage.
When Scotland’s Robert Miller won at Superbagneres, Colin and Andy were more excited than ever about our holiday in September. Watching Lemond get a kicking on the Alpe d’Huez gave us a good idea how we’d feel going up there soon.
But I was never as fit in the summer of 1989 as I was in 1988 or at the beginning of the year - the attention had drifted. In 1988 I’d never have gone on bender like I did with the students from work in 1989 - we all wore suit and tie and went to an Indian restaurant and drank too much beer and order too much nan bread and laughed too hard and ended up in the casino down beside the Dundee waterfront. For such young guys they knew how it all worked. At around 3:30am we emerged and tried to get a taxi. Tubby had ordered one but taxis were scarce. One arrived and an elderly woman rushed towards it giving saying yes that’s me. Omar somehow overheard and dashed over gallantly yelling, “That’s our taxi, old woman!” The driver was also surprisingly angry with the old woman and told her to shove off. Four young men piled into the car and left the lady standing.
We dropped two guys off somewhere in town leaving just Omar and me heading off into the hills behind Dundee, near Burnside of Duntrune. Familiar territory for me on the bike but not in a taxi at 4am. Eventually the taxi turned up a long driveway to a truly massive and impressive house up on the hill. Omar’s family’s place. Yeah, they were not short of a bob or two. The taxi then headed back into Dundee and dropped me off at home. It was already getting light and I realised I did not have my keys hidden in the usual place in the garden. So I sat and waited a bit, enjoying the silence and the dawn light before ringing the door bell to wake my poor folks. All seems still rather recent to me, like last week or so.