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Hand of fate sends time trials past shop where family cycle still turns

BIENVENU au Marche du Sel.

Neil Bilsland at his shop in Glasgow's Saltmarket, holding Robert Millar's bike. Picture: Steve Cox
Neil Bilsland at his shop in Glasgow's Saltmarket, holding Robert Millar's bike. Picture: Steve Cox

The flaneurs of the boulevards along the Clyde leaned outside The Lampost and loitered by the Empire Bar. The bars were open as the Saltmarket embraced a new flavour.

The ambience may well have been more Champit Tatties than Champs-Elysees but as the cyclists whizzed by in the Commonwealth Games time trials, there was an air of coincidence, even serendipity in the rain-soaked air. Those striving for medals had no time to glance away from the strip of road beneath their tyres but just beyond the barrier on the Saltmarket, sitting proudly if largely unnoticed, was the Peugeot bike of Robert Millar, one-time King of the Mountains, all-time Glesca legend.

"We should put up a plaque," says Neil Bilsland, nodding towards the shop window of Bilsland Bikes where Millar's steed stands unheralded and his red polka-dot jersey resides. Bilsland, the son and grandson of Scottish cycling aristocracy, is working furiously on his personal time trial. He has bikes to fix, advice to offer and interviews to do.

The England team manager is fretting over brake cables, a punter has just come in to collect his bike after a service and others mill about. In the midst of this, Bilsland fields questions from the BBC and natters about dad, granddad and the rise of cycling in Scotland.

"It's fantastic for us," he says of a time trial and road race route that goes past his business. "More than 20 teams have come in for minor repairs and it means too that we can pop out to have a look at some of the riders going by."

Some may say that is only coincidence that the route goes past Bilsland. The more romantic will insist it is fate. It is certainly appropriate. Neil Bilsland's grandfather was Arthur Campbell, a peerless cycling administrator, who taught Millar French and introduced him to his first amateur team on the continent. Campbell's son-in-law is Billy Bilsland, who trained Millar, and who also had a stellar cycling career, racing in the Commonwealth Games of 1966 and the Olympic Games of 1968.

Billy Bilsland set up the bike shop in 1980 but it is now run by Neil, 35. "I have been working here since I was 12," he says. "Child labour laws do not apply to a family business."

The hubbub in his shop may be heightened by the Games but the business tracks the popularity of cycling. There are six full-time workers and three part-time. Five years ago Neil Bilsland was a one-man band.

"Glasgow is now a cycling city," says Bilsland. "People start for leisure or transport to work and suddenly become serious about it. It has exploded."

So is Neil Bilsland, a rouleur of repute, a punter with palmares? "I was more into golf as a kid," he says. "To be fair, my parents never pushed me into it. I went to university for four years in an effort to dodge work but it was sort of pre-ordained I would work here."

He has no regrets, even on a day like yesterday when the wheels of business are spinning so fast they threaten to come off.

Cycling is more than a business. The shop supports the Glasgow Riderz, a cycling club for children in the city, by servicing their bikes for free. It also sponsors the Glasgow Cycle Team, a club designed to develop stars of the future.

Neil Bilsland, too, made a Glesca gesture of generosity when Malawi's Missi Kathumba and Leonard Tsoyo came into have their bikes serviced. He gave each of them a bike to compete in the Games.

It was a sign that the family business still has the interests of cycling at its core. How could it be otherwise when it was created by Billy Bilsland, a cycling obsessive?

And how is the great man, now approaching 70? "He only comes in now when he wants his bike serviced," says his son with a smile.

"We a did a sportif this year in South Africa and the old fox took 30 minutes out of me. He did the 70 miles in three-and-a-half hours."

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