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WORDS: Guy Andrews
A young British rider recently asked me for some advice on how to make it as a road pro; the best I could come up with is that to make it in road cycling these days you'll have to ride on the track. Regardless of your natural talents, the track is where hot prospects get spotted in the British Isles. There’s no point riding around on the road hoping that you'll get seen through the window of a passing car. The track is the scene that matters here for talent scouts. So I advised the young rider to get himself a track bike and head to the velodrome. He doesn't ‘do’ the track, he told me, so what next? “Go to Belgium,” I said. It’s the only place you'll learn if you're good enough. And in Belgium, everyone is a talent spotter.
It hasn’t always been thus. For most of the 20th century, riding the track got you nowhere. British riders that made it on the international stage pre-1990 were similar in some respects: they were all tenacious, single-minded, unrelentingly tough and very, very good. Pretty much all you had was a bike, a phone number and a few quid in your pocket. You set off towards Europe and you either sunk or swam. Not only did you have to be the best in the UK, you also had to be better than the teammates you would then encounter ‘on the Continent’.
Professional bike racing is a cruelly small talent pool and Europe’s racing scene could, and still can, be summed up in a few words: Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. Homegrown talent always got the nod before aliens. Many riders I have known with ambition, talent and guile went over to try it for a season, only to come back home with tales of race-fixing, drug cheats and favouritism. Although racing in the UK is on the level, black and white if you like, ‘over there’ there are many varying shades of grey.
Brian Robinson, the first Englishman to complete the Tour de France, was one pioneering rider who went ‘over there’ and made a success of it. Robinson summed it up perfectly when he nonchalantly stated: “I simply went over there and did what they did.” He epitomised that spirit of ‘living the dream’; equipped with a hard-as-nails mentality and a penchant for suffering, it was all he needed to negotiate his way through the shenanigans of the professional peloton. He adapted to a life living in France and racing the Continental way. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
“In England everything stops for tea. In France, everything stops for Le Tour,” noted Robinson in Graeme Fife's book Pioneer, his 2010 biography on the Yorkshireman.
In Roule Britannia, another book to deal with the subject, William Fotheringham explains further: “When they [the French] heard that the new arrivals were preparing to ride ‘their’ Tour, they found that even more peculiar. As far as they were concerned, Englishmen did not race bikes, let alone in Le Tour.”
Fotheringham tells us that the first road race held in France, in 1869, was won by an Englishman and that, it seems, was the only way to succeed: by racing on foreign soil. Essentially, if you wanted to be a pro, you went abroad. The British Isles was an amateur affair with time trials and touring trips and the only spectator aspect of the sport being the crowds watching the big-legged track riders at places like London’s Herne Hill and Fallowfield in Manchester.
Yet in the post-war years the British racing scene began to emulate the Continent. It had stage races, such as the Tour of Britain, and aspiring amateur racers began taking cues from Continental heroes, such as Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet.
Soon, this would translate to the sport’s greatest stage when, in 1955, the first proper British team competed at the Tour de France. One of the ten men was Robinson, the first of only two British riders to finish that year. Robinson finished in 29th place on his debut but would go on to become the first British winner of a Tour stage, a feat he achieved in 1958.
The guts and tenacity showed by these pioneers from the very beginning continued a decade later, in the form of Tom Simpson. The tragic denouement of the Nottinghamshire racer’s story perhaps overshadows the fact that Simpson was similarly successful to Robinson; he went ‘over there’ and he made a genuine impact. In addition to winning the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia, he wore the yellow jersey at the Tour and became the World Road Race Champion in 1965.
Fast forward from the belle epoque to the modern era of the sport. Today, riders like the inimitable climber Robert Millar, the bulldog Roger Hammond (who features in the upcoming issue of Rouleur magazine) and now the boy-wonder Mark Cavendish, the current World Champion, continue to show not only determination, courage and talent, but also a British eccentricity that has helped a nation race against the grain and establish itself as a force on the global scene.