His achievements in cycling were largely forgotten until Yorkshire won the chance to host the Grand Départ. Now Brian Robinson tells Sarah Freeman why he wants to share his collection of memorabilia with the public.
Brian Robinson looks a little embarrassed as he climbs the steps to a small room at the top of his home in Mirfield.
“I was supposed to be sorting this lot out,” says the 83-year-old, who was the first Briton ever to win a stage of the Tour de France back in 1958. “But, well, you can see it’s a bit of a work in progress.”
He’s not wrong. The single bed is covered with an array of water bottles, sashes and caps, most now more than half a century old. In the corner there’s a pile of black and white photographs, many of them featuring the greats of cycling. There’s also a couple of Brian and his brother Des, who back in 1952 became the first brothers to compete for Great Britain at the Olympics.
It’s not just memorabilia. Together it’s a snapshot of cycling before the days the sport’s top stars could earn millions in sponsorship. This was an era when nutrition amounted to no more than a jam sandwich before a race, a bowl of cold rice pudding afterwards. It was a time when cycling shoes were so unforgiving they did a lifetime of damage and when no one had yet heard of Lycra.
“That’s my England team shirt,” says Brian handing over a woolly red, white and blue jersey from 1956. “Was it itchy? Yes too right it was, but you got used to it. What was the alternative?”
The suitcases full of photographs and old cycling magazines had lain largely forgotten in Brian’s modest West Yorkshire home until a couple of years ago. More precisely, until it was announced that Yorkshire had beaten Edinburgh to host this year’s Grand Départ of the Tour de France.
Almost overnight, Brian became something of a figurehead for Welcome to Yorkshire’s bid.
“Just the other day I was cycling up Cragg Vale with a chap from the BBC. It’s funny really, until recently no one really cared that I’d once been in the Tour de France. Now everyone wants to talk about it.” Even Brian’s second wife Audrey has been a little taken aback by the news that she is living with a genuine sporting legend. It’s partly due to all the attention that Brian has been thinking about what to do with the various memorabilia he’s collected over the decades.
Alongside the water bottle and original Road Book from the 1954 Tour de France, signed by him and the only other British finisher Tony Hoar, there’s also a 1950s Gitane bicycle, the same type ridden by Brian in his heyday and in the lead up to the arrival of the Tour de France in Yorkshire this July he’d quite like to find somewhere to put it on public display. He’s currently in talks with a museum and while he can’t reveal too much at the moment, plans are underway for an exhibition.
“I still think there are a lot of people who are unaware just how big the Grand Départ is going to be. It is a really big deal for Yorkshire and I just thought that it would be good to give people a glimpse of how the sport was 50 years ago. It’s also about showing what great sporting heritage we have here in Yorkshire and maybe, just maybe, inspiring riders of the future.
“I remember when I came back home after winning the stage of the Tour, no one bothered much. There had been a bit of press coverage while I was out in France, but nothing compared to what you might expect now. That was fine by me. No British cyclist in those days would have ever expected to command the back pages.”
Brian’s own journey from the Yorkshire suburbs to the Continent where he held his own with the greats of European cycling like Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil probably wouldn’t have happened without his father.
“My dad had been a keen cyclist before the war and I guess when I was growing up a bike was the way you got around. When we wanted to see relatives who lived in Lancashire we got on our bikes and it was dad who encouraged Des and I to join the Huddersfield Road Club which was where we started to ride competitively.”
The Robinson brothers soon began to make their mark on the sport, but in those early years there was no chance of giving up the day job. Six days a week, they worked in their father’s joinery business – his specialism was making coffins – but come Saturday lunchtime they would pack up their tools and set off for a weekend competition. Race day was usually Sunday and come Monday morning they would be back at the Mirfield workshop ready to begin another week’s work.
“People think it sounds like a hard life, but it wasn’t. You worked during the week like everyone else and then on a Sunday you got on your bike and rode as fast as you could. It really was as simple as that.”
For a while it seemed like life was about to intrude on Brian’s plans to join cycling’s elite. In January 1952 he was called up to National Service and ordered to report for duty at Strensall Barracks in York. He cycled there, of course, and while the sergeant in charge didn’t seem to reckon much to his choice of transport within a few weeks he’d joined the Army cycling team. By the summer, along with Des, the brothers were preparing for the 120 mile road race in the Helsinki Olympics. Neither brother won a medal, coming 21st and 22nd, but for Brian that summer did confirm one thing – he wanted to compete at the highest level. The only question was, “how?” The answer was to decamp to France.
“That doesn’t sound like a very big move these days when there’s the Eurostar and cheap flights, but in the 1950s it felt like another world. I made sure I learned French or at least what you might call cycling French so I could just about get by. It’s a bit rusty these days, but I might get a chance to brush up on a few phrases this summer.
“I never ever regretted the move and if I wanted to progress through the ranks there was no other option. In France and in quite a lot of Europe, cycling was a national sport, but in Britain it just didn’t have same status.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Brian joined the Hercules team which had an advertising budget of just two-and-a-half pence per bike and he admits that brokering the gap between him and the top riders wasn’t easy. However, he found a lifelong friend in fellow cyclist Shay Elliott and it was at least in part thanks to the Irishman, who stayed with him throughout the epic ride that Brian managed to secure that first stage win in the Tour de France.
Spending eight months of the year out in France was, he admits, a great life for a young man and it paid. and during the season he might only return home a couple of times. It was also fairly lucrative. Once food, lodgings and travel had been taken care off, Brian generally expected to come away with £1,000 at the end of each season. Not bad when at the time a semi-detached house cost around £1,900. However, when he married, spending that amount of time away from home just wasn’t practical and he returned to Mirfield eventually taking over his father’s business.
“I wasn’t so keen on coffins, so we turned it into a more general building business and it gave me a pretty good life. People have asked me whether I would have preferred to be in the sport now and the honest answer is ‘No’. Look, there have been massive advances in terms of the sport science side of cycling. We didn’t even have ice baths when I was riding. Instead on rest days we would sit in a bath of salt water. The idea was that it relaxed the muscles, although depending what scrapes you’d been in the previous day it could be pretty painful.
“Professional cycling is in great shape, but in my day it was much more relaxed and because of that there was much more camaraderie between the competitors.
“We’d all be booked on the same trains to take us to take us to the different races, we’d play cards together and socialise. Of course friendships were forgotten when you were competing, but we all got on. That just doesn’t happen now. The teams are so large that they tend not to have much to do with each other.”
Brian, who was one of the founders of the Etape du Dales, the 107-mile race around some of Yorkshire’s toughest hills, does concede that likes of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and the imminent arrival of the Tour de France have done much to boost British cycling. “A few years ago there was a real shortage of youngsters coming into clubs, but I think that has definitely changed and it’s good to see. We always need new blood and when people see the peloton making its way through Yorkshire I hope they will be inspired.
“I’m not sure where I’ll be watching it. I have asked the organisers if they need me to do anything, but they just say, ‘Don’t worry Brian, we’ll look after you’.”
After 50 years of being a footnote in British cycling history, it’s hard not to agree that Brian deserves his moment in the sun.