With plans to bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire, Michael Hickling talks to a Yorkshire Olympian who became the first British cyclist to win a stage of the race, in 1958.
Brian Robinson sits in a chrome and leather chair in the spot where his dad once made coffins. Brian followed him into the joinery trade and in mid-life took his father’s path again and set up his own building business.
Now, at 81, Brian is back where it all began. He has rebuilt the old workshop as a small, well-appointed home with views over steep fields leading down to Mirfield in West Yorkshire, a retired couple’s very des res.
So far, so ordinary. It’s story of a local boy who never wanted to move away from his roots and became a self-made success.
But in Brian’s case it’s not the whole story. And unless you are into competitive cycling you may not have heard the rest of it.
This man is a sporting giant. That he does not cast a long shadow in the public mind is explained by the fact that his achievements were in a minority sport during a pre-television, pre-celebrity era.
It was a time when a modest and affable personality like his was considered a requirement for a true sporting hero. Indeed people of my generation will find that the contours of Brian’s life follow those of fictional sporting heroes in the Wizard or Hotspur comics which many of us devoured at the age of ten.
The facts are in the record books and stand for themselves: the first Englishman to finish the Tour de France – in 29th position in 1955; the first Englishman to win a stage on the tour – stage seven in 1958 (he also won the 20th stage in 1959 ).
What the records do not reveal are the singular personal qualities behind the facts. In the early 1950s, if you wanted to make a living as a professional cyclist on the Continent, there was no model to copy, no-one with experience to learn from. Brian had to blaze a new trail that others could follow.
Here was a 22 year-old who left behind cold, grey austerity Britain for life in a millionaire’s playground on the Cote d’Azure. This was where the foreign pro cyclists arrived to train from the beginning of each year and it offered many diversions from the path of monkish single-mindedness which a serious athlete needs to follow. But Brian did not see it like that. “It was a chance for heaven, to ride my bike and be paid for it,” he says.
He acknowledges had an abundance of innate sporting ability. But to succeed required more than that. He also needed imagination. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to live like a Frenchman, do as they do.’”
Here was a 100 per cent Yorkshireman who spoke not even a word of schoolboy French but understood intuitively that he had to throw off parochial assumptions and tastes. And that included pining for fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding, neither of which were ever going to figure on the menu in the South of France.
“No English was spoken by the riders in those days,” says Brian. “After training we’d be back by about 2pm and I’d get the language books out. I’d learn a sentence of French every day – that was the target. Eventually I could do what you might call ‘bike riding French’.”
It was incredibly competitive and also rather dangerous. “You would see some horrible driving on the roads. In those days, out in the sticks, a lot of motorists had no licence and no insurance.”
He thinks it may have been his two year’s National Service in the Kings Own Yorkshire Light infantry which helped him adjust to this exotic new life, a world away from the isolated joiner’s shop on the slope above Mirfield. It may also have been his soldiering which gave him itchy feet. The experience broadened the horizons of many other working class lads.
When Brian was young, the family lived in Ravensthorpe, east of Huddersfield. In the war his father worked nights in a nearby aircraft factory making wings for bombers. He travelled on his bike and on the way back home would wave to his wife who worked on the day shift and went by bus.
Brian got his first wheels when he was two – three on a trike. His father later found three bikes in an old house, bought them for five bob (25p) and made them into two serviceable machines for Brian and his brother Des, the elder by three years.
At 13 Brian was riding with the Huddersfield Road Club. Everyone rode bikes in those days out of necessity, but for reasons no-one can satisfactorily explain, the sport never won the mass support and adulation it did on the Continent. Father forbade Brain from racing until he was 18. When finally he did, at a junior event in South Yorkshire, he won.
His National Service was deferred for five years while he finished his joinery apprenticeship and when his call up came on January 3rd 1952 he biked it over to Strensall Barracks near York to report for basic training.
The sergeant in charge looked at the bike and said: “You won’t need that for six weeks.” But after two weeks Brian was out again and off to Formby for a three-week training camp with the army cycling team.
Invited to the army championships, he cycled all the way to Aldershot from York and broke the army record the next day.
This was the year of the Helsinki Olympics for which Brian and brother Des had been listed as Olympic “possibles”. They were both entered for the 120 mile road race, a unique selection at the time for two brothers.
“When we arrived in Helsinki we found the refectory for the competitors was in a marquee where there was food from every corner of the world,” says Brian. “We had rationing at home and we had never seen tables like that. We just went mad and over-ate. We would ride some of it off but it was just not the right thing to do.”
The brothers came 21st and 22nd in the race. At this distance, Brian can’t remember who was in front. “We didn’t have the experience to beat those guys. There was no source of information in this country for us to turn to.”
For his first French foray, Brian rode for the Hercules team, a Birmingham bicycle maker. This company’s involvement seems to typify the rather odd attitude of the British to big-time Continental bike racing and its valuable potential.
Over there the races were joyfully, deliriously commercial. Many were put on by newspapers as a means of promoting themselves and their circulations or they had other commercial sponsors.
But the Hercules budget for advertising themselves on the racing circuit worked out at 6d a bike (two-and-a-half pence).
Moreover, Hercules didn’t even make a racing bike they could promote. Their production lines turned out heavy, sturdy models mostly for export to under-developed parts of the Commonwealth. The bikes the Hercules team rode tended to be other makes owned by the riders and painted in Hercules colours.
“When I joined, the Hercules team had lost their bite,” says Brian. “I was just getting mine. I didn’t know who I was riding against, so I just attacked and attacked. That was my philosophy. I was born that way. You learn to temper that. You learn the ropes and calculate.”
Someone had told him that the change of tempo from racing in Britain was not a step up, it was a storey up and that turned out to be true. “But I was up for it. I made steady progress and found no reason to be afeared.” At a compact ten-and-a-half stone he was a good climber. Top sprinters need to be heavier and more muscled.
He made money to live on at smaller events later in the season in France and Belgium to which he travelled by train and bus with a haversack on his back. In the autumn he’d come back to West Yorkshire and do whatever was needed in his father’s building business until the New Year.
The second French foray was a disaster. He went as a freelance with a pal and they discovered an unprecedented three feet of snow in the South of France when they arrived for the start of the training season. The bill for the apartment they had hired and for its heating came to twice as much as they earned. They learned the art of living on a shoe string and pinched carrots from fields to survive.
Later Brain teamed up with a sporting director called Raymond Louvier and, with the backing of a soft drinks manufacturer, found more stability. He helped recruit fellow Yorkshireman Tommy Simpson to the team and shared a flat with him in Paris.
He doesn’t condone Simpson’s amphetamine consumption but doesn’t make an issue of it either. “Tom’s death was entirely unnecessary because he didn’t need drugs. We knew it happened but I don’t know where he got it from, he didn’t get it from me.”
By the time Brian retired in 1962 he was married and reckoned to bring home at the end of a season about £1,000. “A semi detached house cost £1,900 in those days and a detached house was £2,500.”
The sport has changed in the 50 years since he finished, possibly more than any other. It may be to do with the fact that the Tour de France offers the single biggest physical challenge in the sporting calendar.
“Training is much more specific these days and there’s so much monitoring. We just got on our bikes and rode.
“When Des and I were selected for the Olympics we were seen by a doctor, a Scotsman. He looked at us and said, ‘Well you look all right to me’. He tapped us over the heart and said, ‘Aye, you’re fine’.”
He regrets there’s not enough young blood coming in to run the local road racing clubs like his own. He says youngsters prefer doing things their way. The racing future for him is his grandson Jake who, at the age of 16, has been in the Olympic development squad and has a bike, a jersey and a sponsor.
Brian is one of the movers of the Etape du Dales, an annual spring 107-mile race around some of Yorkshire’s toughest and most scenic hills. It raises about £20,000 which helps support the Dave Rayner fund, of which he is president. This fund helps send about 40 young riders a year to compete in Europe with enough money in their pockets to avoid having to resort to digging carrots in a handy field.
Recently Brian’s been in a helicopter around Yorkshire selling the area to officials from the Tour de France in the hope of convincing them to bring a leg of the tour, known as the Grand Depart, to this country. The county is competing against Barcelona, Venice, Berlin and Scotland and Brian’s efforts won him an invitation to Paris to see the end of this year’s tour.
A couple of times a week he’s out on his bike. His favourite ride is about 60k from Skipton to Appletreewick and back via Bolton Abbey. After a 1979 accident one of his legs is dodgy and his racing lung capacity of 6.2 litres is now 2.9. As a result he’s looking for a bit of help and he has his eye on a German electric bike.
“I find these days that I have to chop out halfway on a ride. It’s not the riding the bike, it’s the company and the fresh air I like, and I’ve found an electric bike takes the pain out of it.
“It means I can be with the people I want to be with.”