With the Tour de France starting this weekend, I received a timely reminder of days gone by from my brother who sent me a video of Brian Robinson, a boyhood hero for all us youngsters – then – who opened up professional cycling on the continent for British riders.
He was not the first but in modern times he represents the breakthrough that saw Tommy Simpson and others achieve a status unknown to British riders on continental roads – a line although broken at times that has culminated in a World Road Racing champion in Mark Cavendish and a hope for the overall win in this years Tour with Bradley Wiggins.
Robinson, like Simpson who followed, was a Yorkshireman. Now 81, he didn’t start racing until he was 18, father forbade, and road racing IE mass start races as seen today were banned on open roads in this country at the time, so his ambition to compete in those events was not easily achieved, but working for the family building business and training (as everyone did in those days) part time he gradually achieved success that led to riding in the amateur version of the TDF in 1952.
They were amateurs, remarkable for someone who had never ridden in a field of that quality – in fifth place prior to hitting the mountains. He dropped back to fortieth place at the finish, saying, “I have never seen mountains like that before.” He was at that time doing his National Service.
The following year he joined a sponsored team as an independent or semi – professional and progressed further, but it was ’55 that saw Robinson breakthrough on the European roads. Hercules planned a team for the TDF then based on national, not trade teams, they raced in the Netherlands, France and Belgium and Robinson. Though not winning was getting results that few at the time would have dreamed of, the Tour was a tougher proposition and and only Robinson and one team mate finished – Robinson in 29th place and his team mate in last.
These were the first Britons to finish in the modern era. In ’56 he was in a mixed national team, some countries had difficulty in providing a full team of the quality necessary to compete so a compromise was reached with an international team. He finished 14th and also that year 8th in the Tour of Spain. 1958 saw his first professional win but a bad crash, injuring his wrist in the TDF, kept him out of the results and a third place in the single day classic the Milan – San Remo. It was the first placing by a Brit in a classic race since the 19th century.
In ’58 Robinson put himself in the history books by winning two stages of the Tour de France, the second win into Annecy by twenty minutes, but the following day he paid the price, dropped down the field and scuppered his chances of a high overall finish.
The highlight at the end of his career was winning in ’61 the Dauphine Libere, winning two stages, a race this year won by Bradley Wiggins.
He retired at 33, not having made a lot of money for what had been an extremely difficult way of earning a living in those days. Only the very top riders made good money, the rest often grinding out an existence serving the stars in the teams and on contracts that today’s riders would laugh at.
There was also an heir-achy within the teams and riders at the time that made it very hard to advance without a form of consent from those that ruled the ‘peleton’, favors were asked and favors given in a way that stifled outsiders.
So as another Tour starts, “Bon Chance” to Wiggins and I’m sure that Robinson will be rooting for you.