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Yorkshire gold: Barry Hoban profile

In-depth
5 Feb 2020
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In celebration of Barry Hoban turning 80, Cyclist delved into its archives to find this fantastic conversation with the Yorkshire trailblazer who once put Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck to the sword.

Words Mark Bailey Photography Joe McGorty

More than 50 years before the Tour de France’s highly successful diversion to the fells and dales of Yorkshire in the summer of 2014, a young cyclist from Wakefield made an unlikely journey in the opposite direction back in 1962, with a head full of cycling dreams and a heart full of Yorkshire courage.

Barry Hoban, famed for his indefatigable legs and endearing watermelon smile, would go on to win eight stages of the Tour between 1967 and 1975 – a British record until Mark Cavendish surpassed it in 2009.

But at the age of 22 Hoban left England with £200 in his bag, the name of Andre Bertin – a sponsor of French independent (semi-professional) teams – in his pocket, and no idea where he was going.

‘I went over to France with my cycling friend Bernard Burns in a Morris Minor 1000 van. In those P days just crossing the Channel was an adventure,’ recalls Hoban when I visit him in his cottage in Wales.

Still lean and tanned, the 74-year-old (now 79) speaks with the same animated zeal of his youth. ‘We went from Folkestone to Boulogne on the ferry. They dropped planks down and a bloke shouted, “Eh, lad! Get on quick!”

‘They were wobbling all over the place. When we got to France, we didn’t have a clue where to go. So we went into a petrol station, dug out a phrase book and said, “Monsieur, est-ce que vous avez une carte de la region?”

‘We ended up in Arras and found Bertin who said, “The best club for you is Lapugnoy.” It was back near Bethune, 15 miles from Calais.

‘When we got there, nobody spoke English. We met a guy at the World War I cemetery who we thought was French – he had stubble, a beret and a Gauloises in his mouth and they called him Andre – but it turned out his name was Andrew and he was from Nottingham.

‘He became our interpreter. The boss said, “What races do you want to ride?” I said, “The ones with the most money.”

‘In 1962 executives earned £20 a week, Manchester United players earned £20 a week, but I was soon winning races with £50 prizes.’

Hoban’s intrepid early years in France are testament to the particular blend of ambition, stubbornness and adaptability required by any British cyclist who wanted to pursue a career on the Continent in this era.

During his first two years as an independent, Hoban endured humble digs, countless omelettes (the only item he recognised on menus), a brutal schedule (79 races in his first year) and the resentment of local cyclists.

‘We [Brits] were a rarity. I was the first foreigner to do anything and they didn’t like it. One rider said, “Hey, Barry! You want to go back to England!”

‘I said in my best French, “Excuse me, if it wasn’t for my father you’d be speaking German!” I would go for the jugular, me.’

Hoban knew how to look after himself. ‘In one race all hell was let loose, the wind was blowing, and the riders wouldn’t let me into the echelon.

‘I shouted, “Right, you bastards, which ditch do you want – the right or the left? I’m going to take you all in!” One of the guys said, “Hey, Brit! All good! Come in!”’

If Hoban’s indomitable Yorkshire spirit brought him the respect of his peers, it was his talent that earned him the right to stay. ‘I thought, I’ll give myself two years to get a pro contract or I’ll come home.’

Before leaving France he had worked as a trainee electrician at a coal mine. ‘I won 16 races in my first year and got 50 places in the top five.

‘The following year I won 20 races and got 60 places in the first five. So I was earning good money.’

Hoban shows me a tattered diary in which he jotted down his results, winnings and race notes (‘I rode like an idiot today’) and practised scribbling his autograph in preparation for a pro career.

It was a miraculous start for a young man from Wakefield who as a boy used to sell conkers and pick fruit for extra money. But cycling had always been his passion.

‘Remember, in the 1950s the war had only just finished 10 years ago and no one had a car. So a bike was a super way to get about.

‘My dad [Joe] was the biggest cycling supporter in the world and there were always bits of bike around so he put a bike together for me.

‘It was a track bike, no brakes, with cane sprints and D’Alessandro green tubs. It had street cred, but I didn’t realise you had to stick the tyres on until I was going down Stanley Hill and the back tyre came off.’

When Hoban turned 15 he began racing with the Calder Clarion club. ‘I couldn’t afford gears so I started primarily racing fixed-gear bikes on grass,’ he says.

In 1957 he upgraded to a road bike. ‘I was one of a group of juniors who dominated from Lincolnshire to Geordie land and across to Manchester and Yorkshire.

‘But you didn’t really think about being a pro because you didn’t get any insight into that world. There was nothing on television.

‘I used to go to Ron Kitching’s [a bike dealer] in Harrogate and look in copies of Miroir du Cyclisme at the photographs of Federico Bahamontes, Jacques Anquetil and Rik Van Looy and I got the bug.’

When he heard about the success of fellow Yorkshireman Brian Robinson, who in 1958 had become the first British rider to win a Tour de France stage, and Tom Simpson, who in 1962 became the first Brit to wear the yellow jersey, everything changed.

‘Tom and I were similar riders. I thought, “If Tom can do it, I can do it.” I spoke to Ron Kitching who put me in touch with Andre Bertin. Soon we were off on the ferry…’

Bringing Yorkshire to the Tour

Hoban spent two years as an independent with Velo Club Lapugnoy and Bertin-Porter 39 before signing his first professional contract with Mercier-BP-Hutchinson in 1964.

It was a baptism of fire. Hoban rode almost 50,000km in his first year, including the 2,860km Vuelta a Espana (then held in April and May), at which he claimed two stages, and the 4,504km Tour de France (the 2013 Tour was 3,404km).

His toughest single-day race in 1964 was Bordeaux-Paris at an obscene 550km.

‘The longest Tour I actually rode was 4,780km [in 1967] and the longest stage was Clermont-Ferrand to Fontainebleau at 359km [also in 1967] but that first year almost killed me,’ says Hoban, shaking his head.

‘It was stupid really. Nowadays you have three teams in one team [to share the events]. We were one team of 15 to 16 riders and we did everything: Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, Tour of Spain, Tour de France, Tour de Romandie.

‘At the Tour de France I was riding in the wind as a domestique for Raymond Poulidor and trying to take stages when I could.

‘We’d finish the Tour on the Sunday then ride criteriums on the Monday night which carried on for 17 days.

‘I was averaging five hours sleep a night and driving 4,000km a week. It took me the whole second season to recover.’

Hoban, who spent most of his career living in Ghent, was meticulous in his preparation and his peers say his vivacious character boosted team morale.

He likens his riding style to that of Peter Sagan: ‘He can sprint but he isn't the best sprinter. In my day you had to be multifaceted. I didn’t look for a sprint finish.

‘I won stages with breakaways, I won a mountain stage in the Alps on my own, and I won bunch sprints. You didn’t get riders waiting for a sprint like Cav.

‘Nowadays sprints are led out at 60kmh. In my day it was 50kmh and a pursuit rider could take sprinters by surprise.’

This was an era in which fancy kit was deemed a luxury. At best Hoban would have a silk jersey and longer cranks for a time-trial but otherwise hi-tech aerodynamics involved wearing his cap back to front.

‘You’d get a team bike but no saddle,’ he remembers. ‘Today’s bikes weigh less than my saddle with its steel bits, copper rivets and leather. We’d get a tracksuit and six pairs of shorts and jerseys. If we wanted more we bought them.’

Hoban purchased his own socks, mitts and shoes. Back then, hydration involved tea with lemon and honey; race fuel was marzipan or strawberry jam sandwiches.

‘If you got a puncture and the cars were needed up front they'd hand you a pump and drive off.’

Medical help was just as rudimentary, as Hoban recalls from a snowy 1964 edition of Paris-Nice. ‘We had no Gore-Tex, no overshoes, just wool. I got hypothermia. Nobody told me back then, but I now know the symptoms. I was “frigorific”.

‘I got back to the hotel absolutely filthy, wrapped myself in a white bathrobe, got in bed and didn’t stop shivering for two hours.’

In the 1967 Tour of Spain he contracted blood poisoning and an internal abscess on his crotch after crashing on a road caked in donkey excrement.

‘The Spanish roads were all patched up – Franco was in power – and we always said that after going from Spain to Belgium the cobbles felt like tarmac.

‘I went to A&E and they had to lance the abscess and drain it of pus. The nurse got a wad with antiseptic lotion and stuffed it in. I was screaming in agony. I went to the Tour weeks later with a sponge down my shorts.’

Technically, Hoban’s first Tour de France stage win came in 1967 when, following the tragic death of Tom Simpson on stage 13 at Mont Ventoux, the peloton handed Hoban, as a fellow Brit, an honorary victory the next day.

‘It was to commemorate Tom who was very popular so I don’t count that,’ says Hoban. His first authentic stage win came in 1968 with an epic breakaway during a 200km stage 19 from Grenoble to Sallanches.

‘I won £900 that day – the prime, sprints, most combative rider, two first cat climbs, a special prime on the Colombière in honour of Henri Desgrange, and a cow for which they gave me the market value of about £200.’ Hoban still has the cowbell by his wood burner.

However, the victory he most savours came on stage 18 of the 1969 Tour – a 201km route from Mourenx to the Bordeaux velodrome.

In his first Tour in 1964 Hoban had been cruelly denied a win in the same velodrome, also on stage 18, after French rival André Darrigade received a huge hand-sling from a teammate. Hoban wept uncontrollably.

That day a French fan, Christian Gourlay, was in the crowd and was so moved by Hoban’s raw passion that he began collecting cuttings of Hoban’s career with the fervent enthusiasm of a One Direction groupie.

Gourlay later met Hoban at an event and presented him with more than 10 files packed with cuttings, pictures and stats (in 12 editions of the Tour Hoban apparently rode 46,172km over 1,296 hours) – a remarkable gift for which he has been grateful ever since.

Hoban shows me a photo of his victory in the Bordeaux velodrome in 1969. ‘It felt like revenge after 1964,’ he says.

‘I remember saying to Francis Rigon: “I’ll cross your palm with silver. When we get on the track, go full welly so nobody can jump me.” I wasn’t going to lose it again and I didn’t.’

Hoban won again the next day on the 192km stage 19 from Bordeaux to Brive to become the first Brit to win back-to-back Tour stages.

After two years with Sonolor-Lejeune between 1970-71, Hoban returned to the newly branded Gan-Mercier team in 1972 and went on to secure two Tour stage wins in 1973 and further stage victories in 1974 and 1975 to finish with a total of eight.

Looking back, he feels no animosity that his record was overtaken by Cavendish.

‘Records are meant to be broken,’ he says, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Today teams can devote a chunk of their team to a sprinter. The only train I saw was a choo-choo train.’

He also finished third in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1969, and again at Paris-Roubaix in 1972, before beating Eddy Merckx to win Ghent-Wevelgem in 1974.

‘I always loved the Classics,’ says Hoban. The tough courses suited his gutsy spirit. ‘I rode Paris-Roubaix 13 times and finished nine of them.’ 

Dark times

Hoban’s story is forever entwined with that of Tom Simpson. He helped Simpson during his 1965 World Championships win, they were British teammates during the fateful 1967 Tour, and Hoban would later marry Simpson’s widow, Helen.

‘I wasn’t a close friend of Tom but we Brits were few and far between,’ says Hoban. ‘If I could have beaten Tom I would have but we respected each other.’

He recalls riding past Simpson moments after he had collapsed on Mont Ventoux. ‘I thought, “The idiot has had a bit of sunstroke. Nutter.”

‘You just couldn't think what was happening. I got to the hotel and said, “Is Tom back yet?” The soigneurs knew but kept it from us until later.

‘When I woke up in the morning I thought, “I had a horrible nightmare that Tom died.” Slowly I thought, “Shit, it wasn’t a nightmare.”’

Hoban believes Simpson’s death was a preventable tragedy. ‘The Tour de France organisation at that time ran with the hare and the hounds,’ he says.

‘There were things they did that weren’t ethical. But [Félix] Lévitan [co-organiser of the Tour] was a bit of a dictator, like a godfather from the Mafia, and [Pierre] Dumas was an excuse for a doctor and stank of whisky all the time.

‘When Tom died, Lévitan more or less said, “Two things can happen here. Tom Simpson can get blamed or the Tour de France organisation can get blamed. Make sure the Tour never gets blamed.”

‘And OK, Tom had taken amphetamines. But amphetamines didn’t kill you. Tom had what was termed a cardiac collapse because he made a hell of an effort in an environment that wasn’t conducive to it.

‘The Tour caravan had gone up the road and there were diesel fumes resting there. They should have been able to resuscitate him. They didn’t have the appropriate stuff. It was mouth to mouth, but in those days that’s how things were.’

Hoban believes that in his era a universal ignorance about drugs was part of the problem. ‘The medical profession opened Pandora’s Box,’ he says.

‘I remember after Helen was pregnant the gynaecologist prescribed a slow-release amphetamine used for slimming. I said, “You’re not taking that!” People didn’t understand.

‘People would drive to the south of France on holiday, leave at 4am on Friday morning and take amphetamines with coffee. There was a problem and the medical profession didn’t know there was a problem.’

The Tour comes to Yorkshire

Hoban retired in 1981 and moved to Wales to work at the Coventry Eagle bike factory in Newtown, which was making bikes branded with his name.

No glamorous coaching or media roles were forthcoming and Hoban never received much recognition in the UK.

‘A man is never a prophet in his own land,’ he declares. ‘The cognoscenti knew who I was but nobody else did.’

But with the Tour coming to Yorkshire, appreciation belatedly came his way. ‘In Wakefield they put a bronze star on the pavement with my name on it just before the TOur. I reminded them it was 33 years since I stopped racing. But I'm grateful.’

Did he ever expect to see the Tour come to the county he left back in 1962? ‘No, no, no,’ he laughs. ‘But I was delighted.’

Hoban was in Harrogate to witness the finish of Stage 1 on July 5. ‘In France Barry Hoban would be supreme guest of honour,’ he chuckles.

He still gets out on his bike and, thumbing through his scrapbooks, Hoban recalls his old cycling haunts in Yorkshire – Bullerthorpe Lane, Denby Dale, Penistone, Holme Moss, Woodhead – many of which featured in the Grand Départ 2014.

‘There’s always been a good tough sporting spirit in Yorkshire. I used to say the Leeds evening chain gang was the best race in Britain.

‘I rode 12.5 miles to meet them, did a 50-mile group ride, finished with a big sprint for the Leeds sign at Kirkstall Abbey, then rode 12.5 miles home. We really did cycle everywhere…’

Hoban’s voice trails off. ‘But that’s the thing about cycling in Yorkshire,’ he resumes, flashing the same grin that lit up the Bordeaux velodrome in 1969. ‘It’s always a big adventure.’ 

Barry’s best bits 

Three highlights from Hoban’s pro career

1968 Tour de France, Stage 19

‘It was a 200km mountain stage from Grenoble to Sallanches. I got away and had a four-minute lead. By the bottom of the Colombière I had an eight-minute lead.

‘Julio Jiménez, Arie den Hartog and Silvano Schiavon were taking a minute on the climbs but I was taking it back on the descents. On the last climb I said, “Right, Hoban, no heroics,” and used the lowest gear possible.

‘I finished with a four-minute lead. I’d been on my own for 135km.’

1969 Tour de France, Stage 18

‘Bordeaux was definitely best for me because it was a hell of a deception when I was beaten there in 1964 by André Darrigade.

‘He pinched it off me when he got a big hand-sling, so going back and winning in the velodrome was fantastic. You’d get 30,000 spectators. I ended up with two firsts, two seconds and a third on the Bordeaux track.’

1974 Ghent-Wevelgem

‘I was a big fan of the Classics – it’s not a Monument but it was a long race [244km] and I beat Eddy Merckx.

‘On the Kemmel it was like being on the end of a piece of elastic. I lost touch but kept getting back on. I was boxed in at the finish but a gap opened up and I went through, past Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck, and won.'

 

Hoban on:

…The 1974 Tour de France stage in Britain

‘I remember the Tour coming to Plymouth in 1974 but it was a debacle. They flew us into Exeter from a military airbase in Brittany and when we arrived they wondered who we all were.

‘They locked us in a boiling hot room. When we eventually got out, unlike in France where the gendarmes escorted us, the police did nothing so we were stuck in traffic. The race was held on Plympton bypass – ten laps around a bypass. Diabolical.’

…Tom Simpson’s 1965 World Road Race win

‘We were lone rangers. There was no team. I was used to the way riders ride in Spain [the race was in the Basque Country].

‘They attack at the start so I went with them. Tom joined up afterwards. I wasn’t in good form so I said to Tom, “What do you want me to do?”

‘He said, “Just keep the pace high.” I did that, much like the Sky guys do. Then Tom countered and sorted it out with Rudi Altig.’

…Drugs in cycling

‘When money is around, guys will take a short cut. Lance earned the most and it cost him the most. When people start hammering cyclists I get on my soapbox and say, “Hey, look at other sports.”

‘I don’t think top riders would [take drugs] today but certain riders will dabble just to work as a team rider. Remember when the riders went on strike about helmets, now they all wear them.

‘It’s the same with this: guys brought up [clean] from junior and amateur days will stay like that.’