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‘I had to wait while he’s wiping his bum with my fresh GB hat’: Colin Lewis Q&A

Giles Belbin
13 Aug 2019

The first Welshman to ride the Tour on Geraint Thomas, Tom Simpson and Eddy Merckx

This article was originally published in issue 86 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin Photography Alexander Rhind

We hear you only started cycling because of a bet with a friend?

Yes, when I was a teenager I used to go out drinking in Torquay on Saturday nights. After one night out, I woke up late and a friend was downstairs.

He said, ‘Come on, get up. It’s nearly midday. We’ve got to change this pattern.’

He was a decent footballer and he bet me that in two years he would play for Torquay United’s Colt team. Then he said, ‘What are you going to do?’ The 1960 Olympic Games were on so I said, ‘I bet I’ll go to the Olympic Games in four years.’

That afternoon I fished my old bike out the shed and rode to Teignmouth. After four or five days back cycling I began enjoying what I was doing.

Just three years later you were riding the Tour of Britain. That’s quite a progression

I’d won a couple of regional races in 1963 and got a call from a chap called Chas Messenger, who organised the Tour of Britain. He asked if I wanted to ride for the Commonwealth team.

They said they’d pay my train fare so I went. The first stage was Blackpool to Nottingham and I finished fifth. I wore the green jersey for two days and came ninth overall.

What did you learn from such a competitive race?

That I’d been using my strength in the wrong way. All of a sudden I realised that instead of going straight round people all the time I should sit on them and measure my effort.

The following year I got a letter saying I’d been selected for the World Championships in Sallanches, France. That was a tough day.

The break went early and I was in it but on the final climb the peloton was coming back.

One of the riders I was with looked over, winked, then rode away. I hesitated and thought I’d wait, but he went on to win.

That guy was Eddy Merckx. Chas came up to me afterwards and told me I was going to the Olympics in Tokyo.

So you won your bet. After turning professional you were part of the British team that went to the 1967 Tour de France in support of Tom Simpson…

Tom was a consummate professional. He did everything properly and had his own soigneur with him. During one early stage he came back to me and said, ‘Colin, give me your hat.’

With that, he whipped my Great Britain, white, starched team hat off my head. I said, ‘What are you doing, Tom?’ ‘I want a shit,’ he said. ‘I need it to wipe my arse! Wait for me.’

So I had to wait while he’s wiping his bum with my fresh GB hat – my pride and joy. And then I had to tow him back to the peloton!

Tragically Simpson died during that Tour after collapsing on Mont Ventoux. You were rooming with him. What can you remember about that stage?

I’d just done my fifth or sixth bar raid of the day [where riders would descend on cafes to beg, steal and borrow sustenance].

I was conscious Mont Ventoux was coming and so wanted to get as much liquid for the guys as I could, but the cafe owner was pretty grumpy and ended up chasing us out with a knife.

When I found Tom and he asked what I’d got I told him I only had some lemonade and some brandy. I ditched the lemonade and went to throw the brandy away but he said, ‘No, give me that, my guts is feeling queer.’

Those were his exact words. He took a big swig of the brandy and then threw it over the hedge.

The Ventoux started about six or seven kilometres later.

When were you aware that something dreadful had happened?

I was climbing well and found myself working my way through the peloton.

Then, as I went round one of the final corners, I saw Tom lying there, set back off the road with the team car alongside.

As I went towards Tom, Alec Taylor [team manager] stood up and said, ‘Colin, get back, get back. Keep going, keep looking back. Tom’s OK, keep looking back [for him].’

So I kept looking back, thinking he would catch me and I would get him to the finish. But that didn’t happen.

I waited at the hotel and then Barry Hoban came in and said Tom had died.

This was my roommate, you know? I was in a state of shock.

There remains contention about whether it was Barry Hoban or Vin Denson who had been nominated to cross the line first the following day. Who was it?

Jean Stablinski was the patron of the peloton and said, ‘We don’t want to race, but in Tom’s memory we will ride the course.’

With 40km to go Barry jumped away. Stablinski asked Vin what was going on, and Vin said, ‘He’s gone for a [nature break], he’ll be back.’

It was only when he got to a minute we realised…

What happened afterwards?

When we settled down to discuss the day’s stage, Alec stood up and said to Barry that he was very disappointed Barry took that stage. He said that it wasn’t in the plan.

Barry said that he didn’t attack, that he just rode away… that he was convinced we were going to catch him going to the finish but when we didn’t, what was he to do?

But the fact is he got the acclaim for winning that Tour de France stage.

Speaking of acclaim, last year Geraint Thomas became the first Welshman to win the race. How do you reflect on that?

I’ve met the guy and I know he is a class act. I have every respect for Geraint, but I don’t like the Team Sky ethos, where they buy the best and dominate because they have strength throughout the team.

They have the best vehicles, the best soigneurs, the best mechanics, the best everything. I dislike Team Sky because of that.

Training must have been a bit different in your day

I once rode a 50-mile time-trial near London, and as part of my training regime I decided to ride home to Devon.

Eventually I got to Frome in Somerset. There was a sweet shop at the top of a cobbled hill. I was suffering like a dog so I went in and asked the lady for three Mars bars and a Crunchie.

I said, ‘I’m riding to Torquay, how much further is it?’

She gets her husband, ‘This guy’s riding to Torquay!’

‘Never!’ he goes. ‘It’s 90-odd miles!’ He looked at me like there was something wrong with me.

Every time I see Frome on a map, I think of them in that sweet shop.

Colin Lewis

Age: 76
Nationality: British
Honours: National Road Race Championships: 1st, 1967, 1968
250 race victories including 38 as a professional

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