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Brian Robinson: Britain’s first Tour de France hero

Mark Bailey
3 Nov 2020

To mark his 90th birthday, we remember our chat with Britain's first ever Tour stage winner

To mark his 90th birthday, we remember our chat with Britain's first ever Tour de France stage winner

This article was first published in Cyclist magazine in 2015

Words: Mark Bailey Photography: Lisa Stonehouse

Back in the summer of 1955, the trailblazing Yorkshire cyclist Brian Robinson left behind his work as a joiner and carpenter and the memories of his recently completed National Service with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry to endure a 4,495km odyssey across the mountains, cobbles and valleys of France.

When the 24-year-old rolled into Paris three weeks later he became the first British cyclist ever to complete the Tour de France. It was an unheralded yet historic triumph that inspired not only his own future Tour success (in 1958 Robinson would become the first Brit to win a stage of the Tour) but which also lit a flare that would help guide future generations of British riders, from Tom Simpson to Sir Bradley Wiggins, towards improbable glory in France.

Stoic, yet good humoured, Robinson is a bona fide ambassador of God’s Own County, and there’s something heartening about the fact he achieved such feats with a belly full of beef and a chicken leg in his musette.

‘Back then there would be a wooden table laid out in the village, with riders, mechanics and the public milling around or sitting on the town hall steps, and you’d grab some food,’ says Robinson, still bubbly despite his advancing years – and proudly fit enough to cycle over the moors near his home in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, where he lives with his wife Audrey.

‘For breakfast I’d normally have a grapefruit, a cup of tea and some steak and potatoes. The meat wasn’t the best, so it was tricky to eat. The first thing you’d eat on the bike was the tartelette of apricots because it was fragile and you didn’t want to ruin it. Later in the race I’d always dig out some rice pudding, a chicken leg, some bananas and a jam sandwich from the hotel.’

In the 1950s cyclists had remarkably different ideas about the importance of hydration too. ‘Drinks were rationed to two bottles. I still don’t drink much on my club runs today. People always ask, “Where is your bottle?” I just don’t need it. Now you see riders put their hands up and a car brings them a bottle. It must be quite nice, I suppose.

'If we wanted any more water we had to stop at a bar or a tap in a village square, but everybody else would stop too, so you couldn’t get your bottle under the tap unless you were one of the big, strong ones like [Belgium’s 6ft 1in, 13st] Rik Van Steenbergen.’

Food from the fields

At least in France it was safe to do a little extra foraging when necessary. ‘We once ate turnips straight out of a field. It was better when the sun shone because it meant the grapes would be ripe too.’ But life at the nascent Tour of Spain, in which Robinson finished eighth in 1956, was very different.

‘In Spain there was a soldier with a rifle on every crossroads. If you stopped to pinch some grapes they would raise their gun to stop you. Army Jeeps carried the bikes and the luggage. At the finish line they dropped your stuff off and buggered off to the barracks so you had to ride 6km with a bag on your back to your hotel. The roads were awful so you were always listening for punctures. I enjoyed it though.’

It is unlikely that pro cyclists will have to stop for root vegetables and watch out for rifles during the 2015 Tour this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s first foray.

Although the cycling chronicles state that his first Tour stage win came in 1958, on the 170km seventh stage from Saint-Brieuc to Brest, that win actually came courtesy of an upgrade from second place after the Italian rider Arigo Padovan had been relegated for dangerous tactics, so Robinson is happier to reflect on his second victory.

On stage 20 in 1959 he completed an epic 140km breakaway on the 202km journey from Annecy to Chalon-sur-Saône to finally win by over 20 minutes.

‘I like the second one best because it was clean – in fact you couldn’t get any cleaner really,’ he chuckles. ‘For my first win, I didn’t know anything about it until one of the Tour officials said I’d won. It is not the same as crossing the line first.

'In 1959 I had been riding well, but got the shits one night and spent the whole night on the loo. On the next stage I thought I’d be disqualified because I couldn’t keep up, but apparently you get reinstated if you’re in the top ten – which I was. But on stage 20, [the French climber] Gérard Saint, who was third in the mountains classification, asked me to help him get some points.

I said, “OK, I’ll take you up the climb, but you let me go at the top.” I made sure he got there and he said, “You can bugger off now,” so I did. I heard [French cyclist] Jean Dotto scream, “Wait for me!” but I knew he couldn’t go downhill over gravel, and I knew the big boys had the time-trial the next day in mind, so I just carried on and prayed to God I didn’t puncture. When the gap hit ten minutes I knew I was OK.’ 

Show me the money

Victories like these were crucial for any cyclist desperately trying to earn a living in the daunting arena of continental cycling. At the 1955 Tour, Robinson was paid £20 a week – a lot better than the £12 he’d earned when working as a carpenter, but it was still far from lucrative.

‘You weren’t exactly hand-to-mouth, but you weren’t wealthy and your career was short,’ he says. ‘When I won that stage I thought: the money will be good next year. That was always in your mind because you needed something to live on. In the first year I got about by trains and buses with a haversack. Then, using my first-year winnings, I bought a little car.’

The audacity of Robinson’s sporting ambitions have only recently been appreciated. Before 1955 only two Brits had ever entered the Tour. In 1937 Bill Burl broke his collarbone on the second day and Charles Holland cycled 3,200km before a broken pump and a series of flat tyres wrecked his dreams (although a kindly priest bought him a bottle of beer to cheer him up).

Stage racing was banned in Britain until 1942 and most domestic contests involved short courses and time-trials. British riders who dreamed of racing abroad faced a series of cultural, linguistic and logistical obstacles.

As Robinson’s brother Des once put it: ‘If you can imagine a Frenchman scoring a century at Lord’s, then you can imagine an Englishman winning a stage of the Tour de France.’

Despite making Tour history, finishing third in Milan-San Remo in 1957 and winning the Dauphiné in 1961, when Robinson retired in 1963, aged 33, he simply returned to his previous job as a carpenter and later became a builder.

‘Only cyclists recognise me,’ he says. ‘I met one today in the local bakery! The chap was 81 years old and used to be a member of the Ravensthorpe Cycling Club after the war.’

Yorkshire born and bred

Robinson was born in Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire in 1930. His father Henry was a carpenter, but during the war, both his parents worked at a factory that made parts for Halifax bombers. Robinson adored bikes as he was growing up.

‘My first bike was actually a little tin trike,’ he recalls. ‘I have a photo of me when I was about two with my brother [Des] on the back.

Before the war my father came home one day with three old bikes. He’d been working in a big old house and when they cleared the garage out, he paid five bob for the three and made two out of them for me and my brother. As I got older we’d ride all over the area, ride to school and race each other.

‘I remember asking my mum, “The lads are going to Batley Park. Can I go?” She said no, but of course I went anyway.’

Robinson’s embarrassed to admit that he used to knock on war widows’ doors to ask for old bike parts. But memories of his enthusiastic bike-building endeavours have inspired him to support the Yorkshire Bank Bike Libraries scheme, launched last year, in which people donate old bikes to be refurbished and repaired – then made available to local people.

‘I always rode bits-and-pieces bikes, so I think it’s a wonderful idea. I didn’t get a new bike until I was 18 and working.’

To Robinson, professional cycling was a fantasy that existed only in magazines and books. Cycling was unfashionable as a sport in the UK at the time, and the Tour ground to an unceremonious halt during the war.

‘Let’s put it bluntly, the Tour had been ridden pre-war by a couple of [British] guys who didn’t have any success. They had the right spirit, but we only read about the champions like Coppi, Magne and Bartali in French magazines that people brought back. That’s how it all started, admiring those magazines and the scenery. I thought to myself – that looks like a great job to have!’

Aged 14, Robinson joined Huddersfield Road Club. ‘I lived on my bike at weekends,’ he says. ‘In the winter we’d go to an old shed down at the mill because a local weightlifter had set up his equipment there. Once a week we’d do some weight training. I’d spend one night on the rollers and three nights at night school, so it was a pretty full life.

'We went out at weekends in any weather. When I started working for my father we would work every Saturday morning over winter in order to get the mornings off in the summer. You couldn’t even think about being a bike rider then. You had to have a job, too.’

When the 1948 Olympics came to London, the 17-year-old Robinson cycled down to Windsor to watch the road race and was hooked. After he turned 18 he started racing in time-trials and circuit races. By 1952 he was winning the British National Hill Climb Championships and riding in the Olympic road race himself, placing 27th in Helsinki, Finland.

His most vivid memory, however, is from the 1952 Route de France: ‘In the early 1950s I had to do my National Service and the Army and the NCU [National Cyclists Union] decided to enter a team in the Route de France, which was like an amateur version of the Tour de France.

'That opened the door for me. We did it on a real shoestring – there were no spare bikes and we were lucky to get two pairs of shorts and jerseys, so we did a lot of washing. But it was a real learning experience. Nobody knew anything about the etiquette of being abroad. We all fell off at some point.

‘As we got nearer to the Alps I could see flashing lights in the sky. I said to a French guy, “What’s that?” He explained that they were the windscreens of cars shining in the sun up there. There was nothing like that in Yorkshire. Holme Moss is the biggest hill I was used to, and my record is six minutes, five seconds.

'In France, a climb might take over an hour. The first time you do it you’re just hanging on. But I finished the race and that’s when I thought, “I can do this!”’ 

Into the big league

In 1954 Robinson rode for a British team sponsored by Ellis Briggs, a bicycle manufacturer in Yorkshire, and finished second at the Tour of Britain. ‘It was fun, but I couldn’t earn a living so I said to myself if I don’t get into a big team by the end of the year, I’m done.’

Meanwhile, the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company was plotting to enter the first British team in the Tour de France and Robinson was soon recruited. When the team moved to Europe to train and race in preparation for the Tour, he thrived where others floundered.

‘We just took one step at a time and saw if it might work,’ he says. ‘In some races we were like ten green bottles on the wall. You wondered which one was going to fall off first. A lot of the other riders were dyed in the wool, so to speak. We lived in a bungalow and many of the others didn’t learn French.

'I learnt enough to get by. Some of the Hercules team would say, “Oh, I could murder a Yorkshire pudding.” But different food didn’t bother me. After two years in the army, you’re just glad to get what food you can. I decided to make the best of things.’

It was a goal Robinson accomplished when he became one of only two team members to complete the Tour. He finished 29th while Tony Hoar came in as Lanterne Rouge. Although Hercules fell apart within the year, Robinson raced in every Tour until 1961, representing Saint-Raphael-Geminiani alongside legends such as the 1958 Tour champion Charly Gaul. Robinson always remained grounded, however. ‘What mattered is that I got paid for it. You can have all the enthusiasm in the world, but if you don’t get paid you can’t do it.’

After retiring in 1962, Robinson waited 52 years for recognition to arrive. ‘When the Tour was in Yorkshire, I was put on a pedestal. It didn’t happen when I retired, as cycling wasn’t a mainstream sport. I just disappeared back to work.’ 

Cycling genes

Robinson looks most proud when discussing the success of his daughter, Louise, who won a silver medal in the Cyclocross World Championships in 2000, and his grandson, Jake Womersley, who races for ILLI-Bikes in Belgium. Robinson still rides with his old club mates, but after being hit by a car last summer, resulting in a fractured collarbone, six broken ribs and a punctured lung, he has switched to an electric bike.

‘We go out midweek and keep out of the way,’ he says. ‘The electric bike is fabulous. It takes all the hard work away, which I’m not into now. But it lets you get out with the guys, chat without getting out of breath and make it to the coffee stop. It has extended my life, really. I love it.’

It’s interesting to hear Robinson say he wouldn’t enjoy being a professional cyclist today. ‘It was more carefree in my time. You’d travel to races on the train with other riders and make friends with them, playing cards and sharing a joke. Nowadays they hide away in the bus. For me that’s disappointing. There is too much mind work today. In my day you got on your bike and you bloody rode it.’

Today, the Tour de France stage winner seems delighted to be reminiscing about his youth. Yet his talent, dedication and success were anything but ordinary. Does he ever reflect on what his achievements represent for British cycling?

‘Well, I’ve never been one for thinking about myself,’ he says. ‘But to put it in context from me being a lone ranger in the Tour, to Tom Simpson coming along, then Robert Millar and Chris Boardman, to today when we have 60 or 70 guys who could ride the Tour and two guys who have won… it’s very nice. I enjoyed every minute of my career, really. You get some bad moments when you fall off, but you soon get back on again.’

This article was first published in Cyclist magazine in 2015

Life of Brian

Career highlights from the man who took on the world’s best riders 

1952: While completing his National Service, Robinson takes part in the Route de France, a prestigious amateur race, as part of a joint Army/NCU team. He finishes 40th.

1955: The Yorkshireman becomes the first British rider to complete the Tour de France, finishing 29th and the top performer in the short-lived British team Hercules.

1956: The former carpenter places eighth in the brutal 17-stage, 3,537km Vuelta a Espana.

1957: Robinson achieves third place in the 282km Milan-San Remo race, weeks after his first professional win, in the GP de la Ville de Nice.

1958: Despite finishing second on the 170km seventh stage from Saint-Brieuc to Brest, Robinson becomes the first Brit to win a Tour stage after Italian Arigo Padovan was relegated for dangerous sprinting. 

1959: Robinson wins the 20th stage of the Tour de France, finishing 20 minutes ahead of the field after a 140km breakaway on the 202km journey from Annecy to Chalon-sur-Saone.

1961: Robinson wins the eight-stage Critérium du Dauphiné, taking victory on the third stage en route to a six-minute GC triumph.

Robinson on…

Drugs: ‘I liked the tours more than the single-day races because I think there was less drug-taking in them. That’s what the soigneurs would say. The riders couldn’t be taking drugs every day, could they.’

Wiggo and Cav: ‘I don’t see the riders much now, but I saw Cav at the Dave Rayner charity dinner. Wiggo’s time-trial at the Olympics and World Championships was out of this world. And Cav has been on a fantastic run with all his Tour stage wins, but he’s knocking on a bit and your speed disappears, so he will think of new ways to win.' 

Team leaders: ‘In my day, nobody was protected, you had to earn your place. There were no lead-out trains or team leaders like Froome. You knew which riders were the best. Guys like Raphael Geminiani were a class above me. You helped them when you could, but everybody had a chance to do something. 

Riders’ wages;: ‘Now all the pros make a living and it’s brilliant. Back then we couldn’t do that. If you won a stage you’d get about 300 quid to share around, but the tradition was that the winner didn’t take any for himself. When I won the Dauphiné I didn’t touch any money!’

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